Still chasing the Houston Texans for the top seed in the AFC, the Ravens travel to San Diego for the third time in four years to take on the struggling Chargers.
Here’s what to expect as Baltimore tries to improve to 5-4 all-time against the Chargers and avenge a 34-14 beating suffered last December …
1. The Baltimore defense will force a turnover against quarterback Philip Rivers to set up a touchdown. Pressuring Rivers will be critical as the San Diego offensive line has been porous all season, allowing 26 sacks and contributing to his league-leading 14 interceptions entering Week 12. I’m not sure the Ravens will be able to get to him consistently, but they’ll bait Rivers into throwing a pick to set up the offense on a short field. After dealing with the drama of initially being handed a one-game suspension before winning his appeal, safety Ed Reed will come to play on Sunday and is the likeliest candidate to pull off a theft in what will be a pass-happy day for Rivers and the Chargers.
2. Neither running game will be a major factor at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Chargers have struggled to run the ball and will try to exploit an injury-plagued secondary with their passing game. The Ravens haven’t run the ball effectively in recent weeks and will be facing the league’s third-ranked rush defense. Favorable conditions and San Diego’s 19th-ranked pass defense will coax the Ravens into putting the game in the hands of quarterback Joe Flacco as the running game will solely be used to keep the Chargers honest. Neither Ryan Mathews nor Ray Rice will sniff the 100-yard rushing mark in this one.
3. Tall receiving target Malcom Floyd will give the Ravens’ depleted secondary fits for the second year in a row. The recent emergence of 6-foot-5 target Danario Alexander on the other side gives Rivers two gigantic targets on the outside to go along with tight end Antonio Gates and has helped offset the departure of Vincent Jackson and the disappointing production from free-agent bust Robert Meachem. The absence of Jimmy Smith and newly-signed veteran Chris Johnson will leave smaller corners in Corey Graham and Chykie Brown on the field in the nickel package while a taller Cary Williams doesn’t play with much of a physical presence anyway. Floyd burned the Ravens last year to the tune of five catches, 96 yards, and a touchdown. Floyd will post similar numbers on Sunday and will catch a touchdown pass against Baltimore for the second year in a row.
4. Torrey Smith will bounce back from a rough outing last week to catch a touchdown. Pittsburgh was able to make Smith a non-factor as he was held to only one catch for seven yards after he had caught three touchdown passes in the two previous games. The Ravens will go with three-wide sets early in the game to make Jacoby Jones’ presence felt and detract some safety attention from Smith. The second-year wide receiver may not catch a long bomb for a score, but he’ll show off his improved route-running ability against the Chargers and utilize his speed to score his eighth touchdown of the season in a bounce-back performance.
5. The Ravens are clearly the better team, but a Pittsburgh hangover, an inconsistent offense, and an unfavorable matchup in the passing game result in a 24-20 loss to the Chargers. A physical and emotionally-draining game with Pittsburgh always leaves both teams weary the following week as the Ravens dropped both games last season immediately following wins over the Steelers. Until they prove otherwise away from M&T Bank Stadium, Flacco and the Baltimore offense cannot be trusted to score enough points to overcome a defense that’s depleted in the secondary and matching up with big receiving targets all over the field. There won’t be much room in the running game, meaning Flacco will need to win this one for the Ravens. The offense won’t be as brutally bad as it was in Pittsburgh, but it won’t be able to save the day by fending off an upset in a difficult West Coast trip.