Anything short of a win over the Los Angeles Chargers will leave the Ravens needing something close to a Christmas miracle to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
A victory won’t come easy as Baltimore will be playing the most balanced team in the conference that still has much to play for itself with the AFC West and home-field advantage still up for grabs. The Chargers certainly present the biggest defensive test the Ravens’ revamped offense will have encountered since the bye week.
Frankly, this is the kind of game John Harbaugh’s team just hasn’t won in December in the post-Super Bowl XLVII era with several commendable efforts ending in heartbreak.
It’s time to go on the record as these AFC teams meet for the 12th time in the all-time regular-season series with the Ravens holding a 6-5 advantage. The Chargers were 4-3 playing Baltimore in San Diego, but the Ravens are 3-2 against them in the John Harbaugh era with the last meeting being a 29-26 Ravens win at M&T Bank Stadium in 2015.
Below are five predictions for Saturday:
1. John Brown will catch a long touchdown. Lamar Jackson is a limited passer right now despite his electrifying mobility that’s helped the Ravens to this point. However, the one area of the field where Jackson has had success is the short middle (under 15 yards through the air) where he’s posted a 98 passer rating and completed 77 percent of his attempts, per SharpFootballStats.com. The problem is the Chargers defense has been very effective in that area, ranking first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric against short passes and first against tight ends. However, the Chargers rank last in DVOA against deep passes over 15 yards in the air. Jackson is due to connect on a long one, and opportunities will be there.
2. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon will collect 125 total yards and a touchdown with much damage coming on passes. Los Angeles went 3-0 without the Pro Bowl running back, which speaks to how deep this offense is. The returning Gordon is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, but the biggest challenge he presents against a superb run defense is his ability to make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. Two weeks ago, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes completed 10 passes to running backs in an effort to offset Baltimore’s pass rush, and I expect Philip Rivers to do the same. The difference is Gordon is more dangerous in the open field than any of the Chiefs’ current backs.
3. The Ravens will be held under 160 rushing yards for the first time since Week 9. This ground game is too good to be completely shut down at this point, especially with Greg Roman’s reputation for consistently adding new wrinkles. However, the Chargers do possess the best run defense the Ravens have seen since before the bye, and rookie safety Derwin James is the type of player who just might be able to bottle up Jackson more than previous teams could. The Chiefs held Baltimore to an ordinary 3.6 yards per carry after being gashed in the first quarter, which is why it’s critical for the Ravens to grab an early lead while the Chargers adjust to the shock of Jackson’s speed and this run game.
4. Los Angeles edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram will combine for three sacks. Bosa and Ingram will give Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. problems, but how they hold the edge will be crucial this week with Jackson’s ability to run. Meanwhile, Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon will try to get to Rivers, but the veteran has the ninth-fastest average time to throw from snap to release in the NFL and will use quick passes to Keenan Allen, who poses a challenge in the slot. The short week is also a factor as Judon has nursed a minor knee injury and Suggs was already quiet against Tampa Bay after playing a season-high 70 snaps in Kansas City. The Ravens need pressure from Za’Darius Smith inside.
5. More balance and extra rest will be the difference for the Chargers as the Ravens fall 26-17. I don’t believe this is a bad matchup for Baltimore as Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith have enough size to combat the tall Los Angeles receivers, but I’m not confident enough in a one-dimensional offense producing enough points to offset the times when the Ravens defense is unable to get stops like we saw in the fourth quarter and overtime in Kansas City. The Chargers haven’t been held under 20 points in a game all season, and the revamped Ravens haven’t shown the ability to score into the high 20s without at least one touchdown from the defense or special teams. A cross-country trip on a short week also does veterans and a rookie quarterback no favors. It will be a close one throughout, but a late fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Rivers to Allen will put the game away for the Chargers and leave the Ravens scoreboard watching for the rest of the weekend.