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Chargers-Ravens: AFC Wild Card Weekend preview

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The Backstory


In a weekend of rematches, the Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens face off just 15 days after their Week 16 battle. That night in Carson, the Ravens smothered Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense and scored 16 unanswered points in the second half to swipe a 22-10 victory.

The Ravens' triumph on Dec. 22 helped propel Baltimore to the AFC North title and caused the Chargers to lose their battle with Kansas City for AFC West supremacy, setting up Sunday afternoon's rematch in the Charm City.

Baltimore's oppressive defense held the Chargers to their fewest points (10), total yards (198) and pass yards (147) in a game this season, and created three turnovers, including a Tavon Young game-sealing 62-yard fumble recovery touchdown. On that night, quarterback Lamar Jackson was stymied as a runner (39 yards) but enjoyed his best day as a passer (204 yards, 9.3 yards per attempt, 101.3 passer rating), including a pivotal 68-yard TD to tight end Mark Andrew to give the Ravens the lead for good.

Baltimore enters Sunday's tilt with a 6-1 record since Jackson took over, and offers a unique rushing attack led by the QB and running back Gus Edward that frustrates and bullies opponents into submission.

The Chargers, meanwhile, head to Baltimore boasting a 7-1 road record on the season. Rivers also comes in with a perfect 3-0 record in the wild-card round in his career, but his last playoff appearance came in 2013.

Under Pressure


Chargers blocking: The L.A. offensive line will face literal pressure Sunday in the form of Don "Wink" Martindale's bevy of rush packages. Though the Chargers have done a solid job opening holes in the ground game for spurts this season, the pass blocking has been mostly abysmal. Pro Football Focus graded the L.A. o-line the third worst in pass blocking efficiency. The group allowed 26 sacks, 36 QB hits, 125 hurries and 187 pressures in 552 passing snaps.

Against the Ravens, the job of protecting Rivers intensifies. This season, the Ravens blitzed opposing quarterbacks at the third-highest rate in the NFL (38.5 percent of dropbacks), and were one of the most successful blitzing defenses in the NFL, generating 24 sacks and allowing a passer rating of 71.0 on such plays. Rivers, meanwhile, struggled against the blitz this season, getting sacked 12 times and a 36.3 percent pressure rate on blitzes. Blocking the Ravens blitzes isn't solely on the offensive line, running backs must aid the cause. The RBs did not do a good job stonewalling blitzers versus Baltimore in the first go-around. Former NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz provided a good analysis of the breakdowns in the first matchup and a suggestion for how the Chargers can compensate. Whether it's shoring up the blocking scheme or employing more quick passes, the Chargers will need to keep Rivers cleaner to come out victorious in the rematch.

Lamar Jackson: It goes without saying that the youngest quarterback to ever start a playoff game will have pressure on his shoulders. Rookie signal-callers starting playoff games have a dismal record, losing the last five appearances. Since 2010, first-year passers are 2-7 in playoff tilts, with the only two wins coming in rookie versus rookie battles (T.J. Yates vs. Andy Dalton in 2011 and Russell Wilson vs. Robert Griffin III in 2012).

Jackson, however, plays a vastly different brand of football than the rest. Since taking over in Week 11, the rookie quarterback has transformed the Ravens offense and taken the league by storm. Combating the Ravens rushing attack is like a single parent trying to corral three children on a playground -- once you've penned in one, the other busts free. The Ravens are averaging 19.4 more carries per game and 136.9 more rush YPG with Jackson as the starter. Jackson averaged 79.4 rush YPG as a starter this season, most by any QB with at least five starts since the 1970 NFL merger. Jackson and running back Gus Edwards combined for 1,210 rush yards since Week 11 (most of any teammate duo in NFL). Toss in a fresh Kenneth Dixon ripping off gashing runs, and the Ravens have the combination to take advantage of a Chargers defense that is susceptible to the ground attack.

In the Week 16 meeting, while Edwards went off for 6.6 yards per carry, Jackson was stymied. If the Chargers can slow the Ravens ground game, can Jackson do enough with his arm, especially if L.A. forces him into tough throws? Among 38 QB with at least 150 pass attempts this season, Jackson had the third-lowest passer rating (59.2) outside the numbers -- only Josh Allen (53.3) and Josh Rosen (54.4) were lower. The pressure will be on Jackson to penetrate L.A.'s secondary with his arm if L.A. again slows his rushing prowess.

Matchup to Watch


Philip Rivers vs. Ravens' No. 1 ranked D: Rivers had his worst night of the season in the previous meeting, earning season-lows in yards per attempt (4.9), passer rating (51.7) and the only game without a TD pass on the year. After an MVP-caliber start to his season, Rivers has fluttered the past several weeks, throwing six interceptions in his past three games (6 INTs in first 13 games). The Ravens defense has given up a few big days this season -- including to 376 passing yards Baker Mayfield last week -- so it's not an impenetrable force. The fun matchup will be Rivers again matching wits against former teammate, Ravens safety Eric Weddle. Martindale knows the matchup up will be key.

"I've referred to him as football savant," the Baltimore DC said of Weddle. "He knows what bothers Philip. We know what bothers Philip. Philip knows what bothers Weddle. So, that's the fun challenge to watch."

The question will be whether Rivers can hit enough shots to loosen up the Ravens. Lost in the dismal Week 16 output were several big plays wiped out by penalty -- including 27- and 28-yard passes on back-to-back plays early in the close contest. If the Chargers can get an early lead, they'll put pressure on Jackson to throw the ball.

The other aspect of Rivers dual with the Ravens secondary is the deployment of Keenan Allen. The Pro Bowler aligned in the slot (340) and out wide (351) on an almost equal number of snaps in 2018, but was targeted by Rivers at an extremely high rate when aligned wide (35.7 target rate out wide versus 24.1 in slot). The Ravens defense is the only team in the NFL to allow a completion percentage under 50.0 to players aligned wide. Getting Allen loose against a Baltimore D that is the only team in the NFL to allow completion percentage under 60 overall (58.4) will challenging.

Prediction


The first matchup was much closer than the final score indicated, with the Chargers driving for a late go-ahead score before an Antonio Gates fumble turned into a touchdown the other way. The tilt will be similarly close once again with Jackson finding more yards on the ground and streaking for a couple jaw-dropping runs. Rivers, however, won't be discombobulated twice in just over a fortnight. The signal-caller, who has the most completions (4,518), pass yards (54,656) and pass TD (374) of any QB to never appear in a Super Bowl, will take the first step towards possibly ending the Chargers futility by hitting Mike Williams for a game-leading score, and the L.A. D will pick off Jackson to seal the road win.

Chargers 17, Ravens 13

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