Ravens, Chargers meet 10 months after playoff meltdowns

SAN DIEGO -- Had the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Ravens won their opening playoff games in January, they would have met in the AFC championship game as the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds.

They seemingly had everything going for them: The Chargers were an NFL-best 14-2, with the Ravens right behind at 13-3. No one imagined them both imploding in the same weekend, San Diego in a flood of blunders against New England and Baltimore in a debacle of its own against eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis.

Not much has changed in 10 months.

San Diego has become the Stupor Chargers, not the Super Chargers as suggested by the disco ditty that's played at home games. At 5-5 under Norv Turner, they're clinging desperately to the fact that they're still in first place in the mediocre AFC West, albeit tied with Denver.

Quoth the Ravens: "We stink!" Baltimore has lost four consecutive games to tumble to 4-6. The four teams the Ravens have beaten are a combined 11-30.

Desperation will be the theme Sunday when the AFC's two most disappointing teams meet at Qualcomm Stadium. At the very least, they can take out their frustrations on each other.

"I think just try to get a win, that's the mind-set for both teams," said San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, who'll try again to crack 10,000 yards rushing for his career. "They need a win badly, they have lost four straight, and we need a win badly. Just getting a win.

"I tell you one thing, both teams feel like they can beat each other," Tomlinson added. "We feel like we can beat them, and I guarantee they feel like they can beat us."

Or, as Chargers safety Clinton Hart said: "We owe 'em one."

Early last season, the Chargers turned conservative and coughed up a late lead, losing 16-13 at Baltimore.

Had he been told months ago that these teams would have combined for 11 losses before Thanksgiving, "I'd have laughed, considering where we were last year," Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said.

"To come back the next season and say we would be at the bottom of the totem pole, you would laugh considering the talent we have and the talent the Chargers have on both sides of the ball. But, that's the NFL. One year you're up, and the next year you're down. But, I think each and every year you've got to be able to reload and deal with the injuries -- go out there and play some good football."

True, the Ravens have had their share of injuries, including quarterback Steve McNair's injured left shoulder that has led the way for Kyle Boller to reclaim the starting job.

They've also done a horrible job of taking care of the ball, tumbling to last in the AFC at minus-9 in turnovers.

They also literally had a bounce go against them last week. The Ravens thought they had beaten Cleveland and headed to the locker room, but had to come back onto the field when Phil Dawson's tying field-goal attempt was found to have bounced off the goalpost support and ruled good.

Of course, the Ravens lost in overtime.

The Ravens did rally from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter to take a 30-27 lead before Dawson's tying kick.

"You've got to think the cup is half full with some more on the way because if you think anything less then you're setting yourself up for ultimate failure," Mason said.

After facing the Chargers, the Ravens return home for games against New England and Indy.

While their offense is ranked 23rd in the NFL in total yards, the Ravens' defense, led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, is sixth overall, including second against the run.

The Chargers have been a mystifying mess for much of the season.

When Turner was hired after the sudden firing of Marty Schottenheimer in February, some fans feared he would take what had been the NFL's equivalent of a Ferrari and blow an engine.

The talent is back -- San Diego had 11 Pro Bowlers last year, among them five who made the elite All-Pro team -- but the results aren't.

Turner's play-calling has been predictable and unimaginative. Quarterback Philip Rivers has regressed dramatically from his Pro Bowl performance of 2006, looking dismal while leading the NFL with 17 turnovers.

Turner remains 24 games under .500 in three stints as an NFL head coach -- 63-87-1. The Chargers are ranked only 21st in total offense and have dipped to 25th in total defense. After leading the NFL with 61 sacks last year, they have only 19 this year under new coordinator Ted Cottrell.

San Diego's struggles seemed to be summed up last week when All-Pro outside linebacker Shawne Merriman was knocked on his rear end by Jacksonville's 5-foot-7 Maurice Jones-Drew in the Jaguars' 24-17 win. Merriman had only one tackle and hasn't had a sack in four games. He has only 5½ after leading the NFL with 17 last year.

Tomlinson clearly isn't happy with the downturn and knows time is running out for the Bolts.

Why the struggles with so much talent?

"Again, that's a question I can't answer," Tomlinson said after the loss to Jacksonville. "I don't know what you want me to say to you. You want me to give the perfect answer I don't have? We're .500, and that's the way it is."

Tomlinson needs 26 yards rushing to become 23rd player in NFL history with 10,000 yards on the ground. Warrick Dunn of the Atlanta Falcons hit the milestone Thursday night in a loss to the Colts.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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