On Sunday afternoon, the 12-4 Los Angeles Chargers will be the first team to see a Lamar Jackson-led Ravens offense for the second time, and in reality, that’s what this game is all about. People will point to the dominance of the Ravens defense two Saturdays ago, claiming that a similar effort from that unit will be more consequential in deciding the game than the offense’s performance may be. In reality, those two squads work in tandem; the success of the offense leads to higher levels of success for the defense. This is evident in the fact that our defense has been making key stops to win games instead of allowing key scores to lose them in the second half of this season, most notably in the final minute of the contest with Cleveland that crowned the Ravens ‘Kings of the North.’ But, with all that said, why is it so important that the Chargers will be seeing the Ravens for the second time in three weeks?
The biggest argument made against Lamar Jackson since he was inserted into the starting role is that his offense is unsustainable, whether that be due to durability or the league catching on. Because the Chargers will have faced this unorthodox scheme before, this will be the first opportunity to see how well teams can combat it. There’s no doubt that Anthony Lynn will make adjustments, I honestly can’t wait to see what he puts in place. What will be so very critical, however, is the adjustments that Marty Morninwheg makes in response. How will he predict and counter the moves that the Chargers make to make Lamar’s day difficult? What tweaks will he add to the offense to make it more formidable now that the Ravens are in the playoffs? Can he manage the offense and make improvements without offsetting the balance of the attack and hindering Jackson’s skills?
A similar challenge will face Wink Martindale, as it’s another certainty that Chargers OC Ken Whisenhunt will make changes to improve the unit’s performance from their last outing against Baltimore, which was miserable. Two weeks ago, Phillip Rivers could not stay off his back, struggling to contain the Ravens’ pass rush – two interceptions and a crucial Antonio Gates fumble resulted. Part of that challenge facing Martindale is the fact that Chargers tight end Hunter Henry is likely to return from a season-long injury. How useful he’ll be is yet to be seen, but if the Chargers were truly careful with his ailment and had planned for his return come playoff time, he could be a new wrinkle that undoes this Ravens defense.
With that note on the challenges facing Baltimore this weekend, I believe there are a few keys that will bring the team closer to a victory over the Chargers. They’re rather predictable and are similar to those of each of the previous 7 games under the Lamar Jackson regime, but they’re still important and cannot be done without.
First, and I think most importantly, the defense has to rattle Phillip Rivers. There’s no doubt that Rivers lacks an ability that some other QBs the Ravens have faced do not: the ability to scramble. Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, the two slingers that have given Baltimore the most trouble since Jackson took over, both have that ability and made plays by getting out of the pocket and making spectacular throws. The most notable example of this is the 4th and 9 play that nearly ended up haunting the Ravens in their playoff push, but plays such as the Mayfield’s 2nd and 10 splash play just before the half will eventually bite this team. Luckily, Rivers will not be able to escape in the way that Mahomes or Mayfield could. If the Ravens can hit him early, often, and completely, the Chargers offense will struggle once again – especially with M&T Bank rocking.
Second, Lamar Jackson has to take care of the football. He’s fumbled 12 times since taking over, an unacceptable number if the Ravens are going to succeed in January. Some of the plays are flukey, and it’s clear that Jackson recognizes the problem and is working to address it, but now is the time for that to end. It’s the playoffs, the Ravens cannot sacrifice drives and momentum anymore.
Third, Jackson has to have success in the passing game. Now, how do I measure success? I don’t mean to say that the Ravens should come out firing, playing “Marty-ball” and ignoring the running game, but I do think it’s important that the team keeps LA honest, especially as they make the aforementioned adjustments to beat the rushing attack of Baltimore. For me, success would be Jackson hitting the throws that he has available to him – the “gimmes.” He’s been strong over the middle, so keep the throws that direction. Hit the tight ends, Hayden Hurst and – one of my favorite players on the team – Mark Andrews. Hit Willie Snead, the type of player I expect to step up and put forth a gritty performance in the playoffs. Hell, even hit Michael Crabtree, who was paid to be the top target in games like this. If Lamar can be accurate and efficient with the chances they do take in the passing game, the runners will have holes and another big game.
Each of these three keys is relatively realistic, which I wanted to make sure of, so I do think it’s very possible that the Ravens are able to achieve them. If they can make all three happen, I think Baltimore will win handily. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to dominate an NFL team, especially twice in three weeks. As a result, I expect the Ravens to do two of the three, allowing the Chargers to hang around.
This game is going to be close, just as most Ravens games are, and because of that, I think the attendees will be a huge factor. There’s a lot of talk about the Chargers being 7-1 on the road this year, but a few of those wins were simple wins: Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, Denver. Of course, a few were incredibly impressive, winning in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Seattle, but Baltimore will stack up as one of those, not one of the former list. In addition, this is a playoff game in a city that has been starving for a look of their Ravens in the tournament again. The Ravens Flock will be out for the kill, and they’re going to get it.
I really believe that the Ravens can make a run at this thing, and even though the matchup with the Chargers is formidable, I have a gut feeling that they’ll squeek it out.Final Score: Ravens, 27 – Chargers, 20