With only three games left in the season Baltimore, who was on a four game winning streak, was in the driver seat to claim the number one seed in the AFC. The only really challenge that the Ravens had left to face was the Chargers, who were on a two game winning streak of their own. San Diego was fighting for their playoff lives as they entered Sunday night’s game with a 6-7 record.
Year after year media analysts and experts choose the Chargers as their Super Bowl pick, and year after year the Chargers fail to meet expectations by losing winnable games and surging late at the end of the season when it is too late. Well if you ask any Ravens fan both of those statements are true, the Chargers right now are playing like a true Super Bowl contender, and if it were not for a 6 game losing streak they could very well be in that conversation.
Baltimore’s weakness this season has not only been losing on the road, but also losing on the road against opponents with losing records. After Losing to Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Seattle, many do not know what to make of the Ravens considering they have beaten the likes of the Texans, Steelers, jets, Cincinnati, and the 49ers. The trend continued by losing on the road to the Chargers a team with a losing record, but there is more good that came out of this game than many realize, and in reality could be a blessing in disguise come the middle of January.
As a Ravens fan myself I can easily say that the Chargers are a lot better than what their record indicates. If it were not for injuries to two of their star players throughout the season I think that last night’s game would have had more playoff implications.
In a last ditch effort to save their season the Chargers had a trifecta of elements coming together, a perfect storm if you will, going for them to pull an upset.
The first element of the trifecta being that this would be the first time the Chargers would have all of their star receivers on the field together at the same time since week one. Antonio gates was out for four games during weeks 2-5 with a foot injury that up until recently had been nagging him all year. Then there was Malcolm Floyd who was out from weeks 9-12 due to a hip injury. All three of these players are big redzone targets standing over 6’4, and move pretty well for big guys, each running around the 4.5 to 4.6 time frames. Granted they are all older but as was witnessed last night can still fly. These Chargers receivers torched the Ravens secondary combining for 10 catches for 201 and a touchdown. There is good that can come of all this, the Chargers run a similar offense of that to the Patriots and packers. The Ravens can study this game and learn from their many mistakes. The size differences and the mismatches will be corrected by better communication in the secondary and dare I say a healthy secondary?
The second element is the game plan, the Chargers knew what the Ravens tendencies were defensively and they took advantage. The Ravens lead the league in sacks, and every other team in the NFL knows that they are aggressive run stoppers who blitz heavy. The Chargers did little things that threw off the Ravens defensive game plan like lining up Randy McMichael on Suggs and gave him just enough of a chip block to throw off the timing of Suggs’ speed rush. The Chargers used the Ravens aggressive pass rush against them keeping running backs in to help block, and then falling out in the flats (sound familiar?). The offensive line of the Chargers bottled up the pass rush, which gave rivers just enough time to get the ball out quickly and on time. The charger also put Ryan Matthews into motion to the outside, which would tell them if the Ravens were in zone or man coverage. The Ravens pass rush is not so easy to decipher, in all of the Ravens losses this year the Ravens have generated 5 sacks total. This is a recurring problem that will plague this team when they play teams that do let the defense get to their quarterback. The game film will show what went wrong and how it can be adjusted.
The third element was the injury to Lardarius Webb, which in turn put Jimmy Smith in as the starter. This is not to say that if Webb would have been starting without injury that the game would have had any difference, but it was said by Ravens players after the game that there were miscommunications. If Webb had been starting this could have been prevented and helped make the adjustments that needed to be made. Webb not starting was good and bad; our secondary was exposed for what it was, a group that benefitted from a great pass rush. When you take that away you have corners and safeties that are left in open water. Webb’s injury however did give the Ravens great tape on Jimmy Smith for the first time this season. He primarily played in a limited role this season due to injury, and his first start in the NFL was rough but these are the growing pains that he is going to go through, and why not go through them against some of the top receivers in the game. Smith can only benefit from the extended playing time; his days as a shut down corner are not far off when he will have a full off-season to prepare.
This is first explosive offense that the Ravens have faced all year, this Chargers offense much like the Patriots and the packers look for the big play. The Ravens will be able to learn from this and adjust come January. The Ravens now have a blueprint of how to beat teams like this and make in game adjustments. The Ravens were completely lost and overwhelmed against the Chargers. Yes, they are a good team but they are also 7-7 for a reason, be it injuries or what. This was their Super Bowl; they had a perfect game and played it to perfection. This was Phillip Rivers at his best.
The point is that the Ravens are going to rebound. Whether or not the Steelers lose to the 49ers is irrelevant; we are in the playoffs for the fourth straight year. We are spoiled as fans, and forget about the times when we didn’t make the playoffs or finished with a losing record. This team has a lot of young stars that are going to continue to develop. The Ravens are still contenders for the Super Bowl, this game will be the perfect learning experience. I would much rather have them learn these lessons now than in the playoffs.