Ravens Win Playoff Berth, Lose To Chargers, 34-14
TEAM TEMPORARILY DROPS TO FIFTH SEED
By Joe Platania
(Look for Ravens Report's extensive "Leftovers" early Monday morning, and notes from head coach John Harbaugh's press conference late Monday afternoon.)
For the Ravens, the playoffs are again a happy reality. But a January road trip may be a cruel inevitability.
That's because the team once again showed that there are times when it simply doesn't measure up to the league's elite, a fraternity to which it allegedly belongs.
And it's not as if Sunday night's 34-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers in front of 67,242 Snapdragon Stadium fans was the result of getting outplayed by a team that accompanies Baltimore on those ever-present playoff charts fans see constantly on television this time of year.
San Diego (7-7) registered its third straight win and, thanks to help from elsewhere, kept itself barely alive in the AFC playoff race. But this is a team that had lost six straight and sported a miserable -7 turnover ratio, while fielding a leaky defense that featured the second-worst third-down rate in the league.
Yet, it got a sterling performance from quarterback Philip Rivers (17-for-23, 270 yards, touchdown, 127.1 rating), who pulled off a historic feat, driving his team to scores during each of its first five possessions against Baltimore (10-4), something that had never been accomplished during the Ravens' 16-year history. In fact, San Diego scored during six of its first seven drives.
As a result, the Ravens' lofty playoff perch is temporarily history, as they drop to the fifth seed -- the first wild-card spot -- pending the result of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Monday-night game against the San Francisco 49ers. If the Steelers win that game, they would ascend to the AFC's top seed, because it beat New England head-to-head earlier this year.
On top of that, if Pittsburgh manages to win the AFC North Division, despite losing twice to the Ravens, it would again put Baltimore on the road for the postseason, despite nailing down its fourth straight playoff berth -- its eighth during the last 12 years -- when Tennessee and Oakland lost earlier during the day.
But, as is his wont, head coach John Harbaugh doesn't want to think about that.
"That is not a factor at all," a visibly upset Harbaugh said after the game. "We don't have the energy, the time or the inclination (to think about that).
"It's a very disappointing loss. San Diego played exceptionally well, as they do this time of year. The mistakes we made, they capitalized on. ... When they needed to complete a throw, they completed a throw. When they needed to convert a third down, they converted it."
Running back Ray Rice agreed.
"We got beat, plain and simple," Rice said. "They played a great game and executed at a high level."
The Ravens have won seven of 11 lifetime road playoff games, but the loss to the Chargers dropped Baltimore to 3-4 away from M&T Bank Stadium this season. In fact, the last time the Ravens lost any game by a margin like Sunday's was on the road, a 31-3 pasting at the hands of the Colts, in October 2008, at Lucas Oil Stadum in Indianapolis, site of this season's Super Bowl.
The loss came to pass because Rivers' uncanny accuracy, lots of pre-snap motion and perfect exploitation of the Ravens' defensive schemes offset the fact that linebacker Ray Lewis (toe) was back after a four-game absence and cornerback Chris Carr returned after three games away.
Plus, despite working behind an offensive line that has had 11 different players in action this season, Rivers wasn't sacked all night and was hit only once.
San Diego exploited the Ravens' top-ranked third-down defense for six of 10 conversions and, as if Rivers' passing wasn't torturous enough, it strafed Baltimore's second-ranked rush defense for 145 yards, roughly 60 yards more than the Ravens' per-game average.
It was yet another example of the Chargers' late-season habit of playing at a high level; the team is 34-17 in December and January regular-season games during the last 10 years, averaging 30 points per game in down-the-stretch contests since 2007.
Defensively, San Diego held quarterback Joe Flacco (23-for-34, 226 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 81.2 rating) in check after he had posted passer ratings of 100 or more during three of his last four games, sacking him seven times -- four by ex-Ravens linebacker Antwan Barnes -- and picking him off twice.
FLACCO SEALS FATE
Rivers has worked through some early season mistakes and made the Chargers' offense a top-10 unit; indeed, its eighth-place ranking is the highest Baltimore has faced all year. For most of the night, San Diego looked like the team that had won four straight AFC West Division titles from 2006-09 before ranking first in overall offense and defense in 2010.
Rivers had a brilliant first half, and helped by great protection, continued to dictate tempo as the second half began.
Intermediate-depth passes to Malcom Floyd (96 yards, five catches, TD) -- a rumored free-agent target of the Ravens two years ago -- and Vincent Brown put the ball in Baltimore territory. A subsequent 18-yard run around left end by Ryan Mathews got the Chargers to the Ravens' 28.
Floyd then got behind rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith on an out-and-up route along the sideline -- just one of the deceptive tactics the Chargers used all night to counter Smith's size -- for a touchdown that capped an 80-yard, eight-play drive, marked the team's fourth score in as many possessions and extended the home team's lead to 24-7.
Flacco was getting less and less help from his receivers as the night wore on; a mid-third-quarter series during which he got sacked twice came to pass because of tight secondary coverage. One of the sacks came at the hands of ex-Raven linebacker Antwan Barnes, who was called for face-masking despite getting his team-leading eighth sack of the year.
The Ravens seemed poised to take advantage of the call, getting a first down at the San Diego 37. But a short pass bounced off Ricky Williams' hands and was nearly intercepted, and on the next play, things went from bad to worse.
Trying to find Lee Evans over the middle, Flacco never saw linebacker Takeo Spikes, who picked off the pass and ran it back to the Ravens' 27. A penalty brought it back to the 42, but the damage was done.
But there was more to come.
A two-step drop enabled Rivers to find Floyd behind Jimmy Smith, who caught the perfectly thrown ball to set up first-and-goal at the Ravens' 4. Mathews spectacularly dove in from there to essentially salt the game away with 2:18 left during the third quarter, a period during which San Diego outgained the Ravens by a 130-37 margin.
The breaks went the Chargers' way all night; Shaun Phillips intercepted Flacco on his next series after his blitz effort had been stymied, dropping the Ravens' season-long turnover ratio to a mediocre plus-1.
San Diego didn't score off that turnover, but they had displayed enough firepower to salt this one away much earlier.
RIVERS, TARGETS FLOW DOWNFIELD
With more yards from scrimmage than anyone in the league this year and during the past three seasons, Rice (57 yards, 10 carries; 55 yards, nine catches) has also displayed a knack for ripping off big plays early during games. He did the same thing Sunday, working off a Marshal Yanda cut block and some sideline interference from Vonta Leach to rumble 22 yards.
Flacco took over from there, pinpointing Anquan Boldin (51 yards, two catches) in a soft spot in the middle of the Chargers' zone for 33 yards to the San Diego 27.
Boldin had lined up as the last man in the so-called "bunch" formation and simply drifted into an open area, but little did anyone know at the time that it would be the Ravens' longest pass play of the night until Torrey Smith's 36-yard touchdown with two minutes to go; Smith finished with 77 yards on six catches.
Two straight sideline passes for Lee Evans designed to get to the end zone were knocked away by Antoine Cason and safety Eric Weddle, the league's co-leader in interceptions with seven. A subsequent dumpoff to Rice set up Billy Cundiff's 36-yard field goal try, which sailed directly over the right goalpost and was called no good.
But Rivers, who had authored a 436-yard day the last time the Ravens played in San Diego two years ago, took stock of his many weapons and went to work, authoring a 12-play, 74-yard drive that ate up more than seven minutes and represented the first opening-drive points the Ravens had allowed during 22 games.
Protected well all night against a Ravens squad that had an NFL-high 45 sacks coming into the game, Rivers put the ball in the air early and often, starting with a 13-yard pass to Mathews (90 yards, 26 carries, two TD; 19 yards, two catches), a dual threat who was coming off his first three 100-yard games of the year.
Rivers (11-for-15 at the half) would complete six of his seven passes on the drive for 55 yards as he continued his recent fine run of form. Rivers, 22-2 as a starter in December, came into the game not having thrown an interception in 97 passes, throwing seven touchdown passes during that span; his 102 career December passer rating is the best in NFL history.
His quick releases against the aggressive Ravens' rush and the Chargers' third-down offense, third-ranked in the league, made for a good showdown against the Ravens' top-ranked third-down defense, but former Miami tight end Randy McMichael converted the first chance on a catch near midfield. Rivers was 4-for-4 on third-down passes in the first half.
Thanks to a Cary Williams strip, Mathews fumbled for the fifth time this season, but ex-Ravens tackle Jared Gaither fell on it for the Chargers. But Vincent Jackson then got in front of Jimmy Smith for a first down at the Ravens' 20, and Floyd did the same on a dig route after pre-snap backfield motion to cross up Smith and get the ball to the 8.
Even though Lardarius Webb (toe) was not deactivated, it was up to Smith -- whose 6-foot-2 height was needed against the Chargers' sizable receiving corps -- to be physical and match up better with the 6-foot-5 Jackson (84 yards, three catches), the 6-foot-5 Floyd and 6-foot-4 tight end Antonio Gates (31 yards, two catches). But early during the game, Smith played off the receivers and allowed them to get room.
On third-and-goal from the 2, inside back Mike Tolbert (40 yards, eight carries, TD) went over the middle and scored to complete the drive and give San Diego the early lead with 4:50 to go during the first quarter.
Working mostly from the shotgun, Flacco drove his team to the Chargers' 40 in an attempt to answer their early score. On third-and-10, Flacco rolled to his right, found no one open and scrambled 11 yards for a critical first down to maintain momentum as the first quarter ended.
But it appeared evident early during the game that Rivers had more options with which to work, while Flacco, armed mainly with Rice -- who was getting hit frequently going into his pass routes -- essentially had to be more self-sufficient.
CHARGERS GET BREAKS, EXTEND LEAD
During the past 10 years, Ravens quarterbacks could always fall back on Todd Heap as a red-zone option, so on second-and-8 from San Diego's 15-yard line, Flacco tried to find Ed Dickson in the end zone as he worked against coverage linebacker Shaun Phillips.
As has been the case with many of Flacco's end-zone passes, it sailed too high and set up a third-and-long situation. But this time, Dickson (36 yards, three catches, TD) was sent to the middle of the end zone, where he outworked ex-Cincinnati linebacker Spikes and gathered in the 15-yard touchdown pass to tie the game and cap a 75-yard, 13-play scoring drive that ate up 6:20.
But Rivers, looking better and more consistent than he has all year, came right back and got help from sackmeister Terrell Suggs, whose Deacon Jones-esque head slap on McMichael gave the Chargers a first down at midfield. Rivers then found Gates over the middle for 20 yards to the Ravens' 30.
Lewis then announced his presence by smacking Tolbert down after a screen pass, setting up a go-ahead 45-yard field goal by University of Maryland alumnus Nick Novak that gave San Diego a 10-7 lead.
What looked to be a big play took place after Bryant McKinnie's false start set up a third-and-10 at the Ravens' 25. The undaunted Flacco found Torrey Smith near the sideline for an 11-yard gain and a first down. But on third-and-3 from the 43, a right-side flat pass to a wide-open Rice sailed too high.
Jimmy Smith redeemed himself on the Chargers' next drive by breaking up a sideline pass, but Jackson put a double-move on Cary Williams down the left side and got free for Rivers' perfectly thrown pass and a subsequent 58-yard reception that put the ball on the Baltimore 20-yard line just before the two-minute warning.
On the play, Gaither executed a takedown on an onrushing Lewis, who was a state champion wrestler himself, but no holding penalty was called.
Two plays later, Rivers threw off his back foot and found Floyd at the 2-yard line, who barely beat Williams to the ball. From there, it was up to Tolbert, who was stoned at the goal line by Lewis and Jameel McClain on the first-down run over the right side.
But it was up to Rivers to make it happen, because a between-the-tackles run seemed unlikely to work, Tolbert's earlier success notwithstanding.
Rivers simply tossed the ball to Mathews, who circled around right end and beat Jarret Johnson and Ed Reed to the pylon for a touchdown with just 19 seconds left before the intermission. The 80-yard, seven-play drive was San Diego's third score in as many possessions, and it was because of Rivers and his deeper arsenal of weapons.
The former North Carolina State quarterback never beat Maryland during his college career, but he was well on his way to pulling off his second win during his last three games against the Ravens, as Baltimore has now lost 19 straight road games during which it has trailed at the half.
Despite the Ravens' inevitable return to the postseason, the way Rivers flowed through a leaky Baltimore defense made yet another wintertime trip to unfamiliar terrain a distinct possibility.
Posted Dec. 18, 2011