Chargers vs. Ravens preview


When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore TV: CBS

A cloudy AFC playoff picture will start to get clearer Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens play host to the San Diego Chargers.

With both teams sitting at 7-4, the winner not only gets a one-game edge on the other but it gains what could be a valuable head-to-head tiebreaker by season's end.

Each team has appeared to right their season recently. The Chargers have won two straight games after losing three consecutive games, and the Ravens have won back-to-back games after dropping a couple of road division games.

ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley take a closer look at this key AFC matchup:

Hensley: The Ravens have been getting a tremendous pass rush with Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. Do you think Philip Rivers will get enough time to exploit a shaky Ravens' secondary downfield?

Williams: Interesting question. The Chargers have faced some of the top edge rushers in the league, including Denver's Von Miller, Miami's Cameron Wake and Kansas City's Justin Houston, with mixed results. When Rivers is at his best, he's using the no-huddle, a hard count and the short passing game to keep opposing defensive fronts off balance. The Chargers certainly have the weapons to create explosive plays, with guys such as Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates. However, tackles King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker will have to hold up on the edge for Rivers to push the ball down the field. San Diego should execute good enough at the line of scrimmage to create those opportunities.

The challenge for the Chargers' defense is slowing down Justin Forsett, who had been used mostly as a rotational back in his NFL career. But this season as an every-down back, he’s third in the NFL in rushing with 903 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. What are the reasons for his breakthrough season?

Hensley: It's partly the system, and partly Forsett's drive to succeed. Forsett needs 97 yards to become the eighth 1,000-yard rusher during Gary Kubiak's tenure (offensive coordinator in Denver and Baltimore and head coach in Houston). So, Kubiak's running scheme has been a major factor in Forsett's career year. It should be pointed out that Forsett averaged a career-high 5.9 yards per carry in 2012, when he last worked in Kubiak's offense. Still, you can't discount Forsett's relentlessness. All he's wanted in his seven-year career is an opportunity, and he's taken full advantage of it. Backup Bernard Pierce is only averaging 3.6 yards per carry, so it's obviously a little more than Kubiak's system. Forsett has good vision to find the lanes and has surprising power to break tackles to get through the line of scrimmage. He's the Ravens' most valuable player at this point.

The Chargers have given up 120.6 yards rushing per game since Week 7. What's been the biggest problem with the Chargers' run defense recently?

Williams: Poor tackling and being stout at the point of attack have been the main culprits for San Diego in consistently stopping the run. However, the Chargers have been much better in the past two games, holding the Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams to an average of 89 rushing yards a contest. The Chargers benefitted from the return of linebackers Melvin Ingram, Jeremiah Attaochu and Manti Te'o from injuries after the bye week, creating a deeper rotation that keeps the defensive front seven fresh.

Staying with the Ravens' offense, the Chargers showed some interest in wide receiver Steve Smith during the offseason, but he ultimately chose Baltimore. What has Smith added to Baltimore's offense?

Hensley: Smith has brought a good pair of hands and a nasty attitude to the offense. From the first practices in the spring, you could tell that Joe Flacco immediately trusted Smith because of his ability to catch the ball. He may not run perfect routes, but he comes down with the ball, which was a problem last year for the Ravens' receivers. Smith's hands and concentration were the reason why he came down with that 15-yard touchdown Monday when getting held and falling backward. Smith also has given the Ravens an edge on an offense that is composed of mostly laid-back players. Flacco made the point it's important to get Smith involved early because he's such an emotional spark to the team. Smith pushes the limit, though. He could've easily drawn a penalty with his scuffle on Monday.

As the Ravens are working on a short week because of that Monday night game, the Chargers are making the long trip cross country to play a 1 p.m. game. How much an impact will this make on Sunday's game?

Williams: It depends. The Chargers were crushed by the Miami Dolphins in Week 9, 37-0 at Miami. But they also defeated the Buffalo Bills 22-10 in a Week 3 contest in Buffalo. Both games were 1 p.m. starts. The Chargers usually travel on Friday when playing on the East Coast to better adjust to the time change. San Diego has a veteran team that's been in this situation before, so I would not expect the game time to have an effect on the team's preparation or performance on Sunday.

At 7-4, Baltimore is in one of the most competitive divisions in the AFC North. What do the Ravens have to do in order to reach the postseason?

Hensley: Not to sound like a cliche, but the Ravens have to take care of their business. The Ravens have one division game remaining, and that's the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns. With the other AFC North teams playing each other (the Bengals and Steelers play twice in the final four weeks), they'll begin to knock each other off. All the Ravens can do is keep stacking wins and see which AFC North team emerges from the head-to-head games. The other playoff issue for the Ravens is their 3-4 conference record, which can be an important tiebreaker. The Ravens need to beat the likes of the Chargers and the Dolphins (the Ravens' Week 14 opponent) to improve their AFC mark as well as beat two of the teams competing for an AFC wild-card spot.