Across the country, in the early time window, against the best defense in the AFC, the Chargers emerged with a hard fought, ugly as hell, but equally impressive win over the Ravens. To beat the Ravens on Sunday, the Chargers out Ravens’d the Ravens with an incredible defensive effort for three-and-a-half quarters, and then hung on for dear life as Lamar Jackson mounted a late comeback that started as a scare and turned into a nightmare before the Chargers found a way to generate one last stop in utter desperation mode.
On Sunday, the Chargers beat the Ravens 23-17 and booked their trip to Foxborough for a divisional-round date with the Patriots next Sunday.
In a season defined by historically great quarterback play, a defensive, grind it out, grueling battle played out in Baltimore. Neither offense could move the ball efficiently or find big plays. Chargers rookie kicker Michael Badgley — aka the Money Badger — played a starring role with five field goals. Both defenses played out of their minds, but it was the Chargers’ defense that won the day. They carried their team to the win. Put it this way: Philip Rivers threw for only 160 yards and posted a passer rating just above 80, and the Chargers still won. That’s how incredible the Chargers’ defense was for most of Sunday’s game — outside of two drives late in the fourth quarter, which we’ll get to momentarily.
Conversely, that’s how bad the Ravens’ offense was for most of Sunday. The Ravens fumbled three times in their first eight plays. They recovered their first two, but the Chargers pounced on the third one, setting up their offense with prime field position and a chance to put the Ravens in an early hole. But the Chargers couldn’t completely capitalize, bogging down near the goal line and settling for a field goal, which gave them a 3-0 lead. Another field goal, this one from 50-plus yards, provided the Chargers with a 6-0 lead. Another takeaway led to another field goal. They added one more field goal before halftime to take a 12-0 lead into the break. That’s what kind of game it was. Points were hard to come by until the fourth quarter.
On the other side of the break, the Chargers (noun) looked like they wanted to Chargers (verb) away the game. Virgil Green fumbled deep in his own territory. A punt got tipped. Twice, the Ravens were set up with great field position and a chance to get back into the game. But they only emerged with three total points, as the Chargers’ defense refused to budge, limiting the Ravens to two field goal attempts — one of which Justin Tucker missed.
Finally, the Chargers’ offense contributed. Rivers hit Mike Williams for a 28-yard gain up the seam — the longest play of the game at that point.
Melvin Gordon rumbled for a 14-yard gain that carried the Chargers to the 1. And then Rivers hit Derek Watt for a touchdown that effectively ended the game. Fittingly a fullback caught the first touchdown of the game by literally rolling into the end zone.
Scratch that: After a review, the officials somehow decided that Watt didn’t breach the goal line.
Chaos ensued. On the next play — third-and-goal — Gordon stretched for the goal line, the ball popped out, and the Ravens scooped it up and started returning it the other way, ignoring a million whistles. The officials ruled the play was a Chargers touchdown, but a review found that Gordon was down at the 1-inch line. No fumble, no touchdown. The Chargers had one more chance from in close to score a touchdown.
Gordon finally gained entrance into the end zone on fourth-and-goal and the Chargers converted on the two-point try to go up 17 with just under 15 to play.
With the way the Chargers’ defense was playing, the game felt over. At that point, the Ravens’ offense had managed to pick up 83 total yards and three first downs. All hope had appeared to be lost. When the Ravens’ offense took the field, boos rained down. There wereThe Ravens weren’t just going down without a fight. They were going down in flames.
That’s what made Jackson’s near-comeback so bizarre. It came out of nowhere. But it happened. In the dying minutes, Jackson proceeded to lead two scoring drives that totaled 20 plays, 155 yards, and 14 points. First, Jackson found Michael Crabtree down the sideline for a 31-yard touchdown that turned a three-score deficit into a two-score deficit.
More magic happened. On the next series, Jackson created 39 yards out of absolutely nothing.
On fourth down, with their season on the line, Jackson found Crabtree for another touchdown. Somehow, someway, it was a six-point game.
With 1:59 left, the Ravens needed to force one more stop to give Jackson a chance to complete the comeback. They got the stop they needed — thanks to a holding penalty that wiped away what would’ve been a game-ending first down. In 45 seconds, Jackson needed to go 66 yards without any timeouts to complete an epic comeback in his first-ever playoff start.
The game ended the same way it began: with a Jackson fumble. This time, the Chargers fell on the ball. They survived. They booked their trip to New England. They won their first playoff game in five years.
The Chargers’ run might only just be beginning. Next up are the Patriots. Beyond that, a trip to Kansas City likely looms before facing the NFC representative in the Super Bowl. It won’t be easy. A gauntlet of road games against top-tier teams awaits them. But the Chargers are good enough on both sides of the ball to win out. Remember, they won the same number of games as the Chiefs this season. They . They’re more than just Rivers, Gordon, and Keenan Allen, as Sunday’s win demonstrated. They might be the most balanced team in the AFC. Beating the Patriots in New England is typically a fool’s errand. It’s as treacherous as visiting the lands beyond the Wall.
But the Chargers are good enough on both sides of the ball to do it.
Chargers win on defense, special teams
For as much hype as the Ravens’ defense has garnered (with good reason), it was the Chargers’ defense that came out and changed the course of the game. The Ravens’ offense fumbled three times on their first two series, and the Chargers finally recovered the third one — caused by Melvin Ingram, who was shooting the gaps and flying all over the field. It bought them three points.
On the ensuing series, Joey Bosa forced a punt by bringing down Jackson behind the line of scrimmage. It led to another field goal after a huge punt return. Up against one of the league’s best defenses, the Chargers made sure they won against the Ravens’ offense and special teams, making their offense’s job that much easier.
On the ensuing series, Badgley nailed a 53-yard field goal in windy conditions. If the Chargers are making 53-yard field goals in the playoffs, all bets are off.
Midway through the second quarter, the Chargers got their hands on the ball again, this time forcing an interception that came off the hands of Chris Moore. Adrian Phillips was there to snag the deflection.
Badgley made his third field goal of the first half to give the Chargers a 9-0 lead heading into halftime. He made his fourth on the final play of the first half to take a 12-0 lead that felt insurmountable. The theme seemingly persisted in the second half when the opening kickoff placed the Chargers in field goal range. But Badgley had his field goal blocked as a result of a poor hold. The Ravens had hope.
The Chargers defense suffocated the life out of the Ravens’ hope with consecutive sacks to force a three-and-out.
Green promptly fumbled, setting the Ravens up with the ball at the 21-yard line. But the Chargers’ defense held firm again. Ingram was wrecking the Ravens’ plans to run the ball.
The Ravens had to kick a field goal. At 12-3, it was still a two-possession game. After the Ravens tipped a punt inside Chargers territory, they could only manage eight yards and settled for a 50-yard field goal, which Tucker missed.
It wasn’t until 6:33 remained that the Chargers allowed a touchdown. At that point, the Chargers appeared to relax. And the Ravens punished them for it. But give the Chargers credit for coming up with that final stop when it looked like they were on the cusp of blowing what had been a nearly perfect game.
We really shouldn’t be all that surprised. The Chargers defense ended the regular season ranked eighth in DVOA, ninth in yards allowed, and eighth in points allowed. They weren’t as dominant as the Ravens’ defense, but by most measures, they were a top-10 defense. On Sunday, they dismissed the Ravens’ run-heavy assault, took the ball away, and made their offense’s difficult task significantly easier. They’re what makes the Chargers so dangerous. It’s not just the offense. It’s also Melvin Ingram (seven solo tackles and two sacks) and Joey Bosa (one sack). As a team, the Chargers finished with seven sacks of Jackson. Even after those two scoring drives, they limited the Ravens to 3.9 yards play. They held the Ravens’ vaunted rushing attack to 90 yards.
Near-comeback salvages Jackson’s ugly day
Most of Jackson’s first playoff game was a struggle. The Chargers did well to limit his openings on the ground and as they built a two-score lead, they forced Jackson to throw the ball. For the most part, Jackson failed to deliver. He fumbled three times. He misfired on more than a few passes.
At halftime, as the Ravens faced a 12-point deficit, Jackson was 2 of 8 for 17 yards, an interception, and a 0.0 passer rating. He’d rushed for only 31 yards.
At halftime, a debate raged: Bench Jackson for Flacco? John Harbaugh refused to provide an answer to that question when asked by Tracy Wolfson, but he left the door open for a mid-game quarterback change. When the Ravens’ offense took the field in the second half, Flacco had his helmet on, but it was Jackson who joined the other 10 players in the huddle.
The Ravens’ patience and faith in him paid off. At the very least, Harbaugh’s decision to stick with Jackson was entirely justified. Because Jackson nearly brought the Ravens back from the brink, leading two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to turn a 20-point deficit into a six-point game with just under two minutes to play.
He came up short on that final series, but Jackson managed to turn a disastrous outing into a hopeful one. The Ravens should absolutely love the way he played in the final minutes. When he scored that first touchdown, I was prepared to dismiss it as a garbage-time score. But Jackson brought the Ravens back from a 23-3 deficit to the point where they were 53 yards away from winning the game. That’s important. It matters.
Jackson finished 14 of 29 for 194 yards (6.7 YPA), two touchdowns, one pick, and a 78.8 passer rating, adding 54 yards on the ground. He wasn’t good for the majority of the game. But his performance in the final minutes should be encouraging. Remember, he’s a developmental rookie quarterback. He’s probably going to improve. And if this is Jackson at his worst, imagine what he’ll be like at his best.
In eight starts this season, Jackson posted a 6-2 record as a starter. His only two losses came against the Chiefs in Kansas City in overtime and the Chargers in his first playoff game. The Ravens’ future remains incredibly bright despite Sunday’s heartbreaking ending.
Ravens’ D shuts down Chargers
During a 22-10 loss to the Ravens in Week 16, Rivers submitted his worst performance of the season with 181 yards, two picks, and a 51.7 passer rating. Two weeks later, Rivers got the win, but he didn’t fare much better, going 22 of 32 for 160 yards (5.0 YPA), no touchdowns, no picks, and an 80.2 passer rating. But there’s no shame in getting shut down by this Ravens’ defense.
The Ravens’ defense did everything it could to win. They held the Chargers to nothing but field goals in the first half. In the second half, the Ravens finally got the takeaway the offense needed, but they offense could only muster a field goal.
The Ravens quickly got another stop and got a hand on the punt to set up the offense with prime field position again.
But the offense failed to move the ball more than eight yards and Tucker pushed the 50-yard field goal wide. When the Ravens needed stops in the final minutes — as Jackson was taking the offense up and down the field — they got them. The Ravens’ defense ended the game by forcing two straight three-and-outs. They held the Chargers to 3.7 yards per play.
You should sense a theme here. Do not blame the Ravens’ defense for the loss. They played as well as they needed to, but the offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. By the time the offense kicked into high gear, it was too late.
The Chargers head to Foxborough for a divisional round date with the Patriots. Meanwhile, the Ravens head into the offseason with plenty of questions. They’ve already got their quarterback of the future (who needs to develop his passing game this offseason), but they need to figure out their situation with Harbaugh and how they’re going to dump Flacco. Questions remain, but the Ravens should enter the offseason full of hope.
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