(Sports Network) - For some reason the Baltimore Ravens have brought their A
game to nearly every conference showdown under head coach John Harbaugh.
The AFC North-leading Ravens have won nine of 10 and 13 of their last 15 games
against AFC foes and are 40-16 in conference play under Harbaugh. Baltimore
will play the fifth of six straight AFC contests Sunday against a desperate
San Diego Chargers team on the West Coast.
Since the Harbaugh era began in 2008, the Ravens have been lights out in the
months of November and December, going 30-10 overall. Harbaugh has amassed at
least nine wins in each of his first four seasons at the helm and will be
looking to make it five straight under the San Diego sun. The Ravens are 8-2
and off to the best start since a 9-2 ledger in 2006.
"The feeling right now is we're exactly where we want to be but we haven't
arrived yet," tight end Ed Dickson said after Baltimore's third straight win
Sunday against Pittsburgh. "We have a lot of stuff we can get better at, a lot
of stuff to work on. We want to build from here. It's not how you begin the
season; it's how you end the season that brings you a championship."
After a hard-fought 13-10 victory against the Steelers, Harbaugh said the team
can "get so much better." In a game that featured very little offense, the
Ravens amassed 200 yards and their only touchdown of the game was a 63-yard
punt return for a score. That's what usually happens in division games; both
sides play tough for the entire 60 minutes.
Baltimore's defense is not what it used to be, but sacked Steelers backup
quarterback Byron Leftwich three times and cornerback Corey Graham had the
lone interception. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has been picked off an
NFL-high 14 times this season and seven times in the past three games. That
should raise eyebrows in Baltimore's secondary, including safety Ed Reed.
Reed, known for his ball-hawking ability and big plays in the defensive
backfield, wasn't originally going to suit up Sunday due to a one-game
suspension levied for too many hits on defenseless receivers. However, Reed
won his appeal and will only be assessed a $50,000 fine. That's chump change
for Reed, who makes $423,529 a game check and is second on the team with three
INTs -- one shy of cornerback's Cary Williams' team lead.
"I'm grateful to continue playing this game with my teammates," Reed said
Tuesday at his charity event. "The rules of the game have changed. Over my
career I've never been that guy, and I don't plan on being that guy."
The Ravens' defense has been getting major contributions from some unlikely
players lately. Graham had the big pick on Leftwich and tipped a pair of
passes against a Steelers team with a handful of speedy receivers. Cornerback
Chris Johnson, recently signed to the team, forced a fumble Sunday night and
linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has taken over for injured future Hall of Famer Ray
Lewis. Ellerbe currently leads the team with 75 tackles.
Linebacker Paul Kruger had a sack and leads the Ravens with 4 1/2. Players
needed to pick it up with Lewis out and fellow stars Terrell Suggs and Haloti
Ngata dealing with their own nicked-up bodies. Despite the winning streak and
an 8-2 record, the Ravens have slouched on defense. They are 23rd against the
pass (250.1 ypg), 25th in yards allowed (382.3 ypg) and 27th in run defense
(132.2 ypg). Baltimore is ninth in points allowed (20.6 ppg), too.
After visiting the Chargers, Baltimore will renew its heated rivalry with the
Steelers at home on Dec. 2.
San Diego dropped a 30-23 decision Sunday at Denver, its fourth straight loss
on the road, and is just 1-5 since a hopeful 3-1 start.
The Chargers have been one of the more criticized teams in recent years for
their inability to thrive in winnable games. And the loss to the AFC West-
rival Broncos was proof. San Diego jumped out to a 7-0 lead on a 23-yard
interception return for a touchdown by safety Eric Weddle, but Peyton Manning
led the hosts to a 17-point burst in the second quarter.
The loss dropped the Chargers to a disappointing 4-6.
"You just have to go and look at yourself as a football team," Chargers head
coach Norv Turner said. "I know who we are and where we're at. We have to find
a way to go and play a complete game. We've got to find a way to play our best
against Baltimore. We started 3-1 and over a period of time we've won one game
over the last six games. So at some point, you are what your record is. We're
going to do everything that we can to fix the things that have kept us from
winning and go find a way to go and beat Baltimore."
With an offense that is struggling, Turner's team will find it tough sledding
against Baltimore's historically-dominant defense. The offensive line has seen
better days, and so has Rivers, who was sacked four times against Denver and
has been taken down at least once in every game, including 12 times over the
previous five games. Rivers doesn't have RG3 speed and needs time for a play
to develop. When defenders are in his face, Rivers (26,747 career yards) and
the offense suffer. He is 193 yards shy of passing John Hadl (26,938 yards)
for second-most yards in team lore. Dan Fouts is first with 43,040 yards.
Speaking of suffering, Chargers running back Ryan Mathews has yet to rush for
more than 95 yards in a game this season. He is averaging 56 yards rushing the
past three weeks for a San Diego offense rated 22nd in rushing yards (100.3).
Mathews has one touchdown on the season and hasn't found paydirt since Week 5.
Mathews, though, ran for 90 yards and two touchdowns against Baltimore last
season in a 34-14 rout on Dec. 18. San Diego and Baltimore have split eight
meetings, but the Chargers have won two of the past three. Sunday's game will
be the fourth straight held on the West Coast, where the Chargers are 4-2 in
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ravens Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice hasn't been his usual dominant self
running the football lately. Always a threat to make something happen with his
hands out of the backfield, Rice has just two 100-yard rushing efforts this
season and is posting 55.6 ypg the past five weeks.
But it's not about the numbers for Rice, only wins.
"We don't play for stats here. We're playing to win games," said Rice, who is
tied among NFL running backs with 40 catches. "The world gets caught up in
fantasy stats. For us, the fantasy stat is 8-2."
The Ravens hope they can get Rice going early against a Chargers defense that
is third against the rush (87.9 ypg), but 19th in pass defense (236.0 ypg).
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will try to exploit San Diego's secondary and is
seven TD passes shy of 100 in his career. He also is closing in on 3,000
passing yards (2,495) for the fourth-straight year.
Flacco didn't have a touchdown pass or an interception against the Steelers,
and is 16-5 in the month of November. When he reaches a 100 rating, which he
has four times this season, the Ravens have won 16 in a row. Flacco has been
connecting nicely with Torrey Smith, who leads the team with seven touchdown
catches and averages 17.3 yards per reception with 32 for 555 yards.
San Diego needs a win badly on Sunday and sits second in the AFC West, three
games behind the Broncos. Time may be running short on Turner's tenure and the
acclaimed offensive genius is stuck in a rut.
Rated 17th in passing yards (228.5 ypg) and 23rd in total yards (328.8 ypg),
the Chargers have to move the ball smoothly Sunday. They had just 53 rushing
yards against Denver and 277 total. The Broncos ran for 133 yards (386 total),
while Chargers rookie defensive end Kendall Reyes posted two of the team's
three sacks. Reyes is only scratching the surface and needs to maintain that
edge against Flacco, who has been sacked just three times in as many weeks.
"(I'm) just trying to do my job," Reyes said. "(I'm) learning a lot. I was
kind of in the right spot at the right time type of deal. (I'm) just trying to
get better. I'm like a sponge right now, just trying to take everything in and
really just try to grow as a player and learn from all of these great guys we
got on the D-line."
Wide receiver Danario Alexander has been playing well recently for San Diego,
posting 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games.
Alexander, who had a career-best 134 yards against Tampa Bay two weeks ago,
posted a personal-best two TD catches last week.
The Ravens are up to their usually dominant ways this time of season and have
won eight of their previous nine games in November. Playing against a Chargers
team barely clinging to life in the AFC playoff picture will result in another
fall victory for Harbaugh and Company. While the leaves plummet to the ground
and Baltimore raises its stakes for conference supremacy, Sunday's game
shouldn't even be close. Rivers seems to throw balls into the arms of opposing
players, Mathews has been a major disappointment and the only plus side to
Turner's team is the defense. You have to score points in this league to win
games and the Ravens will prevent San Diego from doing so.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Chargers 10
The Sports Network