Their reward? Facing the 12-4 Chargers, who just saw this Ravens offense up close two weeks ago.
The Ravens can look at this matchup favorably or negatively, depending on what factors are considered important. If you value a team showing what they can do already, then you probably prefer Baltimore, who dominated the Chargers en route to a 22-10 road victory on short rest in Week 16.
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There’s something to be said for the Chargers now having experienced this Ravens offense. It won’t catch them by surprise. Plus, the Chargers have actually been much better on the road this season, going 7-1 away from their “home” stadium.
The Ravens are 3-1 all-time against the Chargers in Baltimore, and overall under John Harbaugh they’re 4-2.
In the Wild Card Round since 2008, the beginning of the John Harbaugh Era, the Ravens are undefeated at 5-0.
Baltimore is still surprisingly healthy, which played a key role in capturing their first AFC North title since 2012. Both sides should have most of their key contributors available come Sunday.
One of the keys to the Ravens’ nice run to end the regular season was their unique style of offense. Most offenses in 2018 average around 65% of their plays through the air, and 35% on the ground. In Baltimore, that number is flipped. Ever since Lamar Jackson entered the starting lineup for the Ravens, a run-heavy approach has followed.
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It’s not just the commitment to the ground game, but how they’ve gone about it, that’s impressed. The Ravens use all sorts of misdirection and run-pass options to keep the defense guessing, and then by the time they realize what’s happening, Lamar Jackson is already past them, or Gus Edwards is bowling them over.
The advantage the Ravens have had is in how difficult it is to prepare for a run-heavy attack in a pass-heavy world. The Chargers, in particular, are specifically built to stop passing offenses. But the Ravens don’t pass.
This is why it’s so interesting to see how the rematch goes. It will be the first time in Jackson’s short career that a team will be seeing him for a second time. The Chargers won’t be fooled by the unorthodox formations and style; they just spent 60 minutes trying to defend it in late December.
It’s pretty rare for a rookie quarterback to beat a quality defense twice in the same season, let alone in a rematch coming so quickly. Even just beating a quality defense in the postseason in general is difficult. No rookie quarterback has beaten a defense ranked top 10 in DVOA since Joe Flacco back in 2008. Jackson will have to do something almost unheard of in order for Baltimore to come out on top.
Philip Rivers, the Chargers’ signal-caller, is one of the most prolific quarterbacks of any era. He has had a Hall of Fame-worthy career from every angle except one. He has yet to make a Super Bowl run, and he won’t have many more opportunities as he nears 40.
When it comes to experience, Rivers dwarfs what Jackson can bring to the table. Rivers has been in the league since 2004. Jackson is about to become the youngest starting quarterback in NFL postseason history, with his 22nd birthday on Monday. Rivers has played in an AFC Championship Game before. Jackson, obviously has never played in January.
Their styles of play could hardly be much different, either. In the first meeting between these two teams, Jackson threw for 204 yards, which is currently his career high. Rivers regularly tops 300 passing yards. Jackson just set the single season record for quarterback rushes, a remarkable feat considering he only made seven starts. Rivers is a pure pocket passer who much prefers checkdowns to scrambles.
Rivers struggled mightily against the Ravens in Week 16, throwing for just 181 yards, to go along with two interceptions and no touchdowns for the first time all season. Many of his issues stemmed from the pressure the Ravens were able to get, as he was sacked four times and hit countless others. With his lack of mobility, Rivers relies on a clean pocket more than a quarterback like Jackson, and if the defensive line can show up in a big way again, he could be in for another long afternoon.
Everyone knew the Chargers would have to go on the road as a wild card team if they couldn’t overtake the Kansas City Chiefs, despite their superior record to the Ravens. What has Los Angeles crying foul even more so is the timing of the game. The Chargers, who play on the west coast, are playing the Ravens at 1 p.m. Eastern. Which means their body clocks will be at 10 a.m. for kickoff.
West coast teams notoriously struggle when playing early on the East coast, so the Ravens will hope to jump on the Chargers early as they “wake up” during the first half. This could end up especially crucial when you consider how much the Ravens rely on controlling the tempo of the game.
What the Chargers (and any team facing Baltimore) wants to do more than anything is get off to an early lead, forcing to the Ravens to consider abandoning their extreme run-heavy approach. The truth is, we don’t know exactly how the Ravens would respond to being down two touchdowns early, because it just hasn’t happened in the Lamar Jackson Era.
The early start time could make this less of a concern for the Ravens, Of course, that may just be wishful thinking. As we mentioned earlier, the Chargers have had a ton of success on the road this season, and that includes games on the East coast.
Either way, the Ravens will be in for a tough battle. The Chargers won’t be an easy out, and a betting line of Ravens -3 at home shows that Vegas views these two as essentially even.
If the Ravens can continue to control the time of possession, prevent big plays from the Chargers, and turn Philip Rivers over once or twice, it’s hard to imagine their winning formula failing them now. It’s a balancing act, though, and any one play going the wrong direction could be devastating. Postseason football is finally back in Charm City, and this team certainly doesn’t want to see it end just as soon as it began.