Philip Rivers, Lamar Jackson square off in pivotal playoff clash of contenders
The Chargers, who have clinched their first postseason berth since 2013, feature cagy veteran Philip Rivers, who is having one of the best seasons of his 15-year career. The Ravens have surged back into postseason contention behind fleet-footed rookie Lamar Jackson, who has won four of his five starts.
We've got business to handle. pic.twitter.com/08VKACoyA0
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) December 22, 2018
They meet in a prime-time game with plenty of implications for the AFC playoff picture. Baltimore (8-6) has a one-game lead for the final wild- card spot AFC, but also is just a half-game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North.
Los Angeles (11-3) is tied with Kansas City for the lead in the AFC West and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But it needs to win out along with the Chiefs to drop one of their final two games to win the division.
“Playoff football has begun. We can’t wait around until January,” Rivers said.
Rivers is third in the league with a 112.4 passer rating and needs 49 yards to join Peyton Manning and Drew Brees as the only players with 10 or more 4,000-yard seasons. He is averaging 314.1 yards per game at home with 16 touchdowns against four interceptions.
Rivers’ 69.4 completion percentage is the second highest of his career. He also has one of the deeper receiving corps in the league with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams. The Chargers, though, are facing a Baltimore defense ranked first in the league overall and third against the pass.
Rivers has five 300-yard games this season; Baltimore has allowed only three the past two years.
“A lot of those guys, the secondary, are high draft picks that can cover you, and there’s the linebacker that can really run,” Rivers said. “You’ve got big boys on the interior that can stop the run and penetrate. So it’s a top defense in the league for a reason.”
Jackson has rushed for 566 yards this season, tops among quarterbacks. Since becoming the starter, he has 427 yards, fifth most by anyone in the league. Jackson, though, shouldn’t be totally overlooked as a passer. He has a 58.9 completion percentage and a 79.1 passer rating.
— GMFB (@gmfb) December 22, 2018
Chargers safety Derwin James, who faced Jackson twice in college, said the biggest improvement he has seen from Jackson is in understanding defenses.
“You’re not seeing as many home run balls from him. You are still seeing the big gains and people attacking him, but the running ability is always going to be there,” James said, “You think because he’s a quarterback he can’t take those hits, but he can.”
Here is what else to watch as the Chargers host the Ravens:
BATTLE OF THE BACKS
Saturday also features an intriguing running backs matchup between LA’s Melvin Gordon and Baltimore’s Gus Edwards.
Gordon returns after missing the past three games due to a sprained MCL in his right knee. He is sixth in the AFC in rushing with 802 yards and is second in rushing average per game (80.2).
Edwards has rushed for 486 yards the past five games, fourth most in the league. Baltimore is the first team since the 1976 Steelers to have 190 rushing yards or more in five straight games.
The Ravens are 37 for 72 (51 percent) on third down since Jackson took over five weeks ago.
One reason is that the running game has provided more manageable situations on third down. But when it’s time to pass, Jackson is ready and able to fling it.
“Lamar has done a really good job when we’ve passed the ball in most of those third-down situations,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said.
Converting third downs keeps the offense on the field, and the defense has done a good job making the opposition punt. Baltimore is allowing a 34.2 success rate on third downs, third-best percentage in the NFL.
The Chargers have won four straight, but they fell behind by 10 points or more in the first half of three games. With Baltimore’s reliance on the run and controlling the clock, Los Angeles will need to avoid another slow start.
“I wish there was a switch that we could just flip and turn on. But I think it’s just guys sticking to the plan, doing their job and just believing that if we keep doing the right things that the game will turn,” coach Anthony Lynn said.
There are many, many playoff scenarios for the Ravens, who can still get in as AFC North champions or a wild-card entrant.
They can also be eliminated this weekend with a loss to the Chargers and victories by Tennessee, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
But Jackson doesn’t expect the Ravens to engage in much scoreboard watching, because there’s only one game they care about.
“Ours and the Chargers,” Jackson said. “We have to have the most points at the end of the game, so that’s what I’m going to focus on. I don’t really care what the other teams are doing. We’re trying to win.”
KEEP AN EYE ON .
The kickers. Baltimore’s Justin Tucker has only two misses in 30 field goal attempts this season, with both being blocked. Tucker also has provided the winning field goal in the past two meetings against the Chargers.
Los Angeles’ Michael Badgley has provided stability to the Chargers’ kicking game, which has had seven placekickers the past two seasons. The rookie is 14 of 15 on field goals and set a team record with a 59-yarder in the last home game against Cincinnati on Dec. 9.