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NFL Preview - Baltimore (10-3) at San Diego (6-7)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Baltimore Ravens have consistently been one of the better teams in the NFL since John Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2008, but the club has never won five straight games during his four-year tenure.
That could change with a victory this Sunday night over the hosting San Diego Chargers, and it would also punch the Ravens' ticket to a fourth straight playoff appearance.
Baltimore does figure to have its hands full with a San Diego club that is fighting for its chance at a playoff spot, a lifeline it would like to extend with a third straight victory this weekend.
The Ravens easily handled the winless Colts, 24-10, last Sunday to win for the sixth time in seven games and keep pace with Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC North. Baltimore and the Steelers are two of four teams in the AFC that hold 10-3 records, but the Ravens do hold the inside track for the division crown thanks to a pair of victories over Pittsburgh this season.
The AFC South champion Houston Texans and East-leading New England Patriots are also 10-3.
"The AFC is very competitive," said Ravens running back Ray Rice. "We have control of our own destiny. We're in our driver's seat, but at the same time, other teams are playing good football as well. So you hope a team drops one. We don't say help because we feel like we control our own destiny. As long as we keep winning, we'll be fine."
Baltimore has won 17 of its past 18 at home, but brings a 3-3 road record in 2011 into this meeting. Still, the Ravens can win five straight in the regular season for the first time since Oct. 29-Nov. 26, 2006, which was also the only other season that the Ravens ever posted an 11-3 mark after 14 games.
Baltimore can officially lock up a playoff spot with a victory in this game, but can also get in with a loss by the New York Jets and either Oakland or Tennessee. The Ravens are also in if both the Raiders and Titans lose or tie, but Harbaugh is only worried about what his team does on the field.
"That's the object -- just to win the next game more than anything, probably," the coach said on Monday. "If that happens, we pretty much know where the chips are going to fall. So, we try to control what we can control, and obviously we've got a big challenge this week."
The Chargers wish they were in the same boat as the Ravens, but a six-game slide from Oct. 23-Nov. 27 took such control out of their hands. San Diego has turned things around with consecutive victories to get to 6-7 on the season, but sit two games behind both AFC West-leading Denver and Jets, who hold the conference's sixth and final playoff spot.
Like the Ravens, the Chargers cruised to a victory last weekend, besting Buffalo by a 37-10 margin. San Diego used a fake punt that set up a score and a pick-six from safety Steve Gregory to pull away in the third quarter, while also getting three touchdown passes from quarterback Philip Rivers.
"It was good to win a game," Rivers said. "Win two in a row and try to keep it rolling next week against Baltimore."
San Diego picked up its 400th victory in franchise history and improved to 17-2 in December under head coach Norv Turner. It will be playing its final home game of the regular season this weekend before road tests at Detroit and Oakland.
The Ravens grabbed a 4-3 lead in their overall series with San Diego by virtue of a 31-26 win in the most recent meeting between the teams, which took place at Qualcomm Stadium in 2009. The victory was Baltimore's fourth in five matchups with the Chargers since 2000, with San Diego's lone triumph during that span a 32-14 home decision in 2007. The Chargers are 3-2 all-time as the host in this set, however.
Turner has split four previous encounters with the Ravens as a head coach, which includes a 1-1 mark while at the helm of the Washington Redskins from 1994-2000. Harbaugh won his only prior head-to-head battle with both the Chargers and Turner with his team's 2009 result.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Baltimore put up 10 points in the first quarter last weekend versus the Colts and never looked back on the way to posting 358 yards of offense. That was about par for the course for the Ravens' 14th-ranked unit (346.0 ypg), a group that is led by talented running back Rice (1029 rushing yards, 62 receptions). He ran for 103 yards against Indianapolis and scored his 12th total touchdown of the season, one shy of a club single-year record. It marked the first time that the back has run for 100 yards in consecutive games, and he also led the Ravens with six catches. On the season, Rice leads the NFL with 1,622 yards from scrimmage. Quarterback Joe Flacco (3122 passing yards, 15 TD, 9 INT) threw for 227 yards with a pair of touchdowns, finding wide receiver Torrey Smith (37 receptions, 6 TD) for a short score in the first quarter and tight end Dennis Pitta (31 receptions, 2 TD) in the third. Flacco went over 3,000 yards passing for a third straight season, while Smith tied Jamal Lewis' club rookie record for touchdowns in a campaign set in 2000. Smith and Anquan Boldin (55 receptions, 3 TD) had five catches each last week, with Boldin adding a game-high 57 yards receiving. Baltimore has allowed just four sacks during its four-game win streak.
The Chargers rank in the top 10 in both total defense (8th overall, 330.5 ypg) and against the pass (7th, 201.5 ypg), but have struggled versus opposing ground games. San Diego is giving up 128.9 yards per game in that department, tied for 23rd in the NFL. The Bolts did hold the Bills to under 100 yards rushing and picked off quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick twice, with safety Eric Weddle (73 tackles, 7 INT) also grabbing a pick in addition to Gregory (47 tackles, 1 INT), who led the club with seven tackles. San Diego's secondary, led by corners Antoine Cason (44 tackles, 1 INT) and Quentin Jammer (41 tackles), did struggle against Bills No. 1 receiver Steve Johnson, however, with the wideout logging four catches for 116 yards. Still, San Diego did not allow Buffalo to score in three of the four quarters and has shut out its opponent in five of its past six periods played. Linebacker Antwan Barnes (32 tackles, 7 sacks) had a sack versus the Bills and inside starter Takeo Spikes (91 tackles, 1 sack) added five tackles. Fellow inside linebacker Donald Butler (80 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is one of San Diego's top tacklers and tackle Antonio Garay (48 tackles, 2 sacks) leads the club's front three.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
San Diego's eighth-ranked offense (388.1 ypg) is coming off a 366-yard performance and is looking to make some history this weekend. Rivers (3745 passing yards, 22 TD, 17 INT), running back Ryan Mathews and wide receiver Vincent Jackson are all within reach of giving the club a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver for the third time in club history, while tight end Antonio Gates (53 receptions, 6 TD) needs five catches to surpass Charlie Joiner (586) for the most in club history. Rivers and Gates hooked up for two touchdowns versus the Bills, with the tight end leading the team with seven catches for 68 yards. Jackson (53 receptions, 952 yards, 8 TD) added five catches for 55 yards, while Mathews (943 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 4 TD) donated six catches while rushing for over 100 yards for a third straight game. LaDainain Tomlinson was the last Charger to do so in four straight, back in 2007. Also, Jackson is looking to become the first Chargers wide receiver since Tony Martin in 1996 to post a 10-touchdown season. Malcom Floyd (25 receptions, 2 TD) also serves as a top target for Rivers, while running back Mike Tolbert (385 rushing yards, 6 TD) is a red-zone option.
The Chargers likely won't have such an easy time moving the ball this weekend against a Ravens defense that ranks third overall in the league (278.1 ypg), second against the run (85.8 ypg) and third in scoring defense (15.5 ppg). With star linebacker Ray Lewis (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) missing the past four games with a foot injury that could again hold him out this weekend, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (58 tackles, 13 sacks, 2 INT) has been on a tear. Suggs logged three sacks versus the Colts last weekend and set a club record with three forced fumbles, though the Ravens weren't able to recover any of them. He has set a new career high in sacks for as season and leads the NFL with six forced fumbles. Suggs leads a defense that held the Colts to just 167 yards of offense, including 47 in the first half, and leads the NFL with 45 sacks. Safety Bernard Pollard (58 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) had an interception last weekend and defensive end Cory Redding (34 tackles, 4.5 sacks) also got to the quarterback. Safety Ed Reed (43 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) leads a secondary that may be without cornerback Lardarius Webb (62 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT) due to a toe injury, though both he and Harbaugh are hopeful he can play. If not, rookie Jimmy Smith (6 tackles, 2 INT) would start alongside Cary Williams (62 tackles). Paul Kruger (12 tackles, 4.5 sacks) is also a pass-rush specialist alongside inside linebacker Jameel McClain (71 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), who led the Ravens with eight tackles last week.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Ravens' offense goes through Rice, the only player in the league with at least 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving this season. He leads all NFL running backs with 593 receiving yards and is looking to become the fourth player since 1970 to post three seasons in a row with at least 1,200 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards.
Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff made his only field goal attempt and hit all three extra points last weekend, but was questionable to play due to a calf injury. Cundiff didn't handle the kickoffs during the second half due to the ailment, something that bares watching on Sunday night.
The Chargers do have the edge in the passing game, and an injury to Webb could open things up for Jackson and Floyd. Gates should also find some room to work with in the Ravens secondary, while having a solid receiver out of the backfield in Mathews will give Rivers a safe play to avoid Baltimore's pressure. The Ravens' linebackers will need to watch for screens and keep an eye on Mathews to avoid big plays.
A pair of teams who also finish strong makes for an exciting matchup this Sunday night. Both clubs have plenty to play for and are very similar in terms of offense. Mathews and Rice are both playmakers, with the latter probably holding the edge, while Rivers is likely to make more plays with his arm than Flacco. That means the difference could come down to defense, where Baltimore excels and can force Rivers into making some of the same mistakes that have led to him leading the AFC in interceptions.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Chargers 20
12/15 18:56:26 ET