From a handicapping standpoint, Sunday afternoon’s 1:05 p.m. ET kickoff between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Baltimore Ravens has the most considerations. These two teams just played on December 22 and the Ravens won outright as a four-point underdog out in Los Angeles. With the venue now 2,654 miles to the east, the Ravens are favored by 2.5 with a total of 41.5 for the second and final AFC Wild Card Weekend playoff game.
That is quite an adjustment, but this is as bad as a spot can get in the NFL playoffs. The Chargers played in Denver last week, which means that Monday is a recovery day after the late-evening arrival from the Mile High City. They’ll have to leave on Friday and fly clear across the country and three time zones to play in Eastern Standard Time for the first time since Week 13.
Even that was a Sunday Night Football game against Pittsburgh. The last 1 p.m. start time for the Chargers was Week 6 in Cleveland, which was one week before the team played in London. The only thing getting the shaft more than Philip Rivers’s wife is Philip Rivers’s team when it comes to the Wild Card Weekend.
The Whis Kid
Ken Whisenhunt was a little distracted when these two teams played in Week 16. At that time, his name had been discussed for the vacancy with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and he did pursue that opportunity. That is nowhere near the sole reason why the Chargers were dominated at home by the Ravens. To completely discredit the effect it had would be disingenuous. After all, the Chargers had 198 yards and just 3.5 yards per play in their worst effort of the season.
How good has Lamar Jackson been for this Baltimore team? Week in and week out, defensive coordinators and players are mystified by running quarterbacks. Since Lamar Jackson took over, the Ravens are 6-1 and have rushed for at least 159 yards in every single game. The downside is that the Ravens haven’t had much of a passing attack, but they also haven’t needed one.
Will Gus Bradley dial up a scheme to contain Jackson? If the most recent game is any indication, he may have more success than you would think. In that win over the Chargers, Jackson only had 39 yards on 13 carries and 27 yards came on one of his scampers. Jackson was also just 12-of-22 passing, but big plays hurt the Chargers because Jackson threw for over 200 yards on those 12 completions.
One note about Jackson is that he only averaged 3.1 yards per carry on 34 attempts in the red zone and only completed 9 of his 21 pass attempts. That is a good sign for a Chargers team that was fifth in red zone defensive efficiency.
Home Sweet Home?
The Chargers don’t really fit in Los Angeles right now, at least not until a stadium of their own is completed. Los Angeles averaged 1.2 more yards per carry on the road in those eight games than at home. Philip Rivers was better at home, as the Chargers had a team completion percentage of 69.7 percent at home compared to a 65.8 percent completion percentage on the road, but an identical 16/6 TD/INT ratio.
That being said, the Chargers certainly can’t be excited about being a 12-4 team that has to go out on the road and play bright and early on Sunday.
Injury Bug Zapper
The Chargers are dealing with a lot more injuries right now than the Ravens. Baltimore has a lot of players on IR, but most of those guys have missed huge chunks of the season and the beat has gone on.
It is different for Los Angeles. The Chargers are worried about Melvin Gordon, who is expected to play, but clearly won’t be 100 percent after suffering an ankle injury last week. Change-of-pace back Austin Ekeler has also had his share of injuries late in the season.
There is a good chance that Hunter Henry tries to give it a go this week. He’s been on IR the entire season because of a torn ACL, but the hope is that he will be able to play this week. If nothing else, he’s going to occupy a linebacker, safety, or nickel corner while he’s out there.
Jatavis Brown is also questionable, which would be a big loss against a mobile QB like Jackson.
A Rivers Throws Through It
The Chargers really need to throw the football on first down against this stout Baltimore defense. Los Angeles didn’t do much on offense in the first meeting, but Rivers was 10-of-14 passing for 78 yards on first down. Melvin Gordon ran for 43 yards on 10 first down carries, but two of those 10 runs combined for 21 yards, so he had 22 yards on his other eight first down attempts. We’ll see if Whisenhunt makes that change. If he doesn’t, it could be a long day behind the chains for the offense.
Baltimore averaged 7.7 yards per first down play, but that was skewed by Lamar Jackson’s 68-yard touchdown pass to Mark Andrews. Outside of that one play, Jackson was still 5-of-8 for 53 yards. Gus Edwards had eight carries for 82 yards. The Chargers really need to make first down adjustments. This is a live betting angle to watch.
Defense wins championships, right? Or so they say. Does that still apply when last year’s Super Bowl ended 41-33? For my money, the Bears are the best defense in the playoffs, but the Ravens are second-best. Is that enough to get by here against a Chargers team that really had some success stopping Lamar Jackson in the running game?
This will be the first time that a team has faced the Ravens twice since the switch to Jackson and that is why I’ll take the Chargers +2.5 here. The money line is also in play, obviously. The early start could be problematic for the Chargers, but Jackson is really limited as a passer and the Chargers shut his running down in that game. They didn’t do as well stopping Edwards, but Bradley is a tremendous defensive coordinator. He’s not much of a head coach, but he’s a great DC.
This game will be quite the chess match, which will probably make it extremely boring at times, as the Ravens limit big plays and the Chargers will play a lot of contain. The under 41.5 is definitely the preferred play when it comes to the total.