LA Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens: Back Rivers to burst Baltimore's banks

Philip Rivers
Rivers can carry LA past Baltimore

The Chargers will look to stalwart quarterback Philip Rivers to deliver a road win against Lamar Jackson and Baltimore's rolling rush attack on Wildcard Weekend, writes Mark Kirwan...

"They do, however, have Philip Rivers under center, and he's been heaving the ball this year as well as ever. Pat Mahomes and Drew Brees have cornered the MVP discussions, but 32 touchdowns and a tenth 4,000 yard passing season shows the 37-year-old still at the peak of his powers. And he has plenty of weapons to work with besides Gordon. Keenan Allen plus Mike and Tyrell Williams mean that Hunter Henry has barely been missed, and Travis Benjamin is an afterthought."

LA Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens
Sunday, 18:05
Live on Sky Sports Action

Chargers can go with Rivers flow

It would be easy for the Chargers to feel hard done by. After threatening for years, they finally put a run together, make it to the playoffs, and, though they've matched the Chiefs' AFC best 12-4 record, they drop to the fifth seed because of tie-breakers in their division.

It means they've to go on the road to face an opponent they played just a fortnight ago - and lost to - despite having a better record than their opponents.

Though the home advantage may not mean all that much for LA given how often their "home" games have seen fans of visiting teams outnumber Bolts backers since they skulked from San Diego to Carson City two years ago.

Of greater concern is their running back Melvin Gordon's health.

He picked up a knock last week in their perfunctory win at Denver and has been limited in practice. He's still expected to suit up, but was already lagging prior to last week in his performances after shouldering a heavy workload through the opening weeks.

If he's limited against Baltimore's fourth-ranked rushing defence that could really hinder the Chargers' hopes, especially with his back-up Austin Ekeler also struggling for fitness.

They do, however, have Philip Rivers under center, and he's been heaving the ball as well as ever this year. Pat Mahomes and Drew Brees have cornered the MVP discussions, but 32 touchdowns and a tenth 4,000 yard passing season shows the 37-year-old is still at the peak of his powers.

And he has plenty of weapons to work with besides Gordon. Keenan Allen plus Mike and Tyrell Williams mean that Hunter Henry has barely been missed, and Travis Benjamin is an afterthought.

Defensively, rookie Derwin James is a star in the making, and Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are two stud pass-rushers; the question is what use they'll be against a team that doesn't want to pass...

Ravens rush into playoffs

Because that's who the Ravens are, and it's how they beat LA two weeks ago, 22-10.

Coach John Harbaugh has been saved by the Steelers' meltdown and Lamar Jackson's emergence in the run-first system they've adopted.

Following a loss to Pittsburgh that put them on a three-game losing skid and looked to have damned them to a third consecutive season without a playoff spot, QB Joe Flacco's body obliged to allow the first round rookie take up the starter's role.

He grabbed the opportunity. And ran.

The Ravens have rushed for 1,607 yards in his seven starts, the third most in NFL history over that timeframe. The last team to best their total was the '76 Steelers.

Jackson's passing accuracy is regularly queried, so Harbaugh and assistant Marty Mornhinweg decided to gameplan for Jackson, along with unheralded backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon, to run, run and run.

The change came just in time, with the Ravens winning six of seven to steal ahead of the Big Ben Roethlisberger et al in the AFC North and emerge as dark horses for the NFL crown.

The rookie will become the first ever 21-year-old quarterback to start a playoff game, though his inexperience also extends to his protection of the ball. He's fumbled 12 times in his short career so far. If (big if) you can get to him, you can turnover the ball, and that's one thing a run-first, manage-the-clock team like the Ravens cannot afford.

There is also doubt as to whether this system will survive scrutiny. Defences are simply so unfamiliar with their scheme that a large amount of their success is attributed to surprise. Once there's enough data about their play, will the yards dry up?

We should find out on Sunday. The Chargers were the most successful defence in limiting the Jackson-inspired turnaround, holding Baltimore to 159 yards on the ground, and just 40 in the second half in week 16.

If they've learned lessons from that loss, they could turn over the home team on Sunday.

The Picks

The next two weeks are the best of the season because it puts together match-ups like this. I'm not saying I go along with the "flash in the pan" theories about Baltimore's success, but I think the experience of having played the Ravens recently will make a big difference for the Chargers here.

That win over LA counts for a lot given the strength of their schedule over Jackson's seven game run. Besides LA, only Kansas City, who they lost to, finished the season with a winning record from those seven opponents.

While Gordon's fitness and form is a concern, the Chargers look the more rounded - and, frankly, better - team, and Baltimore have looked shaky despite their run, epitomised by their fortunate escape last against the Browns.

LA have been playing without much of a homefield for the last two seasons, and they're also 7-1 on the road this season on both moneyline and against the spread markets, so I'll happily take them +3 points here at 1.875/6 or better and enjoy what should be an intriguing battle.

On the total, the line at 42 looks low to me even though these two teams combined for just 32 points a fortnight ago. The Chargers only had 10 of those, a season low, so the law of averages suggest they're unlikely to post as low a figure again, while the Ravens will likely hold up their end. Take the over at 2.021/1.

For a touchdown bet, it's almost easier to look at the Ravens because there are so many options on the Chargers side. Jackson is 5/4 to run one in at any time, and 13/2 for the first TD. Given the way they've started games recently, wracking up yardage early, I'd be more inlcined to look at him than other options for the first score.

Mike Williams as an any time option at 9/4 on the Chargers also appeals as he ooks better every time I see him and has three scores in his last three games.

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