If the desperate San Diego Chargers are to save their season, they'll have to do it against the blue-collar AFC North.
With the AFC West all but ceded to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, the Chargers are long shots to snag one of the two wild-card berths.
After losing two straight and five of six, the Chargers must face Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the next three weeks.
The Chargers were in a similarly desperate situation when they upset the Ravens in San Diego late last season. The Chargers still managed to miss the playoffs.
AFC North-leading Baltimore (8-2) makes a return visit to Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday. While the Chargers (4-6) would like to pull another surprise, they've failed miserably against good teams this year. Their four wins are against teams with losing records, including two against the woeful Kansas City Chiefs.
Coach Norv Turner almost certainly will be fired if the Chargers miss the playoffs for the third straight season. General manager A.J. Smith might get the heave-ho, as well, because several glaring roster deficiencies have dragged down the Bolts.
San Diego is three games behind the Broncos, but it's essentially a four-game deficit because Denver swept the season series. In the wild-card race, San Diego, one of four AFC teams with a 4-6 record, is two games behind Pittsburgh and Indianapolis and one behind Cincinnati, which visits San Diego in one week.
Surprisingly, the Chargers are still talking about trying to put together a complete game.
"That's why we are where we are until we fix it," safety Eric Weddle said. "And until we overcome those flaws within ourselves, we'll still be in those battles in the fourth quarter. That's why you play the game. Everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes. That's why you just try and eliminate as many mistakes as you can and try and play that perfect game, which is impossible, but you strive for it.
"We have a great group of guys on this team regardless of what the outside thinks. I still believe in us and what we're trying to accomplish. We'll go down fighting until all is said and done."
Despite San Diego's predicament, Weddle welcomes the test of facing the hard-nosed teams from the AFC North.
"They're tough, physical, defensive-minded teams. And I can't wait to go against all three of them," he said.
The AFC North's worst team, the Cleveland Browns, beat the Chargers 7-6 on Oct. 28.
The Chargers didn't get any favors from the league office during the week. Ravens safety Ed Reed had his one-game suspension for illegal hits overturned on appeal and instead was fined $50,000. The decision was made by NFL hearing officer Ted Cottrell, who was fired as Chargers defensive coordinator by Turner the day after a loss to New Orleans in London in 2008. Cottrell was a favorite of Smith, who hired him as defensive coordinator the same day he hired Turner as coach in February 2007.
In another blow, the Chargers placed left tackle Jared Gaither on injured reserve with a groin injury on Friday, ending an unproductive season for a player who was counted on to shore up a shaky offensive line.
Gaither was signed off waivers after Marcus McNeill was hurt late last year, and played well in the final five games. The Chargers gave Gaither a four-year, $24.5 million contract in March.
Gaither played in only four games this season. He missed almost all of training camp and the first three games with a back injury. He injured his groin late in a loss at New Orleans and played in only two games since.
Undrafted rookie Mike Harris has filled in for Gaither.
Philip Rivers has been under siege most of the season because of the line's poor play. Adding to San Diego's woes was the offseason retirement of left guard Kris Dielman due to a concussion.
Rivers has committed 43 turnovers in his last 26 games, including 14 interceptions and four lost fumbles this year. He has been sacked 26 times in 10 games, including four times in last Sunday's 30-23 loss at Denver.
Turner admits he's worried about the quarterback's well-being.
"Yeah, I am. I mean, I think for the quarterback position, all you've got to do is look at two weeks ago and there's three or four guys that are laying on the ground with concussions or separated shoulders or whatever," Turner said. "It's a very demanding position. Some of the things we do from a game plan standpoint, the things we're calling, the way we're doing things, is to try to limit his exposure and still give ourselves a chance to win the game. ..."We're used to having success offensively, we're used to scoring a lot of points, we're used to moving the ball. That probably doesn't fit with where we're at right now. When we can, we take that aggressive nature, and there's sometimes we can't."
A win "can do a lot," Rivers said. "Will it? We'll have to see. We have to get it first. ... We have to win a game and things are going to look a heck of a lot better at 5-6 than it would at 4-7. So we have to do all we can to win one game."
On the other hand, the Ravens are coming in with confidence after beating the rival Steelers 13-10 at Pittsburgh. The Ravens are looking for their fourth straight victory and eighth in nine games. After facing the Chargers, they'll get the Steelers again, this time in Baltimore.
The Ravens have struggled on the road, but having Reed available for this game will help. The Ravens are still missing their big star, Ray Lewis, who is on the injured reserve-eligible to return list with a triceps injury.
Reed is "one of the heart and souls," coach John Harbaugh said. "You can always lose a player at any time, as you know. An injury can take a guy out and the next guy has to be ready. We've had our share of that this year, so we understand that.
"But Ed is a captain back there, he's a quarterback of the back end, he's a communicator, not to mention he's a ball hog. So he can turn up where the ball's being thrown at any time, really, in any part of the field. That's a big thing for us."
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