For some reason the Baltimore Ravens have brought their A game to nearly every conference showdown under head coach John Harbaugh.
The AFC North-leading Ravens have won nine of 10 and 13 of their last 15 games against AFC foes and are 40-16 in conference play under Harbaugh. Baltimore will play the fifth of six straight AFC contests Sunday against a desperate San Diego Chargers team on the West Coast.
Since the Harbaugh era began in 2008, the Ravens have been lights out in the months of November and December, going 30-10 overall. Harbaugh has amassed at least nine wins in each of his first four seasons at the helm and will be looking to make it five straight under the San Diego sun. The Ravens are 8-2 and off to the best start since a 9-2 ledger in 2006.
"The feeling right now is we're exactly where we want to be but we haven't arrived yet," tight end Ed Dickson said after Baltimore's third straight win Sunday against Pittsburgh. "We have a lot of stuff we can get better at, a lot of stuff to work on. We want to build from here. It's not how you begin the season; it's how you end the season that brings you a championship."
After a hard-fought 13-10 victory against the Steelers, Harbaugh said the team can "get so much better." In a game that featured very little offense, the Ravens amassed 200 yards and their only touchdown of the game was a 63-yard punt return for a score. That's what usually happens in division games; both sides play tough for the entire 60 minutes.
Baltimore's defense is not what it used to be, but sacked Steelers backup quarterback Byron Leftwich three times and cornerback Corey Graham had the lone interception. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has been picked off an NFL-high 14 times this season and seven times in the past three games. That should raise eyebrows in Baltimore's secondary, including safety Ed Reed.
Reed, known for his ball-hawking ability and big plays in the defensive backfield, wasn't originally going to suit up Sunday due to a one-game suspension levied for too many hits on defenseless receivers. However, Reed won his appeal and will only be assessed a $50,000 fine. That's chump change for Reed, who makes $423,529 a game check and is second on the team with three INTs -- one shy of cornerback's Cary Williams' team lead.
"I'm grateful to continue playing this game with my teammates," Reed said Tuesday at his charity event. "The rules of the game have changed. Over my career I've never been that guy, and I don't plan on being that guy."
The Ravens' defense has been getting major contributions from some unlikely players lately. Graham had the big pick on Leftwich and tipped a pair of passes against a Steelers team with a handful of speedy receivers. Cornerback Chris Johnson, recently signed to the team, forced a fumble Sunday night and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has taken over for injured future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Ellerbe currently leads the team with 75 tackles.
Linebacker Paul Kruger had a sack and leads the Ravens with 4 1/2. Players needed to pick it up with Lewis out and fellow stars Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata dealing with their own nicked-up bodies. Despite the winning streak and an 8-2 record, the Ravens have slouched on defense. They are 23rd against the pass (250.1 ypg), 25th in yards allowed (382.3 ypg) and 27th in run defense (132.2 ypg). Baltimore is ninth in points allowed (20.6 ppg), too.
After visiting the Chargers, Baltimore will renew its heated rivalry with the Steelers at home on Dec. 2.
San Diego dropped a 30-23 decision Sunday at Denver, its fourth straight loss on the road, and is just 1-5 since a hopeful 3-1 start.
The Chargers have been one of the more criticized teams in recent years for their inability to thrive in winnable games. And the loss to the AFC West- rival Broncos was proof. San Diego jumped out to a 7-0 lead on a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown by safety Eric Weddle, but Peyton Manning led the hosts to a 17-point burst in the second quarter.
The loss dropped the Chargers to a disappointing 4-6.
"You just have to go and look at yourself as a football team," Chargers head coach Norv Turner said. "I know who we are and where we're at. We have to find a way to go and play a complete game. We've got to find a way to play our best against Baltimore. We started 3-1 and over a period of time we've won one game over the last six games. So at some point, you are what your record is. We're going to do everything that we can to fix the things that have kept us from winning and go find a way to go and beat Baltimore."
With an offense that is struggling, Turner's team will find it tough sledding against Baltimore's historically-dominant defense. The offensive line has seen better days, and so has Rivers, who was sacked four times against Denver and has been taken down at least once in every game, including 12 times over the previous five games. Rivers doesn't have RG3 speed and needs time for a play to develop. When defenders are in his face, Rivers (26,747 career yards) and the offense suffer. He is 193 yards shy of passing John Hadl (26,938 yards) for second-most yards in team lore. Dan Fouts is first with 43,040 yards.
Speaking of suffering, Chargers running back Ryan Mathews has yet to rush for more than 95 yards in a game this season. He is averaging 56 yards rushing the past three weeks for a San Diego offense rated 22nd in rushing yards (100.3). Mathews has one touchdown on the season and hasn't found paydirt since Week 5.
Mathews, though, ran for 90 yards and two touchdowns against Baltimore last season in a 34-14 rout on Dec. 18. San Diego and Baltimore have split eight meetings, but the Chargers have won two of the past three. Sunday's game will be the fourth straight held on the West Coast, where the Chargers are 4-2 in this series.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ravens Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice hasn't been his usual dominant self running the football lately. Always a threat to make something happen with his hands out of the backfield, Rice has just two 100-yard rushing efforts this season and is posting 55.6 ypg the past five weeks.
But it's not about the numbers for Rice, only wins.
"We don't play for stats here. We're playing to win games," said Rice, who is tied among NFL running backs with 40 catches. "The world gets caught up in fantasy stats. For us, the fantasy stat is 8-2."
The Ravens hope they can get Rice going early against a Chargers defense that is third against the rush (87.9 ypg), but 19th in pass defense (236.0 ypg). Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will try to exploit San Diego's secondary and is seven TD passes shy of 100 in his career. He also is closing in on 3,000 passing yards (2,495) for the fourth-straight year.
Flacco didn't have a touchdown pass or an interception against the Steelers, and is 16-5 in the month of November. When he reaches a 100 rating, which he has four times this season, the Ravens have won 16 in a row. Flacco has been connecting nicely with Torrey Smith, who leads the team with seven touchdown catches and averages 17.3 yards per reception with 32 for 555 yards.
San Diego needs a win badly on Sunday and sits second in the AFC West, three games behind the Broncos. Time may be running short on Turner's tenure and the acclaimed offensive genius is stuck in a rut.
Rated 17th in passing yards (228.5 ypg) and 23rd in total yards (328.8 ypg), the Chargers have to move the ball smoothly Sunday. They had just 53 rushing yards against Denver and 277 total. The Broncos ran for 133 yards (386 total), while Chargers rookie defensive end Kendall Reyes posted two of the team's three sacks. Reyes is only scratching the surface and needs to maintain that edge against Flacco, who has been sacked just three times in as many weeks.
"(I'm) just trying to do my job," Reyes said. "(I'm) learning a lot. I was kind of in the right spot at the right time type of deal. (I'm) just trying to get better. I'm like a sponge right now, just trying to take everything in and really just try to grow as a player and learn from all of these great guys we got on the D-line."
Wide receiver Danario Alexander has been playing well recently for San Diego, posting 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games. Alexander, who had a career-best 134 yards against Tampa Bay two weeks ago, posted a personal-best two TD catches last week.
The Ravens are up to their usually dominant ways this time of season and have won eight of their previous nine games in November. Playing against a Chargers team barely clinging to life in the AFC playoff picture will result in another fall victory for Harbaugh and Company. While the leaves plummet to the ground and Baltimore raises its stakes for conference supremacy, Sunday's game shouldn't even be close. Rivers seems to throw balls into the arms of opposing players, Mathews has been a major disappointment and the only plus side to Turner's team is the defense. You have to score points in this league to win games and the Ravens will prevent San Diego from doing so.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Chargers 10