Five thoughts on the Ravens' 22-10 win over the Los Angeles Chargers Saturday night at ROKIT Field at StubHub Center:
It was a scene we'd seen before in recent years. A December win the Ravens needed was on the verge of slipping away, with the defense on the field, desperate to make a stop. The Chargers had the ball, down six points but in Baltimore territory, driving. It no longer mattered that the Ravens had dominated, that they deserved to win. What's the lament we've heard after those games slip away? The other guys made a play. The other guys figured out a way to win. But this time was different. The Ravens' Patrick Onwuasor drew his arm back and punched the ball loose from a receiver. Forever more, we'll call it The Punch. Tavon Young picked up the ball and ran 62 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly, the game was over, a magical win in the books with the potential to change everything for the Ravens in 2018, vault them into January with momentum. They deserved it after coming to Los Angeles and shutting down what had been the AFC's hottest team. There was no doubt which team was better on this night. "We can play with anyone. Everyone sees that now," rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson said. Yup, but they still needed to make a play at the end. And. They. Made. It.
Jackson and the Ravens' new-look, ball-control offense have understandably dominated the headlines during the team's late-season surge. And the offense certainly played a role in this crucial victory. But no doubt, it was the defense that led the way. In what has already been a fine season for Defensive Coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale's unit, this was the finest hour. The Chargers' high-flying offense came in averaging 282 passing yards per game, but on this night, their receivers couldn't get open, quarterback Philip Rivers was constantly under pressure and Los Angeles managed just 147 passing yards. It all started with the secondary, which basically threw a blanket over Rivers' receivers. But the entire unit flew around, hit hard, refused to budge. Onwuasor registered two sacks as well as his game-changing punch. Tony Jefferson was dominant, physical to the point of bristling. The pass rush was relentless. It's hard to make Rivers, 37, look his age, but the defense did.
As advertised, the Chargers' defense was the toughest the Ravens had faced since they turned to Jackson and their new style. The Ravens controlled the ball in the first half, running up a 2-1 edge in possession time, but the Chargers repeatedly stiffened in the red zone, forcing the Ravens to settle for field goals. That kept the score close. The Chargers' defenders had enough speed to control Jackson and keep him from making plays with his legs, and after halftime, Los Angeles pretty effectively limited the rest of the Baltimore running game. How did Jackson respond? He made plays with his arm, none bigger than a 68-yard touchdown toss to tight end Mark Andrews that gave the Ravens the lead for good early in the third quarter. That play came shortly after the Chargers had taken the lead, seemingly gaining momentum for the first time. They never got it back. Jackson completed just 12 passes, but he surpassed 200 yards in the air for the first time as a pro and earned a stellar 101.3 passer rating. Every week, it seems, he makes something happen if and when the Ravens fall behind, a clear sign that he isn't the least bit daunted by his NFL surroundings.
As Young crossed the goal line at the end of his decisive return, the sound you heard were so many heavy sighs emanating from the teams the Ravens are vying with for spots in the AFC playoffs. No doubt, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts were counting on the Ravens losing. Their victory significantly ups the pressure on those other teams, especially the Steelers, who now really need to beat the Saints in New Orleans Sunday, a tough task. If the Steelers fall, the Ravens will move into first place in the AFC North and would win the division title if they beat the Cleveland Browns in their regular season finale next Sunday. And even if the Steelers win Sunday, the Ravens will still almost surely advance to the playoffs as long as they beat the Browns. I wrote before this game that a wild swing of possible scenarios was at stake Saturday night, and this win, no doubt, produces the best-case scenario. But as positive as the result was, the players were already talking after the game about how it will mean nothing unless they win next week. That's a good sign.
Short takes – I can't remember a game when Justin Tucker missed two field goal attempts. But let's tell the whole story. His plant foot slipped on a 53-yarder that sailed wide (the field wasn't the best, it seemed) and he came up just short, impressively so, on a 65-yard attempt just before halftime. Most importantly, he still put three attempts through the uprights … That was quite a vote of confidence from the coaches when they put Kenneth Dixon right back on the field after he lost a fumble, which led to the Chargers' only touchdown … Onwuasor and Young weren't the only defensive players who made huge plays to protect the lead down the stretch. Za'Darius Smith halted another dangerous-looking Los Angeles drive with a sack of Rivers. "We just played Ravens football. So many guys stepped up and made plays," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. … The Ravens finished the season with a .500 road record (4-4).