For the second time in three weeks, albeit with much bigger stakes, the Los Angeles Chargers take on the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC wild-card round Sunday.
The Chargers (12-4) were relegated to wild-card status after Kansas City defeated Oakland on Sunday to win the AFC West title and overall No. 1 seed in the conference by virtue of a better divisional record. It dropped the Chargers, who won at Denver in their season finale, to the No. 5 seed and the start of a postseason that would almost certainly require three road wins to reach Super Bowl LIII.
Baltimore (10-6) is back in the playoffs after a three-year absence, winning its first AFC North title since 2012 en route to winning Super Bowl XLVII. The Ravens punched their postseason ticket Sunday, edging Cleveland 26-24 and knocking archrival Pittsburgh out of the playoff race.
Baltimore recorded a 22-10 win at Los Angeles in Week 16, with the loss knocking the Chargers out of the inside track to claim the AFC West. The Ravens had two big scoring plays — a 68-yard pass from rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson to Mark Andrews and a 62-yard fumble return by Tavon Young. The first gave Baltimore the lead for good early in the third quarter and the second sealed the victory with 2:40 to play.
That loss for the Chargers marked the return of running back Melvin Gordon III from a knee injury that sidelined him three games, and his availability for this game is uncertain after suffering what appeared to be a sprained right ankle late in the win over Denver.
The Ravens opened as 2.5-point favorites for this game, and that has held in the opening stages of betting. The same cannot be said for the over/under, which has ticked down one-half point to 41.5 since being established at 42.
UPDATE — Saturday, Jan. 5 @ 8:30 pm CST
The betting line for this game held steady with the Ravens as 2.5-point favorites for nearly the entire week before late movement overnight Thursday into Friday nudged it to three points. It went back down to 2.5 points during the day Friday only to track back to the Ravens -3, where it has stayed since mid-afternoon Friday.
The over/under has moved only in a half-point window the entire time, moving from its open of 42 down to 41.5 on Monday before making another run to 42 on Friday afternoon. Bettors, though, pushed it back down to 41.5 early Saturday morning and it has remained there throughout the day.
The Chargers had two notable decisions on their injury list, ruling both tight end Hunter Henry and linebacker Jatavis Brown as out. Brown was expected to be sidelined with an ankle injury suffered in Week 17.
There was thought Henry, who had 45 receptions for 579 yards last season but was put on the PUP list after tearing his ACL, could play after practicing this week, but the team ultimately ruled against it. Los Angeles also listed defensive tackle Brandon Mebane as doubtful and running back Austin Ekeler as questionable, but the latter is expected to play.
The Ravens listed only Chris Moore, Tavon Young and Alex Lewis as questionable, but all three are expected to be available as everyone on their 53-man roster practiced at least once during the week.
A Quick Review of the Season to Date
Los Angeles Chargers Review
Despite not winning the division, the Chargers did enjoy their best season since going 13-3 in 2009. They stumbled out of the blocks, opening 1-2 with losses to the Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams around a rout of the Buffalo Bills.
After that 35-23 setback to the Rams, the Chargers reeled off six straight wins, highlighted by denying Tennessee a game-winning 2-point conversion in the final minute of a 20-19 victory at Wembley Stadium and following up that triumph with a 25-17 win at Seattle.
Los Angeles suffered a surprising 23-22 loss at home to Denver in Week 11, raising some doubts about its staying power, but Philip Rivers led the Chargers to wins at Pittsburgh and Kansas City, getting a 29-28 win at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 15 by completing a two-point conversion pass to Mike Williams with four seconds left after the two had hooked up on a touchdown pass to put them in position for the victory.
The 37-year-old Rivers enjoyed one of his best seasons, throwing for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns. He finished two scoring tosses off his career high set in 2008 and will be making his sixth postseason appearance. In nine playoff games, Rivers has a 4-5 record with 11 TD passes and nine interceptions.
He is 2-3 on the road in the postseason and has never faced the Ravens in the playoffs.
Baltimore Ravens Review
Balitmore (10-6) closed the season with a flourish, winning six of its final seven games as Jackson replaced Joe Flacco at quarterback starting in Week 11 against Cincinnati and never looked back.
The first-round pick from Louisville has only topped 200 passing yards once — in the win over the Chargers — but also has been a quick study. Jackson has not thrown an interception in the last five games, a span of 114 attempts, and has thrown for 1,114 yards and five TDs with three interceptions in his seven starts.
But it has been running the ball where Jackson has been electric. He has rushed for 67 or more yards in six of those seven games and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Jackson has been tackled for a loss just six times in 119 carries in that stretch and also has 16 runs of 10 or more yards.
While Jackson has helped Baltimore be efficient offensively, the defense shook off a mid-season swoon that saw it allow 83 points to New Orleans, Carolina and Pittsburgh during a three-game losing streak that left the Ravens 4-5 after their 23-16 home loss to the Steelers in Week 9.
Baltimore held five teams to 21 or fewer points in its final seven games, losing only in overtime at Kansas City, and had a sinister run defense that limited opponents to an average of 61.3 rushing yards in that stretch. The Chargers were one of four teams the Ravens held below 200 total yards, and they allowed more than 400 on only three occasions.
Linebackers Ze’Darius Smith, Matt Judon and veteran Terrell Suggs anchor the defense, combining for 22.5 of Baltimore’s 43 sacks. The Ravens had only 17 takeaways all season, but 10 of them came in the final six contests.