1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Ravens -2.5, Over/Under: 51
Two of the hottest teams in the AFC collide in Charm City as the surging Los Angeles Chargers travel across the country to face the white-hot Baltimore Ravens in a battle between division leaders from M&T Bank Stadium. Five weeks into the 2021 campaign and the Chargers (4-1, 1st in AFC West) are the surprise leaders in a very competitive division, having knocked off the two-time reigning conference champions, Kansas City Chiefs, in an eye-opening 30-24 upset at Arrowhead Stadium, followed immediately by a convincing 28-14 thumping of the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football. Indeed, after the previous regime put together their fourth losing season in six years it appears that (Owner) Dean Spanos and (General Manager) Tom Telesco hit the proverbial jackpot in hiring (Head Coach) Brandon Staley, who has completely transformed a team that despite possessing enough talent to compete with the best in the league routinely came up well short of expectations due to injuries and a lack of consistency. Make no mistake, this changing of the guard was arguably the most important transition for the franchise in decades, and clearly the most significant since moving to Los Angeles, for the simple fact that it was imperative that Spanos and Telesco find the right guy to lead the team during the formative years of (Sophomore Quarterback) Justin Herbert’s (67.1%, 1,576 YDS, 7.01 NY/A, 13 TD, 3 INT, 66.1 QBR) career. It became clear early on during his rookie campaign that Herbert was something special, oftentimes making plays in spite of a coaching staff and scheme that rarely played to his strengths. If you weren’t fortunate enough to have some guy named Tom Brady under center, then the blueprint for super bowl success has been drafting a special young Quarterback and building a strong supporting cast while he’s still under an affordable rookie deal, and that certainly seems to be book that these Bolts are reading. And that’s why the hiring of Staley has been such a hit; the 38-year old has the respect of his peers for his intelligent, analytical approach, coupled with communicative skills that belies his youth and an energy that has thus far proven to be a perfect match for a city like Los Angeles. A disciple of (Broncos Head Coach) Vic Fangio, he showed what he could do with talent at his disposal last season, steering the Los Angeles Rams to the No. One Defense in the league despite having a limited offseason to install his scheme and evaluate the roster. Staley has done it again with LA’s other team, taking another talented corps and shaping them into an opportunistic unit that has thrived on big plays, forcing seven turnovers (9th Overall). With that said, the strength of this team is clearly the Offense, with Herbert thriving under the direction of (new Offensive Coordinator) Joe Lombardi. Needless to say, this was a coup on Staley’s behalf; Lombardi had spent twelve of the past fourteen years coaching Quarterbacks on Sean Payton’s staff in New Orleans, who has long been one of the most potent offensive teams in the National Football League. When watching the Chargers operate in possession, you can see many of the hallmarks that have made the Saints so effective over the past fifteen years, as they’ve averaged 28.4 points per game (6th Overall) on 423.6 total yards (7th Overall), including 315.2 yards through the air (3rd Overall) on 7.0 net yards per attempt (14th Overall), while moving the chains with regularity on third down via a healthy 48.5% conversion rate (5th Overall). Through five games, Herbert has shown growth across the board, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including completion percentage (67.1%), yards per game (315.2), net yards per attempt (7.01), and touchdown percentage (6.3%), all the while leading the NFL in both fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives with three apiece. Furthermore, he has posted eleven 300-yard passing games thus far, the most of any player during the first twenty games of his career. He’s also developed an outstanding rapport with (veteran Receiver) Mike Williams (31 REC, 471 YDS, 15.2 Y/R, 6 TD), who is off the the hottest start of his career with thirty-one receptions for 471 yards and an NFL-best six touchdowns, with this tandem on full display during last weekend’s insane 47-42 shootout against the Cleveland Browns. The two combatants combined for a staggering EIGHTY-NINE points, 1,024 total yards (including 703 passing and 342 rushing), and TWELVE touchdowns. Despite Cleveland dominating time of possession (36:28) by rushing for a season-high 230 yards on thirty-five carries, Los Angeles FEASTED on big plays, producing seven plays of eighteen yards or more, including huge passing touchdowns to Williams consisting of seventy-two and forty-two yards. And this is how you know that this Offense has the goods to be elite; when the Bolts needed to milk the clock they did so with three scoring drives of ten or more plays traveling at least seventy-five yards, and when they needed to strike quickly they did that too with touchdown drives of sixty-one, seventy-five, and eighty-two yards on six plays or less. Herbert completed 26-of-43 passes for 398 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing for another twenty-nine yards and a score, with (versatile Tailback) Austin Ekeler (90 TCH, 543 YDS, 6.0 Y/T, 7 TD) totaling 119 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, as Williams reeled in eight receptions for a career-high 165 yards and a pair of scores on sixteen targets. With that victory Staley became the thirty-first Head Coach in NFL history to begin his career 4-1, and the first to do so with the Chargers since Marty Schottenheimer did it back in 2002. On the injury front, coming into today’s meeting with the Ravens Williams is questionable after missing practice all week with swelling in his knee, while (Linebacker) Drue Tranquill (28 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 QBH, 0.5 SK) will miss the affair after sustaining a strained pectoral muscle against Cleveland, along with (Right Guard) Oday Oboushi, who will miss the rest of the campaign with a torn ACL, which is another blow to an Offensive Line that is already without (veteran Right Tackle) Bryan Bulaga also on Injured Reserve.
Meanwhile, after losing their Season Opener in a wild overtime affair in Sin City, the Ravens (4-1, 1st in AFC North) are on a tear winning each of their last four contests as they climb the ladder to the summit of the perilous AFC North. If there is one thing we can say say about Baltimore through these five weeks, it’s that they certainly aren’t for the faint of heart; all but one of their games has been decided by one possession, with two of them needing overtime to decide a victor as (Head Coach) John Harbaugh’s charges continue to exhibit their resilience in coming back after trailing late in three of their four victories. At home against the Chiefs, who have had their number in recent meetings, the hosts stormed back after trailing by eleven points in the fourth quarter to steal a 36-35 win. The following week they hit the road in Detroit, where they suddenly found themselves trailing by one point with just 1:04 left in the game only to quickly drive downfield and win the day via a historic 66-yard field goal by (All-Pro Kicker) Justin Tucker, the longest in NFL history. And then just last Monday they rallied from a nineteen-point deficit late in the period at home to Indianapolis, engineering two late scoring drives accompanied by a pair of successful two-point conversions, survived a boneheaded penalty before a missed potential walk-off field goal sent the affair into overtime where (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Lamar Jackson (67.1%, 1,519 YDS, 8.11 NY/A, 8 TD, 3 INT, 61.5 QBR) nailed (young Receiver) Marquise Brown (28 REC, 451 YDS, 16.1 Y/R, 5 TD) for the game-winning five-yard touchdown. Simply put, this group never gives up, with this thrilling 31-25 victory over the Colts serving as a microcosm of their season to this point. After a slow start in which they punted on their first four drives, the Ravens went into halftime finally getting on the board via a 23-yard Tucker field goal. However, after relinquishing a touchdown on Indy’s first possession following intermission, the home side drove all the way down to the visitor’s one-yard line, where Jackson unfortunately lost a fumble. The Colts would extend their advantage to 22-3 before Jackson absolutely exploded; the 2019 MVP manufactured four consecutive touchdown drives of sixty-eight or more yards the rest of the way, hitting the aforementioned Brown for a 43-yard bomb on the series immediately after the fumble, before finding (Pro-Bowl Tight End) Mark Andrews (29 REC, 400 YDS, 13.8 Y/R, 2 TD) four times in the end zone, two of which were two-point conversions. In the end, the most notable thing about this performance for the 24-year old was that he engineered this rally largely on the strength of his arm, completing a career-high 37-of-43 passes for 442 yards and four touchdowns, with his completion percentage (86.05%) serving as the highest figure of any player passing for 400 or more yards. He also became the first Quarterback in NFL history to post both 400 passing yards and 50 rushing yards in the same contest, which is just another pelt on his wall at this point. Harbaugh and (Offensive Coordinator) Greg Roman have been trying to further the vertical passing game for quite a while now, and it’s finally bearing fruit this season despite a Receiving Corps that has yet to be at full strength; (veteran Wideout) Sammy Watkins (18 REC, 292 YDS, 16.2 Y/R, 0 TD) left Monday’s thriller with a strained hamstring, while Baltimore’s 2021 First Round Pick, Rashod Bateman (27th Overall) has yet to see the field thus far with lingering groin issues. Finally, it was ironic that on a day in which the franchise stood to make NFL history with what would have been their forty-fourth consecutive game rushing for at least 100 yards, that it would be Jackson and the passing game that triumphed in the end, against Indianapolis no less, a franchise whom the city harbors a certain kind of hate for. And if this aerial assault continues then the rest of the league may want to duck for cover; the Ravens have been very run-heavy since Jackson took over midway through the 2018 campaign, ranking first in rushing attempts, yards, touchdowns, and yards per carry in each of the last two seasons, though that has been at the expense of the passing game, which has checked in at twenty-seventh (209.4) and thirty-second (182.4) overall in 2019 and 2020. Through five games they’ve increased exponentially in this regard, averaging 303.8 yards through the air (6th Overall) on a very healthy 8.1 net yards per attempt (3rd Overall), which mark the highest such figures since the franchise made it’s debut back in 1996. Furthermore, Jackson is seeing the field much better and using his legs to set up passing plays rather than looking for the home run on the ground, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including completion percentage (67.1%), yards per game (303.8), and net yards per attempt (8.11), all the while leading the league in yards per completion (13.6), and sharing that distinction with the aforementioned Herbert in fourth quarter comebacks (3) and game-winning drives (3). However, in this particular matchup with the Chargers, you can bet that they’ll be looking to pound the rock, for Los Angeles currently fields the worst run defense in the league at 157.6 yards per game on a very generous 5.6 yards per carry. As we touched upon earlier, they were just gashed for 230 yards by the Browns, and have been hit up for at least 186 yards on two other occasions. The Ravens are 4-3 under Harbaugh against the Chargers (including the Playoffs), with their last meeting ironically occurring in the postseason, a 17-23 loss at M&T Bank Stadium during the 2018 Wild Card in what was Jackson’s first playoff start; the explosive signal-caller was just 14-of-29 passing for 194 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, fumbling three times and losing one to boot.