Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
You don’t often win pretty in Baltimore, especially in January.
Sunday, the Los Angeles Chargers won their first playoff game in five years. It came in Baltimore, and it was indeed ugly—which might be just what the Bolts needed.
Critically, their franchise quarterback didn’t carry them. Not even remotely.
The Chargers instead were carried by their defense. Before a late Baltimore surge against a unit in prevent mode, Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa, Adrian Phillips, Derwin James, Michael Davis, Desmond King II, Casey Hayward Jr., Darius Philon and Justin Jones came together for a dominant performance against one of the league’s most unconventional offenses.
Gail Burton/Associated Press
At one point in the fourth quarter, the Ravens had minus-two passing yards, fewer than 80 total yards and three total points.
It helped Los Angeles that rookie Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson often looked like a deer in playoff headlights and that Baltimore was plagued by turnovers, penalties and even a missed field goal from the quasi-automatic Justin Tucker. But the Chargers passed an important litmus test Sunday, simply because they weren’t the deer.
They were road underdogs against a Ravens team that has more home wins during head coach John Harbaugh’s 11-year tenure than any NFL franchise except the New England Patriots—a Ravens team that was 5-0 in Wild Card Games during that stretch. Rivers wasn’t a superhero, and the Chargers were frequently stymied by the league’s top-rated defense—the same unit that held them to just 10 points in a home loss a mere two weeks ago.
But they overcame all of that, and they overcame several stereotypical Chargers moments—including a blocked field goal and a blocked punt in the third quarter—to win in one of the toughest road environments in the NFL.
That could be an indication this team is more special than Chargers playoff squads from the past.
This team might not have a LaDainian Tomlinson-type player, but the Bolts teams that won five AFC West titles in a six-year span last decade often didn’t feel as though they had the mental fortitude that exists with this year’s group. Even though they cut it close with a sloppy second half Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the Chargers might be more trustworthy.
Maybe it’s because Rivers is older and coming off arguably the best season of his career, maybe it’s because they’ve started fresh in a new environment with a promising new head coach, and maybe it’s because this team is deeper.
It’s probably all of the above.
Those Chargers teams from the aughts put all of their eggs in baskets belonging to Rivers (or Drew Brees before him), Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, Shawne Merriman, maybe Antonio Cromartie and/or Jamal Williams. Kris Dielman and Marcus McNeill were top-notch offensive linemen for short stints, too. And that was about it.
If those guys didn’t come through—and the reality is they often did not—San Diego was toast.
Rivers didn’t exactly come through on Sunday, nor did running backs Melvin Gordon III and Austin Ekeler (69 yards on 28 carries) or a receiving corps that failed to stand out. But Rivers was rarely pressured and took just one sack behind an offensive line that did come through, and he received tremendous support from a deep defense that was nearly perfect until the game was basically out of reach in the fourth quarter.
That D got seven sacks from six different players, forced four fumbles (they recovered two) and added an interception. They also limited the damage caused by Jackson on the ground for the second time in three weeks.
Melvin Ingram had 7 solo tackles, 2 sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery today.
Since 1999, the first year we have all those individual defensive stats, no player has put up numbers like that in a playoff game https://t.co/qv7q8BCwn6 https://t.co/LaVpnqY6EJ
The league’s top rusher at the quarterback position has been held to fewer than 65 rushing yards just twice in eight career starts, and both of those outings took place against the Bolts. That ability could come in handy against a team like the Kansas City Chiefs (with mobile quarterback Patrick Mahomes) later in the playoffs.
First, of course, the Chargers will have to climb Mt. Patriot next week in Foxborough. And while that’ll be a whole new challenge, this team really does look and feel different from the Bolts squads that lost to New England in 2006 and 2007 playoffs.
A still-developing version of this Chargers team went toe to toe with the mighty Pats at Gillette Stadium last season, falling by a single score in a game that came down to the final play.
This year, they’re 9-0 in games played outside of Los Angeles—a run that includes wins in Kansas City, Seattle and Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Pats look vulnerable following a 4-3 stretch to wrap up the regular season.
Dan Hanzus @DanHanzus
A grinding, battle-tested, road warrior Chargers team going up to Foxborough next week. Finally, a real divisional challenge for Belichick Corp.
To keep this ball rolling, the Chargers might have to play better against New England than they did against Baltimore. But Rivers, Gordon and the rest of that offense should be able to bounce back against a more forgiving defense, and Sunday’s defensive performance wasn’t just about Jackson’s issues. The L.A. defense has surrendered just 16.0 points per game the last three weeks (with eight takeaways in that span) and an AFC-low 16.9 points per game since the start of October.
Sunday’s performance in Baltimore wasn’t a masterpiece, but ugly wins often reveal a lot about a team. This wasn’t pretty, but it reminded the Chargers that they’re more than just Rivers or Gordon or Bosa. They’re a deep, resilient team, and they deserve to be in the Super Bowl conversation as part of the NFL’s elite eight.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.