Opinion: Ravens teach Chargers a lesson on what makes a bona fide NFL contender

·4 min read

BALTIMORE -- When the dust settled from Sunday’s matchup between the Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens -- two of the hottest teams during this early stretch of the NFL season -- the result looked nothing like the anticipated outcome.

Instead of a shootout between divisional leaders paced by electrifying quarterbacks, the game ended with Baltimore winning 34-6 after thoroughly dominating LA in every phase of the game.

It had the feeling of a truth-teller moment.

The Ravens -- a team with Super Bowl aspirations as one of the top teams in the AFC the last three years -- turned in their most complete performance of the season. Winners of five straight, they appear to be getting stronger after rebounding from a challenging training camp and preseason and rocky first week of the regular season.

Ravens outside linebacker Justin Houston reacts after sacking Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in the second half.
Ravens outside linebacker Justin Houston reacts after sacking Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in the second half.

The Chargers, looking to build on potential displayed last season and led by a first-year head coach and second-year quarterback, looked like just that after a five-game stretch that featured impressive and unexpected victories and a surprise first-place standing in the AFC West.

Sunday, the Chargers found themselves overmatched at virtually every turn, and left M&T Bank Stadium with a list of teaching points for players and coaches alike to mull over entering their bye week.

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that the final score probably surprised some around the league.

“Yeah, probably,” he chuckled when asked by a reporter. “It’s OK with me. We like raising eyebrows, in a good way. So we’re happy about that.”

But Harbaugh disagreed with the notion that drubbing a potential playoff team like the Chargers carries any lasting implications. This wasn’t a statement win in his mind.

“I don’t think it says anything long-term, but it says that we had a really good day today. We played the way we needed to play,” Harbaugh said, explaining they properly executed their game plan -- setting a physical tone offensively and forcing the Chargers into third-and-long and fourth-and-long situations consistently while also tackling well.

But the performance carried additional significance because the Ravens could have been susceptible to a letdown after an emotional, come-from-behind victory over Indianapolis on Monday night. They had a short turnaround to heal and prepare for a Chargers team that had won three straight and lit up a talented Browns defense for 47 points a week ago.

Instead, the Ravens displayed the maturity and focus of a team among the upper echelon of AFC contenders. They showed versatility and balance on offense (three players rushed for at least 45 yards, and three running backs had rushing touchdowns, while Lamar Jackson also had a passing touchdown.) They showed discipline and aggression on defense (denying the Chargers on 9-of-12 third-down conversion attempts and three fourth-down conversion attempts for a loss of downs), as well as production on special teams (setting their offense up with favorable field position throughout the game).

The Ravens displayed all of the elements required to make a deep playoff run. Chargers coach Brandon Staley recognized as much.

“What today was about for me was we weren’t good enough in all three phases,” he said. “... That is a perennial division champion, a team that has been to the playoffs 13 out of the 14 years John has been the coach, a team that has won a Super Bowl. This is a championship-caliber team. They have an MVP quarterback. That’s what it is; we lost to a really good team on their field. They outplayed us and outcoached us today.”

The coach was right. The Chargers' offense never found a rhythm, and coaches never found a way to help QB Justin Herbert settle into a comfort zone. The defense got gashed in the run game and was picked apart by Jackson in the passing game. And Staley’s gambles on fourth down proved costly in the field-position battle.

Teams can flash, or even make quick turnarounds here and there. But traditionally, true success in pro football requires a process. And the Ravens gave the Chargers lessons -- or even a measuring stick -- on how far they have to go from intriguing team of promise to approach the level of bona fide contender.

The Chargers remain in the learning process.

“I think the experience we gained for all of our players the first six games have been meaningful, because we played six really good teams. … I felt like we made it through with our heads held high,” Staley said.

“Today did not go well, and it happens in the NFL... the team beat us today, and we’re going to get on that plane and learn from it.”

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter at @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ravens show Chargers what a bona fide NFL contender looks like

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