BALTIMORE — Their improbable journey has taken them from San Diego to Los Angeles to London to Kansas City to Baltimore . . . and now to New England, where the NFL nomads otherwise known as the Chargers will get the chance to vanquish the greatest NFL team of the century.
Uprooted from their decades-old home in San Diego before the 2017 season, the Chargers again showed their trademark resiliency in hostile territory amid difficult circumstances on Sunday and earned a trip to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. They beat the Ravens, 23-17, in a wild-card matchup and will face the Patriots — who have won five and played in eight of the last 17 Super Bowls — on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
“I think we’re a little more weathered, in a good way,” said 37-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers, the only quarterback from the vaunted 2004 draft (which also included Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger) in this year’s playoffs. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been all over the place. We’ve been to London [for a Week 7 game against the Titans], we’ve been everywhere on the road and we’ve won with defense, kick returns, field goals. There’s no other way we can win.”
They added another milestone against Baltimore, avenging a 22-10 home loss to the Ravens on Dec. 22 by executing a brilliantly conceived game plan.
They did just enough against the Ravens’ No. 1-ranked defense, with Rivers throwing for 160 yards and setting up four first-half field goals and Melvin Gordon’s fourth-quarter TD run.
But it was the Chargers’ defense that found a way to beat Baltimore’s run-centric offense and contain 21-year-old rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens had averaged 230 rushing yards and run for nine touchdowns in going 6-1 under Jackson after he took over from Joe Flacco following Baltimore’s bye week.
But the Chargers, who went 12-4 in the regular season, used an unconventional approach on Sunday, using seven defensive backs on 58 of 59 snaps. The Ravens were held to 90 rushing yards, including 54 by Jackson.
The Chargers built a 23-3 lead with 9:09 left in the fourth quarter on Michael Badgley’s fifth field goal before Jackson finally came alive in the passing game.
He hit Michael Crabtree with touchdown passes of 31 and 7 yards to get the Ravens to within 23-17 with 1:59 remaining, but on the Ravens’ final drive, Jackson was sacked for the seventh time and fumbled at the Baltimore 38 with 18 seconds left. The Chargers’ Melvin Ingram recovered the loose ball to seal the victory.
“Our defensive coaches, they game-planned it,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “They got these guys ready to go, and they had a lot of confidence in that group. They showed up and showed out.”
“Our coaches did a great job figuring out what they do, simplifying [the concepts behind the Ravens’] offense,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “If you’re watching it as a spectator, somebody who doesn’t know about the offense, it can look confusing. But we were able to figure out what they were doing and react to it.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who considered going back to Flacco, said the Ravens simply weren’t good enough.
“Playoff football is basically complementary football,” he said. “You have to put all three phases together to win it. We didn’t really do that like we needed to. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Jackson took the blame for the loss. “We just played like we didn’t want to be here,” he said, quickly clarifying that he was the one at fault and not his teammates. “I did, not my team. I feel like I played poorly.”
The Chargers will face the Patriots in the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 AFC Championship Game, when the Patriots beat them, 21-12, at Gillette Stadium. The Chargers also lost to the Patriots in San Diego, 24-21, in the 2006 divisional round.
“On some level, I’m a fan of those guys,” Rivers said of the Patriots. “I’ve got a lot of respect for New England. All we ask for is a chance.”
That chance will come Sunday, in another unlikely matchup for an unlikely team.