Before the opening kickoff Sunday night, the Ravens knew that the Tennessee Titans and New York Jets had both lost earlier in the day, meaning that for a franchise-record fourth consecutive year, the Ravens were going to the playoffs.
But that's never what this regular season has been about for these Ravens. Their goal has always been to win the AFC North and get home-field advantage for the playoffs. But thanks to an abysmal performance in which the Ravens allowed San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to go down the field with little resistance all night, that goal just got a lot harder to attain.
The humbling 34-14 loss at Snapdragon Stadium before an announced 67,242 conjured up all the old concerns, including the Ravens' inability to deal with a quarterback with a quick release and dangerous receivers, Joe Flacco's continued inconsistency and the team's struggles on the road.
The last one might have become the biggest concern, with the Ravens (10-4) now needing help to win the division and get a home playoff game. The Pittsburgh Steelers, whom the Ravens beat twice this season, could move into first place in the AFC North outright with a victory tonight over the San Francisco 49ers.
To me, that's not a factor at all," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It has absolutely no factor in the way we think. We don't have the energy, nor the time, nor the inclination to give that one second's worth of thought. All of our energy, all of our time and all of our effort has to go toward playing the Cleveland Browns on [Christmas Eve]. We'll have our hands full. It's a fierce division rival. They're going to come in there hungry and they're going to come in there looking for a victory and we better be ready to do something about it."
The Ravens are left to lick their wounds and question how they played so poorly with so much on the line. The Chargers, who have won three straight games and are now just one game back of the Denver Broncos in the AFC West, scored on their first three drives to take a 17-7 halftime lead and then put the game away with two touchdowns in the third quarter.
San Diego scored 27 unanswered points before Flacco hit rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith (Maryland) on a 36-yard touchdown pass with 1:55 remaining.
Rivers got what he wanted all night, connecting for a 28-yard touchdown pass with Malcom Floyd, who beat rookie Jimmy Smith in the right corner to give the Chargers a 24-7 lead. Smith — who started in place of a limited Lardarius Webb — and fellow cornerback Cary Williams were picked on all night by Rivers and his talented group of receivers.
Flacco followed Floyd's touchdown by throwing his first of two third-quarter interceptions — this one by linebacker Takeo Spikes — and a long return set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Ryan Mathews, his second of the night. That gave the Chargers a 31-7 lead and turned the game into a rout.
Rivers, who wasn't sacked once by the team that leads the league in that category, finished 17-for-23 for 270 yards and a touchdown. Floyd and Vincent Jackson combined for eight catches for 180 yards and a touchdown, and the Chargers' top two running backs — Mathews and Mike Tolbert — rushed for a combined 130 yards and three scores.
The Chargers' 34 points were seven more than the Ravens had given up in any other game this season. While the defense had no answers and never could get to Rivers, the Ravens' offense was soundly beaten up front. Flacco was sacked seven times, three by former Raven Antwan Barnes.
Flacco finished 23-for-34 for 226 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Nine of his completions were dump-offs to Ray Rice.
"It was an ugly one," Flacco said. "Things weren't going our way, and they were playing well and we weren't. You have to move on. We're really already in an all-win, situation and we'll continue to be in that. We just got to get back on the horse and go get one this week."
The Ravens had a chance to get out to an early lead, but their drive stalled in Chargers territory on a couple of misfires from Flacco, who couldn't connect with wide receiver Lee Evans. On first-and-10, Flacco tried to hit Evans on a back-shoulder fade, but the pass was almost picked off by Antoine Cason instead.
On the next play, Evans broke free toward the end zone, but Flacco's throw hung up, allowing free safety Eric Weddle to break on the ball and deflect it. Flacco completed a 9-yard dump-off to Rice on third-and-10, forcing what should have been a chip-shot field goal from Billy Cundiff. However, Cundiff, who missed practice all week while dealing with a sore left calf, pushed it wide right. It was Cundiff's third miss in five December attempts and it made him 27-for-36 on the season.
The Chargers then marched right down the field, needing 12 plays to cover 74 yards; the 7:04drive ended with Tolbert's 2-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal. It was the Chargers' second third-down conversion on the drive as Rivers hit tight end Randy McMichael on third-and-9 to get the ball to midfield.
Rivers was 5-for-6 on the drive for 55 yards, frequently going after Smith. The first-round pick saw his most extensive action to date with Webb dealing with a toe injury that mostly limited him to the nickel package.
The Ravens immediately answered the Chargers' long scoring drive by relying heavily on the run. They marched into San Diego territory thanks to four runs by Rice totaling 16 yards, a 7-yard run by Ricky Williams, an 11-yard catch by Dennis Pitta and then a 12-yard scramble by Flacco on third-and-10.
Two more runs by Rice got the Ravens to the 15, where Flacco hit Ed Dickson for a touchdown on third-and-8. Dickson got good position on strong safety Steve Gregory and then snatched the ball out of the air for the touchdown.
But the rest of the half was all San Diego as Rivers, who was barely touched in the first half, got whatever he wanted. He hit big tight end Antonio Gates for gains of 11 and 20 yards on San Diego's next drive, setting up a 45-yard field goal by former Maryland kicker Nick Novak, who put the Chargers up 10-7.
The Ravens managed one first down on their next drive, but had to punt. The Chargers started on their own 20 and needed seven plays to cover 80 yards. On third-and-8, Rivers and Vincent Jackson got Williams and safety Ed Reed to bite on a double move. Jackson caught it for 58 yards before he was pushed out of bounds by Williams at the Ravens' 20.
From there, Rivers hit Floyd, who also got in front of Williams, for 19 yardsto the 10-yard line. On second-and-goal, Mathews took a pitch from Rivers and beat linebacker Jarret Johnson to the edge to give San Diego a 17-7 lead.
The Chargers had just three drives in the first half and scored on all of them. Rivers, continuing his late-season turnaround, hit on 11 of 15 passes and was 3-for-4 on third down. He also wasn't sacked all night as the Chargers' patchwork offensive line had its way with the Ravens' defense.
"We got beat. It's that sinmple," Rice said. "They played a great game. They executed at a high level. In the NFL, you have to come out ready to play. That team came out ready to play. They played a complete football game."