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Chargers must play 'possessed' to beat the Ravens in rematch

The Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens will meet in the first round of the AFC playoffs. It will be the second time they've played each other this season. Los Angeles Times writer Jeff Miller breaks down what the Chargers need to do to ensure a win.

Their first possession lasted a single play, Philip Rivers throwing an interception.

Their second was a three-and-out and so was their third, a possession featuring consecutive plays that gained 55 yards only to be wiped away by penalties on Keenan Allen.

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The Chargers misplayed right into Baltimore’s greedy hands on Dec. 22, the Ravens in the first half running 18 more plays and possessing the ball for nearly 10 more minutes.

The deficit was only 6-3 at that point, and the Chargers remained within one score into the final three minutes.

So nothing in the game really was determined early except for the tone, which rang with the distinctive dull thud preferred by the NFL’s stingiest offense.

The Ravens simply don’t play well with others. They refuse to share. They hog the ball better than any team in the league.

Combined with a defense equally as stubborn, Baltimore won six of its final seven regular-season games to enter its wild-card matchup at home Sunday as favorites against the Chargers.

“They sustain long drives and they keep it from you,” Rivers said. “We’ve got to be efficient. I don’t think we need to press but just be efficient and play our game.”

The Ravens led the NFL with an average time of possession of 32 minutes, 17 seconds.

After Lamar Jackson took over as starter seven games ago — the rookie playing the quarterback position feet-first — that average climbed to 35:47.

Even with the field remaining 100 yards long, Baltimore’s style shrinks the game, the Ravens’ offense the most defensive in the league.

“We can’t have our defense out there the whole time,” Chargers center Mike Pouncey said. “We can’t go three-and-out. We have to make the best of the opportunities that we have.”

With all their blitzing and attacking, the Ravens had Pouncey and his teammates scrambling to protect Rivers in the first meeting.

The Chargers won 10 of 11 during one stretch this season with a proficient offense capable of busting big plays. When these teams met in Week 16, however, ground-based Baltimore had the seven longest offensive plays of the game, the Chargers too hurried to keep up.

One of those plays was a 27-yard run by Jackson, who left a lunging Jahleel Addae tackling air and a spinning Casey Hayward falling on his fanny.

After finally being forced out of bounds by Derwin James, Jackson gathered himself just in time to hurdle a steel bench in one of the most athletic expressions of this NFL season.

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“We didn’t finish that game. This time, we got to finish. You gotta go stop [No.] 8,” defensive lineman Damion Square said of Jackson. “You gotta tackle. Gotta get guys on the ground, and our offense has to control the clock, period.”

In average time of possession, the top four teams and eight of the top 10 during the regular season are in the playoffs.

The Chargers finished nine spots behind Baltimore, in 10th, controlling several games with an offense that was balanced and featured multiple options.

But against the Ravens the first time around, that dynamic unit was able to extend only two series beyond six plays, and just one of those possessions produced points — a field goal.

“They never let you get comfortable as an offense,” Rivers said. “It’s always something trying to keep you off balance. That’s part of it. It’s the NFL.”

And it’s the Ravens, who again will try to play this game on their terms as surely as it’s being played on their turf.

“We just have to go out there and do what we’ve done all year long,” Pouncey said. “We’ve moved the ball up and down the field in many games this season. Why should that change now?”

Missing action

Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane missed his second consecutive practice to be with his infant daughter, Makenna, who is battling a rare chromosome disorder.

Born in November with Trisomy 13, she is in the prenatal intensive care at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha.

The Chargers are unsure of Mebane’s availability for the game Sunday.

Running back Austin Ekeler was limited in practice for the second day in a row because of groin soreness. He is expected to play against the Ravens.

Ekeler missed two games last month after suffering a bruised nerve in his neck. He didn’t play against Baltimore on Dec. 22.

“From our perspective, it's tremendous,” offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said on having Ekeler available this time. “Melvin [Gordon] has had a great year, and so has Austin. When you have two good players that can split the load and play different points … it helps; it helps a lot.”

Safety added

The Chargers signed safety Fish Smithson to their practice squad to replace an injured Dexter McCoil. Smithson played at Kansas and appeared in two games last season for Washington.

His given first name is Anthony, but he was nicknamed Fish as a child by his grandmother because of a fear of fish. While with the Redskins, Fish admitted during an interview that he can’t swim.

Etc.

The Ravens have won five consecutive wild-card games under coach John Harbaugh. … Mike Williams finished the regular season with 10 touchdowns. That’s the most for a Chargers wide receiver since Tony Martin’s 14 in 1996.

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