Nick Hardwick spent 11 years as the Chargers' center from 2004 to 2014, sharing the huddle with quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates for most of that time, and after retirement three more years (2015-17) as a radio broadcaster for the team.
He was not on the sideline or in the booth for the Chargers' 22-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 22, but, as he watched on television through the eyes of an NFL veteran, he sensed a subtle difference in the intensity levels of the teams.
The Chargers had clinched an AFC playoff berth with a dramatic comeback victory at Kansas City the week before, and they were still in the hunt for a No. 1 seed and bye through the wild-card round of the playoffs.
The Ravens needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, and their defense imposed their will on the Chargers for most of the night, hounding Rivers into his worst game of the season.
The teams will meet again, with even more at stake, in Sunday's wild-card playoff game in Baltimore, and Hardwick expects a far greater sense of urgency from his former club.
"There's a difference between wanting something and needing something," Hardwick said of the Dec. 22 game. "The Chargers, sure, it would have been nice to have that No. 1 seed, they wanted the victory, but the Ravens needed it for their survival. They played like their season and their careers depended on it. They gave that kind of effort."
No NFL team blitzes more than the Ravens, who rush five or more players 37% of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and Baltimore used an assortment of stunts and blitzes to sack Rivers four times, hit him four more times and intercept two of his passes.
"Maybe in the situation they were in, yeah, it made it to where they were willing to take more chances, do more things," Chargers tight end Virgil Green said. "They do have a great defense. They were playing fast, flying all over the place, but at the same time, we had opportunities to win throughout that game.
"I think if you look back on it, you could say it was intensity, whatever, but we shot ourselves in the foot a lot. We had a lot of penalties and made it tougher on ourselves. We have to make sure we take care of our business and don't let the Ravens' defense dictate how we play on offense."
Asked about Hardwick's comments, right guard Michael Schofield said the former center might have a point … to a degree.
"Obviously, everyone wants to win a game, and I think you could say that, yeah, they were playing for the playoffs, and maybe we kind of played down a little bit," Schofield said. "I can see that. But it's not like we were out there not caring if we won or lost."
Whatever mental edge the Ravens might have had in Week 16 should disappear Sunday.
"We're all playing for our lives now," Schofield said.
"It's win or go home," Green said, "so every play, every possession, every quarter matters."
Hardwick is looking forward to the rematch.
"Both teams should have equal survival mechanisms kick in and you should see a level playing field as far as attention to detail, effort, energy and intensity," Hardwick said. "Then it's going to come down to man-to-man, technically, can the Chargers get it done against the Ravens' defensive front?"
Henry decision looms
The Chargers will decide by Saturday afternoon whether to activate tight end Hunter Henry, who had surgery to repair a torn right knee ligament in June and hasn't played all season, for Sunday's game.
"We have an extra day to take a look at Hunter and make the decision," coach Anthony Lynn said after Friday's practice, "and we're going to use it."
If Henry does play, what are the realistic expectations for him, considering he hasn't taken a snap since December 2017?
"Well, 60, 70 plays maybe, every special teams rep," offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt deadpanned Thursday. "You know, we may use him on defense."
But seriously, folks ….
"I don't know," Whisenhunt said. "I think some of it is how he feels. You'll have a certain number of package plays that you'll use him for, and I think you kind of go from there."
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Henry, who began practicing Dec. 17, caught 45 passes for 579 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games last season. He missed the final two games of 2017 because of a lacerated kidney.
Lynn said Henry would "definitely be on a pitch count" if he plays, with the hope Henry could assume a more prominent role if the Chargers advance.
"We would have to see how the game is going," Lynn said, "but you can't put a player out there for an extended period of time who hasn't played since last December."
Rookie safety Derwin James, slot cornerback Desmond King and defensive back Adrian Phillips were named to the Associated Press All-Pro first team, as chosen by a national panel of 50 media members and announced Friday.
James, a first-round pick out of Florida State last April, led the Chargers with 109 total tackles. He added three interceptions, 15 pass breakups and six quarterback hits while playing both free safety and strong safety and linebacker.
King had 60 total tackles, three interceptions, 13 pass breakups and two quarterback hits. He was also named to the second team as a punt returner.
Phillips, a safety who has played middle linebacker in nickel and dime packages, was an All-Pro special teams selection. He had 77 total tackles, one interception and 12 pass breakups and was a key contributor on every special teams unit.
Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane missed his third straight practice to be in Omaha with his infant daughter, Makenna, who is battling a rare chromosome disorder. He is listed as doubtful for Sunday's game. Reserve running back Austin Ekeler was limited by a groin injury and is questionable for the game.