Chargers hold off Ravens rally for 23-17 wild-card win

Chargers running back Melvin Gordon leaps over Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith for a short gain in the AFC wild-card game at Baltimore.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Chargers finished tied for the best record in the AFC, are one of four teams from the conference still in contention for the Super Bowl and just improved to 8-1 on the road.

And, still, at one point during a 23-17 wild-card victory over Baltimore on Sunday, referee Clete Blakeman, speaking to a sold-out stadium and national television audience, called them “San Francisco.”

Some people still are struggling to remember where this team comes from these days. But everyone by now knows where the Chargers are going.

On Sunday, they’ll visit suburban Boston and Gillette Stadium to face the New England Patriots, a spot in the AFC title game awaiting the winner.

“The first one down in the books,” running back Melvin Gordon said. “I’m happy, man. But we got two more to go.”


Two more victories would put the Chargers in Super Bowl LIII. As it is, the franchise is guaranteed a playoff rematch with the Patriots, who beat the Chargers in the conference final after the 2007 season.

That’s as close as quarterback Philip Rivers has come to reaching the Super Bowl, the veteran already relishing the opportunity to again face Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

“Is this special to go to New England against a Hall of Fame coach and arguably the best quarterback ever to play and get another shot at them?” Rivers said. “Heck, yeah. It is special.”

The Chargers reached their latest rematch by exploiting what they learned only two weeks ago in meeting Baltimore the first time.

When the Ravens turned to elusive quarterback Lamar Jackson in Week 11, they, against all NFL convention, became a run-centered team.

The Chargers countered Sunday by going equally unconventional, playing with seven defensive backs and no linebackers.

The idea was to try to match speed with Jackson and force him into uncomfortable spots.

The Chargers ended up sacking Jackson seven times and, through the first three quarters, gave up only three first downs, three completed passes and 83 yards.

“We didn’t know if it was going to work,” coach Anthony Lynn said of the alignment. “We wanted to take a look at it.”

The plan for the game Sunday actually was set in motion during the final week of the regular season. Playing in Denver, the Chargers started Rayshawn Jenkins at free safety and surprisingly kept slot cornerback Desmond King on the bench for nearly a quarter.

Lynn refused to specify much about the decision afterward, and King, who a few days later would be selected All-Pro, tried to explain the move as just part of a team’s normal routine.

Then, against the Ravens, Jenkins was back at free safety and King was back in the starting lineup and the Chargers unleashed a diet version of their normal defense.

Jenkins said he was told he would be starting Sunday immediately after the game against the Broncos, the Chargers coaches apparently convinced they had come up with an option for neutralizing Jackson.

The move became an even better option when linebacker Jatavis Brown suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Denver.

The Chargers also played without defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who is away from the team because of a medical issue involving his infant daughter.

They’ve also lost starting linebackers Denzel Perryman and Kyzir White, and starting defensive tackle Corey Liuget for the season because of injuries.

Still, the Chargers kept Jackson and the Ravens offense smothered as they opened a 23-3 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Baltimore finished with 90 yards rushing, after averaging 229 with Jackson as the starter.

“They’re still getting guys to step up and make plays,” Lynn said of the Chargers’ defensive staff. “That’s outstanding coaching.”

The Chargers built their lead on five Michael Badgley field goals and a one-yard touchdown run by Gordon.

The field goals were the most by a Chargers kicker in a postseason game, Badgley continuing to provide consistency at a position that had been an issue before his midseason arrival.

A series of defensive breakdowns allowed Baltimore to score twice during a five-minute stretch late, turning a game that was in the Chargers’ control into a bit of a scramble.

But the defense fittingly sealed the victory in the final 30 seconds when Uchenna Nwosu knocked the ball out of Jackson’s hands and Melvin Ingram recovered.

“I just saw Lamar holding the ball out,” the rookie linebacker said. “My eyes got big, like looking at candy when you’re first born. I just swiped for it.”

And now the Chargers can act like kids for another week, preparing for their next trip on this march to prove their worth and remind everyone they represent L.A.

“I think we already proved something by making the playoffs,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “Now, it’s who can prove they’re the top dog.”

Twitter: @JeffMillerLAT