Rookie quarterback, rookie tight end with the go-ahead touchdown catch, new coordinator…
And same old Baltimore Ravens defense.
The Ravens dropped the Chargers with a resounding thud Saturday night, toppling the NFL’s hottest team 22-10 with a victory that didn’t just reverberate through StubHub Center, but the entire league as well.
“We can play with anybody,” said first-year Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who hit fellow rookie Mark Andrews in stride on a 68-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, Baltimore’s only offensive touchdown. “We can fight, and everybody sees that now.”
The Ravens (9-6), who have won five of six with Jackson at quarterback, reshaped the AFC landscape with the victory. If Pittsburgh were to lose one of its last two — at New Orleans or home against Cincinnati — Baltimore could clinch the AFC North by beating Cleveland in its finale.
That was unthinkable at midseason, when the Ravens had lost four of five, and coach John Harbaugh’s job appeared to be hanging in the balance. With Joe Flacco at quarterback, the Ravens struggled to run the ball, force turnovers, get to the quarterback.
“It’s always about December football,” linebacker Patrick Onwuasor said. “That’s where you make your shot. We treat every game right now like a playoff game.”
Onwuasor was especially disruptive against the Chargers, with nine tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss, and one gigantic, game-ending play. He punched the ball out of the arms of Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, leading to a 62-yard scoop-and-score touchdown by teammate Tavon Young. That broke open a one-score game with 2:40 to play, essentially icing it.
There was some question whether Gates was down before the ball came loose, but officials ruled the replay in favor of the Ravens.
“I didn’t know if he was down or not, I was just running,” said Young, who outran Rivers and others to the end zone. “I wasn’t going to let a quarterback catch me.”
This was a huge win for the Ravens, who had to travel across the country on a short week to face the rested Chargers (11-4). It was an uncommonly loud crowd at StubHub, cheering a home team that was fresh off a stirring victory at Kansas City and was getting back two key players: running back Melvin Gordon and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane.
The Chargers unquestionably had the wind at their backs, and a chance at the AFC West crown if the Chiefs were to lose at Seattle on Sunday. But with the loss Saturday night, the Chargers almost certainly will be the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs and most likely travel in the first round to Baltimore or Pittsburgh, two highly inhospitable venues, especially during the postseason.
As for the Ravens, they’re rolling with Jackson. He was the 32nd player selected in last spring’s draft, the last of five quarterbacks taken in the opening round.
Turns out, he’s the most consequential of that group — and that’s counting Cleveland star Baker Mayfield.
Jackson has given Baltimore’s offense a spark at the ideal time. He ran 13 times for 39 yards Saturday, including a 27-yard ramble.
“Any time you play 11 on 11 and their quarterback’s a runner, it’s going to be a little harder,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “We have to play disciplined, fundamental football. We have to win our one-on-ones, get those blocks and make tackles. It’s really that simple, and we didn’t do that today.”
Particularly on his long pass to Andrews, Jackson showed he can have surgical precision too. That pass hit the tight end in stride.
Jackson wasn’t ready to try to untangle the playoff knot, or what Saturday night might mean for Baltimore in the postseason. He’s staying in the present.
“We’re not worried about that right now,” he said. “We’re focused on the Browns.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer