Monday December 19th, 2011

Philip Rivers has faced criticism for his play this season, but he played an excellent, mistake-free game against the Ravens Sunday night. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Forget about the fact that Baltimore headed into Week 15 controlling its own destiny in AFC or that the Chargers started Sunday in 10th place in conference. Courtesy of San Diego's 31-14 destruction of the visiting Ravens, those two teams are right back where they are always seem to be at this time of year (box | recap).

The Ravens are in danger of hitting the road in the postseason, yet again, unless they win their last two and the Steelers drop one along the way.

And the Chargers, who are right up there annually with the most annoying and hard-to-figure teams, once again have saved their best for last and have steamrolled back into the playoff picture after a midseason six-game losing streak.

"Good teams finish strong," Philip Rivers said following San Diego's victory. "It's a shame we went through that six-week stretch, but we got two left and we're going to finish like champs and see what happens."

All things considered, San Diego's win over Baltimore wasn't a huge surprise. The degree of the Chargers' domination, however, was mystifying.

From the moment Baltimore tied the game at seven in the second quarter on, this game was an absolute blowout. San Diego ripped off 27 unanswered points, with Philip Rivers tossing completions -- against the league's third-ranked defense -- with all the ease of Brett Favre in a Wrangler commercial.

Rivers' pitch-and-catch merriment was made all the more noticeable by Joe Flacco's complete train wreck of a night. Flacco, who seemingly bounces from Pro Bowl-level QB to an overmatched mess at least a few times a season, tossed two brutal interceptions and missed on a couple of early passes that could have helped change Baltimore's fortunes.

The first of those picks summed up Flacco's night perfectly: He dropped to throw, locked on to Lee Evans and delivered a perfect strike to the hands of linebacker Takeo Spikes, whom Flacco didn't even appear to see dropping in coverage.

Unfortunately for the Ravens, if there was ever a night they needed Flacco to be on, it was this one.

Baltimore's defense, despite the return of Ray Lewis after a four-game injury absence, had no answers for a San Diego offense that piled up 415 yards of offense. The Chargers rushed for three touchdowns and protected Rivers maybe as well as they have all season, preventing the Ravens from recording even a single sack.

Rivers, meanwhile, played as well as he has all season -- maybe as well as he has in a couple of seasons. He hit on 73.9 percent of his passes (17 for 23) and averaged 11.7 yards per attempt. To put the latter number in perspective, the league leader in that category for the season, Aaron Rodgers, clocks in at 9.2 yards per attempt.

"We're pretty good, too, on offense," Rivers said. "We probably played our most complete game, the defense kept giving us the ball back, I don't think we punted tonight.

"Everytime we win a game, everybody says we didn't beat anybody. This (Baltimore) team is one that's going to be around in January, and hopefully we'll be around too."

Even though the Ravens are still a serious contender, they now have to sit back and hope the Steelers suffer the same fate in San Francisco on Monday night. If they don't, all that would stand between Pittsburgh and the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed -- not to mention those postseason home games that the Ravens and their fans want so, so badly -- are games against St. Louis and Cleveland.

It's not hard to see why: Baltimore is 7-0 at home and 3-4 on the road.

Three Pittsburgh victories and the Ravens would, for the fourth straight season, face the prospect of having to win three postseason games in a row on the road to reach the Super Bowl.

They failed in 2008, 2009 and 2010 with that task in front of them.

There's no debating the massive difference between the AFC's top seed and the No. 5 spot. The No. 1 team gets an extra week of rest, then two home games; the fifth seed this year will have to beat the AFC West champion, then likely the Steelers and Patriots back-to-back-to-back.

Can it be done? Sure. Green Bay did it last year, and teams have gotten hot out of those wild-card spots with more and more frequency in recent years.

Which is precisely why San Diego might be one of the more dangerous teams out there right now. The Chargers' AFC West title hopes are slim -- unless Denver loses out, San Diego cannot win the division -- but if they win their last two (at Detroit, at Oakland) to get to 9-7, slip-ups by the Jets and Bengals could squeak them into the playoffs.

It's not a likely scenario. But neither was Sunday night's Baltimore horror show.

But there was nothing fluky about how the Chargers' impressive triumph went down. For the final two-plus quarters or so, San Diego pinned Baltimore down and refused to let up at all. As a result, the Chargers and Ravens find themselves, for better or worse, in very familiar positions.

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