Quick spark key for Chargers

The Baltimore Sun

No team has been able to beat the New England Patriots this season. But the Ravens came closer than anyone else.

They needed to hold on just 1 minute, 48 seconds longer.

On Dec. 3, the Ravens held a 24-20 lead against the Patriots with just 1:48 left in the game. If the Ravens had held on for just 108 seconds, the Patriots' quest for a perfect 16-0 regular season -- an accomplishment never achieved before -- would have blown away in the wind that whipped around M&T; Bank Stadium.

But the Ravens defense buckled, and with 44 seconds left, quarterback Tom Brady found wide receiver Jabar Gaffney in the back left corner of the end zone from 8 yards to give New England a 27-24 lead, which held up for its 12th consecutive victory of the season.

For more than three quarters, the Ravens held the combination to cracking the Patriots' code. The Ravens had found a way to win -- they took an early lead, they didn't turn the ball over, they were committed to the run and they pounded Brady every chance they got. When a New England wide receiver got near the football, they pounded him, too.

So if the Chargers harbor any hope of knocking off the Patriots in the AFC championship game at 3 p.m. today, maybe San Diego should take a few notes from the Ravens' effort and try to apply them today.

First, the Ravens showed that with the right offensive game plan and an attacking defense, a disciplined team could not only hold its own with the Patriots, but it could also beat them.

Second, this wasn't a quality team hanging with New England. This was the Ravens, a reeling group going through one of its worst seasons. It had lost five straight games, including an ugly 32-14 loss at San Diego the week before.

Third, the game was nationally televised, and the Patriots were coming off a scare the week before, beating the Philadelphia Eagles, 31-28. No way the Patriots were going to overlook a team two weeks in a row.

The Ravens game was different. In the Patriots' three-point wins over the Eagles and New York Giants on Dec. 29, New England had the lead in the waning moments.

Only the Ravens forced the Patriots to stage a comeback. It was the tensest moment of a record-setting season that saw New England break -- among others -- NFL season records for most points (589), most touchdown passes by one player (50) and most touchdown catches by one player (23).

The first key was taking the lead. That might be easier said than done considering New England's high-octane offense.

But the Ravens followed up a field goal on the Patriots' opening possession with a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kyle Boller to wide receiver Derrick Mason to assume an advantage they maintained for more than 45 minutes.

"We got up on them early," tight end Daniel Wilcox said. "We pretty much had the lead the whole game. That kept us in the position to run the ball."

Another factor in the Ravens' success was a dogged determination to run the football against a New England rush defense ranked fifth in the league and that had surrendered 100 yards to only the Indianapolis Colts' Joseph Addai.

The most obvious example occurred during running back Willis McGahee's 17-yard rumble into the end zone early in the third quarter. Following a lead block by rookie fullback Le'Ron McClain on Patriots linebacker and former Raven Adalius Thomas, McGahee veered left behind a wall built by tackle Jonathan Ogden and guard Jason Brown.

After the game, New England safety Rodney Harrison later said he had never seen the defensive line pushed around as they had been against the Ravens.

"We saw our success when we attacked the Patriots, especially on the perimeter," said Brown, who noted that linebacker Junior Seau went inside to plug up the middle. "Of course, they have some very good linebackers. The Patriots are disciplined and very consistent, but they still have weaknesses. Our running game produced our success."

With McGahee gashing New England for 138 yards on 30 carries, the Patriots began moving an extra defender into the box. That opened up passing routes for the receivers.

"We were just patient," said Wilcox, whose 1-yard touchdown catch 35 seconds into the fourth quarter was the Ravens' final score. "We just took whatever they gave us. We weren't trying to be greedy. If they gave us the deep ball, we took the deep ball. When they gave us anything short, we would take the short routes. And we were running the ball so successfully that the play-action stuff made everything wide-open."

Defensively, the Ravens seemed to validate coordinator Rex Ryan's reputation by using an array of blitzes and mixing up coverages to confuse Brady.

The Ravens sacked Brady three times, including sending Corey Ivy on a corner blitz. Ivy said the Chargers have the personnel to generate a pass rush without jeopardizing their coverage in the secondary.

"San Diego has a good front four with [linebacker Shawne] Merriman and [linebacker Shaun] Phillips," said Ivy, who made three tackles, batted down a pass and hurried Brady once. "They don't have to send in extra blitzers. If they can get a good push up the middle like we did, they can push Brady out of the pocket and maybe he'll make some mistakes."

To weaken New England's passing attack, the Ravens did a lot of shifting, particularly in the back end of the secondary. They also used one package where 340-pound defensive tackle Haloti Ngata began to charge the line of scrimmage from the linebacker position but dropped into coverage once the football was snapped.

"We didn't give him the same look a lot of times," said safety Jamaine Winborne, who registered three tackles and deflected two passes. "We wanted to mix things up and keep him from getting comfortable with what we were doing."

But talk of an upset might all be for naught for San Diego -- which is a 14-point underdog to the Patriots -- if LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates aren't fully healed.

Brown didn't give San Diego much of a shot if Tomlinson, the league's best running back, is less than 100 percent.

"He's going to have to be in top form," Brown said. "They're going to have to be on all cylinders in order to pull this out."

So can the Chargers win?

"Not really," Brown said.


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