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RAVENS LOOK IN MIRROR AND SEE CHARGERS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Ravens take the field at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday for their first road game of the regular season, they'll face an offensive team that looks a lot like their own.

The San Diego Chargers have a big, strong quarterback, a Mutt and Jeff running back combo and a bruising playmaker at tight end.

Sound familiar?

The Bolts will run right at you, throw right over you and find space in between by passing underneath to an undersized, ultra-quick running back. Sounds a lot like what the Ravens have been trying to do since the beginning of training camp.

Maybe that's what everybody tries to do, but the Chargers do it all well - a rocky first half against the Oakland Raiders Monday night notwithstanding - and the personnel parallels are pretty interesting.

The Chargers have 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback Philip Rivers. The Ravens have 6-6, 235-pound Joe Flacco.

The Chargers have hard-charging running back LaDainian Tomlinson and speedy Darren Sproles to give them two distinct looks out of the backfield. The Ravens have Willis McGahee and diminutive Ray Rice to do the same.

The Chargers have marquee tight end Antonio Gates making plays all over the field. The Ravens have a rejuvenated Todd Heap, if their opener against the Kansas City Chiefs was an accurate indication of things to come.

The similarities don't end there. Both teams opened the season against opponents who were supposed to be overmatched but were forced to scramble in the fourth quarter to avoid discouraging Week 1 upsets.

How do they match up? The Chargers are a three-point favorite and have a 20-4 regular-season record at home over the past three years, so this is a big early challenge for the Ravens and their new, multi-faceted offensive attack.

Flacco is coming off the most prolific passing game of his career, but Rivers is far more experienced and will be playing in front of a very raucous home-opening crowd. Rice, McGahee and Heap are coming off an uplifting Sunday afternoon at M&T; Bank Stadium, but the Chargers' defense figures to provide a much stiffer test than the double-digit-underdog Chiefs.

If you stayed up late to watch the second game of the Monday Night Football doubleheader, you might be lulled into a false sense of security by the Chargers' uneven performance against the host Raiders. The offense sputtered in the first half and the Chargers had to stage a last-minute touchdown drive to come away with a 24-20 victory.

The Raiders played some inspired defense, and it took Rivers a half to get all the Chargers' offensive weapons into gear, but don't be fooled.

The Ravens' defense is going to have a lot more to worry about in San Diego than it did against backup quarterback Brodie Croyle and the Chiefs' unsettled offensive game plan this past Sunday.

Sproles, in particular, can drive a defense to distraction running the ball, catching it and returning kicks. He rolled up 180 return yards Monday night, including a 66-yard kickoff return.

The Chargers won't be able to take anything for granted either against their first quality opponent of 2009. They'll be coming off a short prep week because of their MNF appearance, and they took some big body blows from a team that has been their bitter rival since the days of the old American Football League.

Starting center Nick Hardwick left the stadium on crutches after suffering a foot injury, and right guard Louis Vasquez left the game with a knee injury. Tomlinson also suffered a slight ankle injury, but he is expected to be 100 percent for the Ravens.

It's tough to play on the road and it's particularly tough to travel coast to coast to play on the road, but it's not as if Flacco is some first-year starter who can't handle a hostile crowd. He showed during the Ravens' wild-card playoff run last year that he can win on the road, and he figures to be even steadier this year behind the upgraded O-line.

Big test ...but aren't they all?

Listen to Peter Schmuck weeknights at 6 on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimore sun.com/schmuckblog.

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