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Nickel Package: Five Things to Watch in Ravens versus San Diego Chargers

Five things to watch when the Chargers play the Ravens on Sunday:

As the Ravens (7-4) square off with the San Diego Chargers (7-4) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, here's a checklist of things to keep an eye on:

1. Philip Rivers

Inside the Ravens’ training complex this week, they’ve been talking about “The Gunslinger.” That’s Rivers, who has one of the strongest arms in the NFL. He’s accurate, tough, difficult to bring down in the pocket and in the middle of another impressive season. Rivers has completed 68.3 percent of his throws for 2,835 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a 101.4 quarterback rating. Although the Ravens manufactured a 34-27 victory last Monday over the New Orleans Saints, their injury-riddled secondary allowed 422 passing yards and three touchdown passes. The Ravens' cornerback tandem of Lardarius Webb and Anthony Levine didn’t react quickly to outside passes and nickel back Danny Gorrer wasn’t competitive on a sideline pass muscled away from him. Free safety Will Hill returned an interception of Drew Brees for a touchdown. The Ravens will need a big game from the secondary as they try to contain tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Keenan Allen, two reliable pass-catchers and red-zone threats.

2. Justin Forsett

 

The Ravens’ running back has emerged as one of the top runners in the NFL. He ranks fifth in the NFL with 903 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He’s on pace to finish the season with 1,313 yards. He’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry, thriving in offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking system. Forsett has been patient, elusive and determined, breaking several tackles. The Chargers run defense has struggled a bit, allowing 120.6 rushing yards per game since the seventh week of the regular season. Over the past two games against the Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams, the Chargers have held opponents to 89 rushing yards per game as they’ve gotten back Melvin Ingram and Manti Te’o. Overall, though, this hasn’t been a very stout defense as the Chargers have missed plenty of tackles. They rank 15th in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 108.8 rushing yards per game. The Ravens have worn down defenses lately in the fourth quarter, when Forsett appears to get stronger.

3. Pass rush

The Ravens have recorded a dozen sacks in their past three games, including four sacks and eight quarterback hits last Monday against Brees. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil has 5.5 sacks in the past two games and is up to 12.5 sacks for the season. He’s tied for second in the NFL in sacks with Philadelphia Eagles outside linebacker Connor Barwin and is a half-sack behind Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston for the NFL lead. The Chargers have experience dealing with top pass rushers this season, allowing sacks to the Denver BroncosVon Miller, the Miami Dolphins’ Cameron Wake and Houston.

4. Steve Smith vs. Brandon Flowers

The five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver broke out of a slump with four catches for 89 yards and a touchdown against the Saints, his most productive game since an Oct. 12 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Ravens need Smith to finish the season strong. They face a challenge against Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers, a physical cover guy who has three interceptions. Flowers was briefly considered by the Ravens before he agreed to terms with the Chargers after being cut by the Kansas City Chiefs. As it turned out, the Ravens could have used him. Now, he’ll match up Sunday against Steve Smith and Torrey Smith.

5. Travel schedule

The Chargers traveled to Baltimore on Friday to adjust to the East Coast time zone. With a 1 p.m. kickoff, the Chargers have had issues in the past. They were blown out, 37-0, by the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 2. The Chargers did pick up an East Coast win against the Buffalo Bills this season. The Ravens are 4-1 at home this year and 11-0 at home all-time against West Coast teams. The Ravens have also won 10 consecutive November home games dating back to 2009. This game holds major AFC playoff implications; both teams are top contenders for a wild-card berth.

 

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