5 CRITICAL QUESTIONS 1. Who will remain undefeated? This is the initial proving ground for the undefeated Baltimore Ravens (3-0) and San Diego Chargers (2-0), both of whom have feasted on opponents who have so far been incapable of winning a football game. Today's winner would seem to go a long way toward legitimizing their status as an organization to be taken seriously in the league standings. The loser won't be dismissed, but the result of this game will obviously be heavily factored. A win would give the Ravens an unprecedented 4-0 start and would give Baltimore their fifth victory in a row at M&T Bank Stadium, a streak that began last November with a 16-13 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. All week, the Ravens have acknowledged that this is their first true test. Now, they'll find out if they're really worthy of darkhorse Super Bowl contender mention or not. The Chargers have been installed as a 2 1/2 point favorite.
2. Can the Ravens contain LaDainian Tomlinson?
It's a rare feat to shut down the Chargers' All-Pro runner, and Baltimore wasn't able to three years ago in a 24-10 win where he piled up 150 all-purpose yards from scrimmage, including 105 yards rushing. Stopping Tomlinson requires an all-out commitment, and that's what the Ravens are likely to employ today with at least eight players at the line of scrimmage. If they wind up losing, then it will likely be at the hands of young quarterback Philip Rivers, not the Chargers' top gun.
3. Which quarterback will be harassed the most?
Steve McNair has already been sacked five times and hit countless other times. His counterpart, Rivers, hasn't been sacked yet and has only been hit twice. The Ravens, who are tied with Philadelphia for the most sacks in the NFL with 16, might be without one of their best pass rushers, rush end Terrell Suggs, due to a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, San Diego features brawny, swift outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, one of the elite defensive players in the league. The odds appear to be in the Chargers' favor in this critical matchup.
4. Is Jamal Lewis primed for a breakthrough?
Lewis demonstrated signs of regaining some of his old explosiveness last week. This is the first time he hasn't been on the injury report, perhaps a telling sign that he's ready to rumble downfield for yardage. The Chargers have the top-ranked defense.
5. Will key injuries derail the Baltimore defense?
Besides possibly not having Suggs, the Ravens could be doubly challenged if safety Ed Reed doesn't play because of a foot injury that forced him to miss two practices to end the week. Kellen Winslow operated at will against Baltimore last week. It's scary for the Ravens to imagine what tight end Antonio Gates might have in store for them.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Total (23) Rushing (16) Passing (25)
Steve McNair struggled for three quarters and awoke from his slumber just in time in the fourth quarter to win the game. Perhaps he needs an alarm clock to wake him up earlier before his pre-game nap.
Now, Jamal Lewis is supposedly totally healthy. That's the good news. The bad news is he's facing off with the top-ranked defense in the league. Is Lewis up to the test?
The Derrick Mason-Mark Clayton tandem hit full stride last week with a combined 15 receptions. When is it going to be Todd Heap's turn. Should the Ravens put out an all-points bulletin for Daniel Wilcox?
They have been surrendering a lot of pressure up the middle, and center Mike Flynn is the primary reason why. Don't look for changes if they keep winning. Tony Pashos had better pray that Shawne Merriman doesn't flip to his side.
Total (2) Rushing (1) Passing (4)
Trevor Pryce loves playing against the Chargers, victimizing them for nine career sacks in 16 games, going 13-3. Nose guard Kelly Gregg has a difficult matchup against center Nick Hardwick. Jarret Johnson might start because of Terrell Suggs' hamstring injury.
It seems like the NFL, which ignored Bart Scott during the draft four years ago, knows his name now. He was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Month, outshining teammates Ray Lewis and Adalius Thomas with a league-high five sacks.
Ed Reed is a question mark with a foot injury. If he can't go, Gerome Sapp will start. Whoever's in the game will need to help out rookie safety Dawan Landry with tight end Antonio Gates.
After 17 years in the league, Matt Stover is only getting better. The AFC Special Teams Player of the Month has connected on his last 29 field goals. Gary Stills had five special-teams tackles last week against Cleveland.
Total (3) Rushing (2) Passing (28)
Philip Rivers is undefeated, unsacked and nearly atop the passer rating chart with a 107.4 mark. The Chargers only ask him to manage the game, but he's demonstrating signs that he's going to be capable of much more than that task.
LaDainian Tomlinson is one of the quickest, smartest and most productive runners in the game. Fullback Lorenzo Neal is one of the toughest customers in the game, and backup runner Michael Turner could start for most teams.
The Chargers' best receiver is Tomlinson, followed closely by All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates. Gates can stretch the field vertically like few tight ends can. Keenan McCardell is old, but remains a consummate possession receiver.
They haven't allowed a sack, and Rivers has only been hit twice. These blockers play with an edge, especially center Nick Hardwick and right tackle Shane Olivea. Rookie left tackle Marcus McNeill (6-7, 338) is physically gifted.
Total (1) Rushing (5) Passing (1)
In their 3-4 scheme, the Chargers overpower people upfront with strongmen Jamal Williams, Igor Olshansky and Luis Castillo. This doesn't shape up as a good matchup for the Ravens.
Shawne Merriman headlines an above-average corps. The former Terrapin registered three sacks against Oakland. Donnie Edwards is a solid tackler inside. Shaun Phillips isn't far behind Merriman athletically.
This unit was shaken up by the felony drug arrest of safety Terrence Kiel. Cornerback Quentin Jammer has been a major bust. Drayton Florence is a promising young corner.
Kicker Nate Kaeding is so good that San Diego just gave him a six-year contract extension. The return game and punting are nothing to write home about.
EDGES: Quarterback: Ravens; Running back: Chargers; Receivers: Ravens; Offensive line: San Diego; Defensive line: Even; Linebackers: Ravens; Secondary: Ravens; Special teams: Ravens.
Three downs with …
1. On the Chargers' defense: "I think they are active defensively. We just have to get a grip on them early and they are going to mainly put pressure on the quarterback to force mistakes and turnovers. I think it's all about rhythm this week. Five or three steps: hit, throw, pitch and catch.
"That's something we can do offensively a lot better than we have in the last two or three weeks. We'll do max-protect. We have to execute better than we have in the past three weeks and this is a good week to start because of the aggressiveness they showed on their defense."
2. On the win in Cleveland: "It's a great confidence-booster because that's a building block for us that we can go out, learn from it and know that we can do it. I'm very comfortable with those guys and we just have to get consistent and play that way for four quarters.
"Last week was a prime example. We sputtered for three quarters and all of a sudden we had to go down and get some yardage and in a position to win the ball game, and we did that. I'm very proud of that."
3. On the game-winning drive: "I have been in situations like that for a long time, and I think what those guys realize and what we realized Sunday is that, regardless of what the score is and regardless of what time is left on the clock, if we set our minds right and take it one play at a time, we can get the job done.
"Those guys believed in it and they believed in me and I believed in them and that's all that matters. Once we get that confidence down, we can do it every time."
Three downs with …
Chargers head coach
1. On what keeps him energized: "I love the teaching and the interaction with the players. That, to me, has always been the thing that I have enjoyed the most. It's still my ambition, my goal.
"Obviously, this is a competitive business and you know you won't succeed all the time. It's fun to continue to pursue lofty goals in my view. I just turned 63 a few days ago, too."
2. On comparisons between Shawne Merriman and Ray Lewis: "The No. 1 similarity that I see is the great energy and playmaking that they bring to what they do. While they play different positions, they both have excellent instincts for football. That part of it comes naturally to them.
"I would hope as Shawne continues to develop that he would have the measure of success that Ray has had. I have always admired Ray Lewis because of his leadership ability even as much as his playing skills. Shawne has that leadership ability and has brought it out from time to time with our football team."
3. On comparing Philip Rivers to former Browns QB Bernie Kosar: "Bernie was a terrific quarterback. I see similarities in some ways with regard to him and Philip. Very bright with a terrific, natural instinct for the game, the ability to lead with a passion. Those similarities, I think, exist there."
How the Ravens can win
1. Block linebacker Shawne Merriman. The Ravens can't afford to let this former University of Maryland star continually strike quarterback Steve McNair in the back. Otherwise, it's "Lights Out," or the equivalent of not paying your BG&E bill. Chip-blocking is definitely in order for this All-Pro and last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
2. Tackle LaDainian Tomlinson. It's going to be eight men in the box treatment for this All-Pro runner, and rightfully so. Tomlinson's elusiveness evokes comparisons to Barry Sanders and the Ravens will need to stop him from accelerating into high gear.
3. Run the football. The Ravens will try to wear down an aggressive front seven and keep Tomlinson on the sidelines. For the first time this season, Jamal Lewis wasn't listed on the injury report with a hip flexor injury. That means he's nearly 100 percent as he takes on the NFL's top-ranked defense.
How the Chargers can win
1. Keep protecting Philip Rivers. Rivers hasn't been sacked this year and has only been hit twice. Something might have to give against Baltimore, which is tied with Philadelphia for the most sacks in the NFL with 16. If the Chargers can keep Rivers standing, they might be able to exploit the Ravens downfield.
2. Get Steve McNair off-balance. McNair has become a much less proficient passer this season largely because of pressure up the middle causing him to throw the football off his back foot. However, he has only one interception in 104 pass attempts this year. Center Mike Flynn has been getting pushed around, and Jamal Williams represents a mauling force at nose guard at 350 pounds.
3. Go after Dawan Landry. After watching Kellen Winslow have his way with the rookie safety last week, the Chargers are sure to employ tight end Antonio Gates against Landry in space. Especially if Baltimore devotes too much attention to Tomlinson.
Kicker Matt Stover is on pace for a career-high and franchise-record 170 points. He has converted a perfect 9-for-9 on field goal attempts. He connected on the 12th game-winning field goal of his 17-year career during last week's 15-14 win over the Cleveland Browns and was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month. He has hit his last 290 PATs, dating back to 1999, fourth on the all-time list. He is the third-most accurate kicker (83.9 percent) in NFL history.
TODAY'S KEY MATCHUPS
LB Ray Lewis vs. RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Two of the NFL's top players will collide today, or at least the Ravens hope so. Because if Lewis isn't meeting Tomlinson in the hole or behind the line of scrimmage often enough, it will mean a bounty of yardage for the Chargers and, possibly, long touchdown runs.
TE Todd Heap vs. S Clinton Hart
Like the rest of the free world, the Ravens read the newspapers and are keenly aware that starter Terrence Kiel was indicted on federal drug charges. Kiel is listed as out on the injury report for "personal reasons." His absence could propel Heap, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, to a field day against an extremely inexperienced safety.
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