BALTIMORE -- The season seemed to be over before it could really begin in Baltimore, when a devastating series of injuries eliminated stars, decimated the backfield and cast the Ravens off the NFL radar by the end of the preseason. A series of nail-biters -- a miraculous field goal to beat the lowly Lions, a frantic comeback to beat the Colts in overtime -- did little to wipe away the feeling that, for all of Lamar Jackson's dazzling play and the team's spot in first place in the AFC North, the Ravens were hanging on at the very fringes of the AFC playoff conversation. We haven't talked about them much and neither has anybody else.
A four-touchdown manhandling of an upstart league darling -- the Ravens dominated the Los Angeles Chargers, 34-6, on Sunday -- figures to change the conversation and raise a few eyebrows.
"Yeah, probably," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "OK with me. We like raising eyebrows in a good way."
Harbaugh also said he didn't think the game said anything about the season-long term, just that the Ravens (5-1) had enjoyed a good day.
The NFL loves bellicosity, though, and this was the loudest of statements made so far this season. Yes, the Cardinals have turned plenty of heads with blowout wins over the Rams and Browns over the past three weeks, while the Bills provided a prime-time beatdown of the back-to-back reigning AFC champion Chiefs. But given the perception of Baltimore entering this game -- many questioned the one-loss Ravens while simultaneously extoling the one-loss Chargers -- nobody saw this lopsided result coming.
One week after Jackson set a franchise record with 442 yards passing, he helped lead a rushing attack that rolled up 187 yards, poking hole after hole in the Chargers' defensive philosophy that it is OK to give up rushing yards. That works if the defense can also disrupt the quarterback. But the Chargers could not do that with enough frequency against Jackson. And by the time they did it, the Bolts were already in a two-touchdown hole early in the second quarter. The first touchdown drive of the day underscored Los Angeles' woes. Baltimore ran to the edges for most of the march, which included 62 rushing yards, but on the 14-yard touchdown run, Latavius Murray -- signed after the rash of injuries -- ran untouched straight up the middle. On the Ravens' second drive, they cruised 74 yards over eight plays, never facing a third down, with Le'Veon Bell -- another free-agent RB added in September -- ultimately waltzing around the right edge for an easy touchdown.
Brandon Staley said the defense was good enough after the first two drives to win the game, but he said the Chargers were off in every aspect. Derwin James, L.A.'s standout safety, pointed to those two quick Ravens touchdowns as telling the entire story of the game.
"I think everything was about that today," James said. "They came out, got two quick touchdowns and kind of caught everybody off guard. Not that we weren't prepared, but I just feel like, eventually, we settled in. But we just have to be better from the start, get a turnover, get a three-and-out and make a play."
Even more startling -- and alarming to future opponents -- was Baltimore's defense, which made those plays on third down. The unit entered the game tied for 28th against the pass, but it held Justin Herbert to just 195 yards on 22 completions. Los Angeles had scored 47, 28 and 30 points in their last three games. Prior to Sunday, the Herbert-led Bolts had failed to reach double digits just once since the quarterback's arrival as the No. 6 overall pick in April of 2020, when they were shut out by the New England Patriots last December.
The Chargers had vaulted to the top of the AFC West with an uber-aggressive mindset, and with the playmaking to back up Staley's backbone. They were 7-for-8 on fourth-down conversion attempts entering the game and 33-for-68 on third down. The Ravens knew this would be a four-down game, so the mission was to make third and fourth downs as long as possible. Baltimore tackled well, smothering the running game, and applied pressure to Herbert, who was inaccurate all day -- he completed a season-low 56.4 percent of his pass attempts -- and that put Los Angeles into uncomfortable spots. Midway through the third quarter, with the Bolts trailing 24-6 and backed up on their own 19-yard line, the Chargers went for it on fourth-and-1. Had it worked, it would have been hailed, as so many of Staley's early-season decisions have been. But Herbert, again under pressure, was off target on his pass to the left sideline, and the Ravens took over, kicking a field goal four plays later to gain a three-touchdown lead. In the postgame, Staley said he would make the same decision again, given how the game was going. In all, the Chargers were just 3-for-12 on third down and 1-for-4 on fourth down on Sunday.
"Third-and-long is a lot better than third-and-medium -- and a lot, lot better than third-and-short," Harbaugh said. "So, if you can get them in third-and-medium or third-and-long, that's the goal."
Herbert conceded that his team did not handle Baltimore's pressure well, saying the Chargers were surprised by much of what the Ravens did on defense.
"Yeah, it was a lot of looks that we didn't see on film and stuff they constructed for us," Herbert said. "They did a great job at disguising their looks, bringing pressure from one way and hiding from another. It was looks they hadn't shown all season and stuff that you know we have to be better at to adjust to during the game."
The Chargers have a bye in the coming week and the Ravens gave them plenty to learn from. But Staley resisted the suggestion that this might have been a reality check for the Chargers, who are 4-2. No, he said, the Chargers lost to a good team, a perennial playoff participant with an MVP-caliber quarterback.
Staley hadn't forgotten that, even if the rest of us had.