Physical Chargers will push Ravens

October 01, 2006|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

Today's game between the Ravens and the San Diego Chargers is more than a battle of unbeaten teams.

It's a battle for respect.

The Ravens (3-0) and the Chargers (2-0) have the two best defenses in the NFL, two accomplished running backs and two perfect records that have raised some eyebrows.

The Ravens' three victories have come at the expense of teams that are 0-8. San Diego's two wins have come against teams that are 0-5.

As a result, this has the makings of a statement game for one team.

"It's going to be the test to see how really good we are and how good they are," Ravens quarterback Steve McNair said. "We've got to make up our mind that we can go out there and compete. They're a physical team and we're a physical team. These are the games that you live to play for."

The first month of the season has simply been a warm-up for what should be the most intense game by far for both teams.

San Diego beat the Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Titans by an average margin of 30 points. The Ravens beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Raiders and the Cleveland Browns by an average of 16.7 points.

Although the season is only three weeks old, this showdown should begin to clarify the balance of power in the AFC.

"Only one team leaves this game undefeated," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We understand the caliber of this ballclub. This is a great test for us. The outcome of this game will really tell where both teams are trying to go."

The Ravens and the Chargers haven't played in three seasons, but there is a familiarity between the cross-continent teams.

These teams mirror each other in strengths (aggressive defenses), weaknesses (lack of reliable passing games) and attitude (physical play).

"It's our first test," said Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman (Maryland). "We have to approach this game as opening the door, looking them dead in the eyes and going toe to toe with them."

That same no-nonsense message was delivered in the Ravens' locker room.

"This is going to be as physical a game as we've probably had in a long, long time," coach Brian Billick said.

Billick also made certain his players were aware of the outside perception of the team.

The Ravens are one of two teams with a winning record that are home underdogs today. The Chargers are favored by 2 1/2 points. The New York Jets (2-1) are a nine-point underdog at home against the Indianapolis Colts.

"It'll be nice to step up to the challenge," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "We have to prove to everyone outside of this locker room that we can play ball as well as anyone."

Like any physical clash, this game will be settled by defense and running the ball.

The Chargers revolve around running back LaDainian Tomlinson, and the Ravens want to rely on Jamal Lewis. The challenge for both Pro Bowl running backs will be attacking the two best defenses in the NFL.

San Diego ranks No. 1 in the league in defense, allowing an average of 173.5 yards and a total of seven points in two games. The Ravens' defense is second in the NFL, giving up an average of 197.3 yards and a total of 20 points in three games.

Nearly every player on the Ravens' defense said their job is to key on Tomlinson and force first-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers to win the game.

"We're still a work in progress particularly on the offensive side," San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "It is going to take tremendous determination because each team has what I call `the right stuff.'"

The Ravens' offense realizes what's in store for it as well.

The Chargers have a high-octane, attacking defense that wants to impose its will on teams. When San Diego delivers the punch, the Ravens understand they have to be ready to counter with a big play downfield.

"They are active defensively," McNair said. "They are going to put pressure on the quarterback to force mistakes and turnovers. We have to execute better than we have in the past three weeks. This is a good week to start because of the aggressiveness they have shown on their defense."

At stake for the Ravens is their first four-game winning streak since their 2000 Super Bowl season as well as a favorable track record. All three teams that began 4-0 last season (Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay) won their divisions.

With all the hype and ramifications surrounding this game, emotions should be running high for both teams.

"This is one of those games where legends are made," Ray Lewis said. "This is your steppingstone. If you want your name, this is where you grab it."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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