BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens’ startling charge into the playoffs was spurred by something perhaps even more surprising: a radical, run-first style of offense led by rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Baltimore’s unconventional style of attack in the midst of a pass-happy N.F.L. era rescued the Ravens, who won six of their final seven regular-season games. And the most impressive victory in that stretch was a 12-point romp over the Chargers in Los Angeles in Week 16.
In the end, however, the defeat of the Chargers was the Ravens’ undoing in their rematch here Sunday in an A.F.C. wild-card playoff game.
In the week leading up to Sunday’s contest, the Chargers dissected the videotape of the Ravens’ Dec. 22 triumph in Los Angeles until every play and, more important, the alignments before every play were committed to memory. The Chargers’ defensive coaches schooled the players on every Ravens tendency and tried a daring lineup that included seven defensive backs instead of the usual four or five.
The study and strategy worked. Until a late rally in the final minutes, Baltimore’s new-look offense had just three points and three first downs. Jackson was challenged and confounded into a dreadful performance as Los Angeles built a commanding lead and held on to upset the Ravens, 23-17.
“We had better reads on their formations and we saw things coming,” Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa said in the winning locker room. “It really was kind of a blessing to have played them and seen them just a few weeks ago.”
The Chargers’ defensive approach forced Jackson into three fumbles — one of which he lost — and an interception. He was sacked seven times.
“You could see we were frustrating them,” Los Angeles cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. said. “They were confused. What had been working for them was not working.”
Or, as Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn said when asked if the Ravens appeared flustered: “If you’re used to running the ball for 300 yards and you get only 80, yeah, you get flustered.”
Los Angeles, which has won its last seven road games, will travel to New England to face the Patriots in a divisional round playoff game Sunday at 1 p.m.
For the Chargers, the rare alignment of seven defensive backs, which replaced bulky linebackers with smaller, fleet defenders, was a risk. But it was intended to thwart Jackson’s advanced rushing skills.
“Lamar is so fast, we wanted our fastest guys defending him, even if it meant smaller guys,” Lynn said. “We didn’t know if it would work, but we wanted to take a look at it.
“We were definitely ready to move onto a different defensive grouping if it didn’t work. But it did.”
Indeed, it was effective immediately and set the tone for the game. On the first play from scrimmage, Jackson kept the football and tried to dash around right end. He was tackled for a one-yard loss by safety Derwin James.
Recalling the play, Lynn smiled broadly.
“The first time we played them, we played their game,” he said. “Today, we played our game.”
For the Ravens, the loss brought a sudden end to a season marked by drastic change. The longtime Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was overtaken by Jackson, who remains the franchise’s top quarterback moving forward. Coach John Harbaugh, whose job seemed in jeopardy until the late surge by the Ravens, still may not continue as the Baltimore head coach.
Flacco did not comment on his future Sunday, although he insisted he did not think he should have replaced Jackson as the Ravens fell behind Los Angeles by 17 points. Harbaugh also declined to discuss his own future in detail.
“No one can say what tomorrow is going to bring,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll see. I have every expectation to be here as long as they want me here.”
The victory was also a subtle but authoritative accomplishment by the Chargers veteran quarterback Philip Rivers, who was appearing in his 10th postseason game. Rivers, who completed 22 of 32 passes, coolly and carefully led the Los Angeles offense on six scoring drives against the N.F.L.’s top-ranked defense.
Rivers did not throw an interception and was sacked just once. And while the Chargers lost one fumble, they were otherwise judicious with the football and exhibited the kind of ball-control offense that had been Baltimore’s bread-and-butter in its charge to the playoffs.
Advancing cautiously for most of the game, Los Angeles kicked four field goals to take a 12-0 halftime lead. In the third quarter, a Chargers turnover and a blocked punt by the Ravens gave Baltimore a brief surge of momentum. But the Ravens could only turn the miscues into three points when a fumble recovery by C.J. Mosley led to a 33-yard Justin Tucker field goal. After the Ravens’ Buck Allen partially blocked a punt and gave Baltimore good field position, the possession only led to a 50-yard field goal attempt that Tucker missed.
On the ensuing Chargers possession, a 28-yard pass from Rivers to Mike Williams, followed by a 14-yard run by Melvin Gordon, set up a third down from the Ravens’ one-yard line. Gordon was tripped and fell just before the goal line; the play was ruled a touchdown until it was overturned by video replay.
On the subsequent fourth-down play, Gordon bulled into the end zone. The Chargers completed a two-point conversion to extend their lead to 20-3.
At this point, fans at M&T Bank Stadium began chanting Flacco’s name. Jackson remained in the game, but his presence elicited a chorus of boos from the crowd. That displeasure intensified when Jackson was twice sacked on a three-and-out series.
But on the next series, Jackson awakened and tossed a 31-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree with six minutes and 33 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. On the next Ravens possession, Jackson connected with Crabtree again, throwing a seven-yard touchdown pass that cut the Chargers’ lead to 23-17 with one minute and 59 seconds left in the game.
The Ravens did get the football for a last series, but the Ravens’ comeback ended when Jackson was stripped of the football as he was preparing to pass. The fumble was recovered by the Chargers’ Melvin Ingram, who dominated the Ravens’ offensive line throughout Sunday’s game. Ingram had seven tackles and two sacks.
“This was and was not a typical game for us,” Rivers said afterward. “Because we’ve had all kinds of victories — ugly ones, pretty ones, good games offensively and good games defensively. That’s just us. But mostly, I think we’re a pretty good team.”