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Four Downs: Chargers vs. Ravens

Gates wears blinders on race to history

By Michael Gehlken
|  Monday, Dec 19, 2011  |  Updated 12:23 AM PDT
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Sunday Football Preview: Preview Ravens vs. Chargers

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Antonio Gates #85 of the San Diego Chargers makes a catch for a touchdwon in front of Bryan Scott #43 of the Buffalo Bills to take a 23-10 lead during the third quarter at Qualcomm Stadium on December 11, 2011 in San Diego, California.

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Another December. Another last-ditch effort from the San Diego Chargers.

In their usual place beneath the playoff guillotine blade, the Chargers host the 10-3 Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at 5:20 p.m. at Snapdragon Stadium, needing a win to put themselves in any semblance of position for postseason contention.

What occurs earlier in the day — losses by the New York Jets (8-5) and Denver Broncos (8-5) would be much obliged — will determine the exact stakes, but regardless, a victory will keep the Chargers (6-7) in the running for an eventual 7-5 in-conference record that would come in handy as a wild-card tiebreaker.

But first things first.

Here's the four-down breakdown of Sunday's game, which will be nationally broadcast on NBC.

First Down: Gates to the record book?
Chargers tight end Antonio Gates doesn't like to think about it.

With 582 catches, he is four shy of Chargers wide receivers coach Charlie Joiner's all-time franchise record. The record book figures to soon adjust, as Gates has caught four or more passes in each of the past eight games since returning from a foot injury, totaling 45 grabs for 527 yards and six touchdowns in that span.

Go ahead and add it to the cabinent of All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections and 75 career touchdown receptions, and it's the latest achievement on a Hall of Fame-caliber resume.

"When you say those things to me, it's ironic to me because it's like it's happening so fast," Gates said on Friday. "It really is not sinking in. Like, when somebody says, 'You've been in seven Pro Bowls before; do you think of the Hall of Fame?' I'm like, no, because in my mind, my train is still moving. Once you start looking at your accomplishments and the glamor and glitz, you might take a step back in a sense because you feel no desire to continue to go forward.

"In my mind, it's still going. It's still an ongoing process for me," Gates added. "To lead this organization in receptions, from where I come from and how I got into this league, was the last thing that came to my mind ... I'm not the kind of guy who go reads stats and go reads programs. I just play."

Second Down: Gaither gets some help.
Not that he's shown any need for it, but Chargers left tackle Jared Gaither will see more assistance Sunday in pass protection than usual.

It's a token of respect for Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has seven sacks, four forced fumbles, two quarterback hits and and six pressures in the past three games.

"You've got to plan to help him," coach Norv Turner said. "The one thing about playing left tackle, they've got ways to making sure he's singled up. That's what good defenses do. We'll help him when he can, and he's going to have to hold up on his own, too.

In two starts, Gaither, a former Raven, hasn't allowed a single sack, hit or pressure on quarterback Philip Rivers. His play on the edge has helped key the Chargers' current two-game win streak, albeit against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills, who bring little speed to the pass rush.

Tight end Randy McMichael and running back Mike Tolbert are the favorites to chip Suggs and Co. in the backfield, but they can't on every down.

"He knows who he's going against," McMichael said of Gaither. "He's played against Terrell Suggs so many times, talking about just practice reps alone. We're going to give some help to him, but for the most part, he's going to be out there by himself a lot, and he's going to do a good job."

Third Down: Gregory as a Plan A.
The regular strong-safety starter gets injured. Steve Gregory fills his spot.

Come April, what do the Chargers need? How about a strong safety?

Gregory, over the past few seasons, has seen the script read again and again, where draft pundits talk about the Chargers' long-term option opposite free safety Eric Weddle, and the answer is anyone but him.

"Yeah, I don't know why people seem to say that," said Gregory, in the final year of a four-year contract. "I feel like we play pretty good out there. Obviously, things aren't always perfect. We're humans. We're out there in the NFL. Those guys are good across the ball from me, too, so you're going to have some good plays, and you're going to have some bad plays.

But I think overall, we play pretty solid back there. I think I do a pretty good job. I see myself as a full-time starter in this league, and that's my plan."

Last week, in his 10th start since replacing Bob Sanders, Gregory intercepted a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass and returned it for the first touchdown in his career.

Gregory celebrated the momentum-swinging third-quarter score in the end zone with his best friend Weddle, who credited their off-field bond for helping their on-field communication.

Turner said he thinks Gregory is playing with "great confidence."

"I think (with) the continued reps and and just playing every down and staying healthy, he's seeing things a lot faster," Turner said. "He's seeing them better than he ever has ... It's good that he's filled in the way he has."

Fourth Down: Run games stack up.
Welcome to the football twilight zone.

The Ravens have Ray Rice, a running back who can do it all. They mix in fresh legs with Ricky Williams. They have a trusted fullback, Vonta Leach, opening running lanes.

Chargers fullback Jacob Hester sees the Balitmore backfield and finds an eerie similiarity with his team's own.

"I think it's a strength for both teams," Hester said. " It kind of mirrors each other a little bit, the way we have two guys playing just like they do and then a fullback, they use him probably as much as we do. Not a lot of teams use a fullback as much as us and Baltimore. We definitely mirror each other I think."

Turner paid Chargers running back Ryan Mathews perhaps the ultimate compliment leading up to this game, first prefacing that Rice, considered among the NFL's elite rushers, and Mathews are two different players who play in two different systems.

"I'm very confident," Turner said, "that Ryan Mathews can be that guy — that he is (that guy). He's caught 45 balls, and he's on the verge of rushing for over 1,000 yards. Obviously, he's a lot younger than Ray and he's not anywhere near as experienced, but in terms of his production, it's pretty impressive."

Prediction: The Chargers are fully capable of winning this game.

Given they're in front of a home crowd, with all their offensive starters working off a full week of practice, the case could be made they should win this game.

Despite the temptation, it's too large a leap to predict they will.

They've yet to defeat a team of this caliber, and as good as Suggs is defensively, watch out for rookie Pernell McPhee as a potential difference maker on the defensive line.

Ravens ride Rice late to squeak it out, 24-20.

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