The Sunday GPS: How much does defense really matter? We're about to find out

Khalil Mack photo courtesy of USA Today
Clark Judge

GOLD JACKET DOUBLEHEADER

L.A. CHARGERS @ BALTIMORE, 1:05 P.M. (EST)

The line: Ravens by 2-1/2

The weather: Sunny, high of 51

The story: The Chargers are the trendy dark horse in the AFC because A) they tied Kansas City for the conference’s best record; B) they actually beat the Chiefs; C) they beat them at Arrowhead and D) they have Philip Rivers. But there’s a problem, and it goes something like this: Baltimore knows defense. The Ravens ranked first in yards allowed, were second to Chicago in fewest points allowed and were the only team to rank in the Top Five in both rushing (4th) and passing (5th) defense. What’s more, they shut down Rivers and the Chargers when they beat them 22-10 two weeks ago, the only game this season where L.A. was held to under 20 points. But the Ravens are more than just defense. They’re all about possession. They have it; others don’t. Since Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback, they’re more than 6-1; they lead the league in rushing (averaging 229 yards a game) and in time of possession (35:47) – and both do nothing but strengthen a defense. You run the ball, extend the chains and control the clock, and what happens? Simple. Your defense rests. This isn’t exactly nuclear physics, people. So L.A.’s job is to stop the run and control the RPOs that Jackson is so adept at running … but that's easier said than done. Since he’s taken over, the Ravens haven’t run for fewer than 159 yards in any of their past seven games, and no need to remind the Chargers. They're the guys who held them to 159. Of course, they're also the opponent that Jackson shredded for a personal-best 204 yards passing.

Something to consider: The Ravens allowed only 58 fourth-quarter points this season, fewest in the NFL. They were also 8-0 when holding the ball 34 minutes or more.

PHILADELPHIA @ CHICAGO, 4:40 p.m. (EST)

The line: Bears by 6-1/2

The weather: Cloudy, high of 39.

The story: The Eagles have Nick Foles. The Bears have the league’s stingiest defense. So who wins? I’ve always said great pass rushers trump great passers, and the Bears have a great one in Khalil Mack (thank you, Jon Gruden). No, Foles is not a great quarterback, but he is in December. The past two seasons he's 9-1 from December on, with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. What’s more, he not only won a Super Bowl; he was the game’s MVP. But these are not last year’s New England Patriots he’s facing. These are the Monsters of the Midway, with a defense that led the league in points allowed, takeaways (36) and interceptions (27) and that was third in points off turnovers (107). Granted, you’re never really sure which Mitch Trubisky shows up at quarterback, but Trubisky isn’t the Eagles’ concern; solving Vic Fangio’s defense is .. and good luck. The Bears allowed 42 points their last four games, all victories. One of those was vs. L.A. -- the Rams, not the Chargers -- and if Gurley, Goff, et. al. couldn't solve these guys, how do the Bolts? Then there’s this: The Bears have two of the most important assets this time of year: Momentum and home-field advantage. They won nine of their last 10 and were 7-1 at Soldier Field. Their only loss? It was back in October to … who else? … Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Something to consider: Chicago set a franchise record for fewest yards allowed in a 16-game season with 1,280. The previous record of 1,313 was set in 2001.

BEATING THE ODDS

RON BORGESPhiladelphia (+6-1/2). St. Nick has one more present for the Eagles before the holiday season ends.

CLARK JUDGEBaltimore (--2-1/2). Welcome to Charm City. Now go home.

RICK GOSSELIN – Baltimore (--2-1/2). Defense wins championships. Still.

THE SUNDAY OMG

The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson led all quarterbacks in rushing with 695 yards, which isn’t unusual. But this is: He didn’t start until Week 11.

THE SUNDAY PLAY LIST

L.A. CHARGERS PK MICHAEL BADGLEY. He connected on 93.8 percent of his field-goal tries this season, best in franchise history for kickers with at least 15 attempts.

L.A. CHARGERS RB MELVIN GORDON. Dating back to 2016, only one NFL back (Todd Gurley) has more rushing TDs than Gordon. Gurley has 35; Gordon and Zeke Elliott each have 28.

BALTIMORE QB LAMAR JACKSON. He's 4-0 at home.

BALTIMORE LB TERRELL SUGGS. His 12.5 postseason sacks are the most among active players.

PHILADELPHIA QB NICK FOLES. He aims for his third straight playoff game with at least three touchdowns, 350 yards passing and a passer rating of 100 or better.

PHILADELPHIA RB DARREN SPROLES. In 10 career playoff games, he has seven TDs.

CHICAGO RB JORDAN HOWARD. In his last three games he has four TDs.

CHICAGO LB KHALIL MACK. In seven home games this season he had 8.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

FIVE THINGS YOU WANT TO REMEMBER

  1. The Chargers were 7-1 on the road this season. Their only loss was to the L.A. Rams, which means … uh-huh, which means they didn't lose outside of Los Angeles.

  2. Chicago and Baltimore are 1-2 in fewest yards allowed per play. The Bears surrendered 4.78, the Ravens 4.81.

  3. The Bears were the only team to hold a second-half lead in every game this season.

  4. Chicago held opponents to six or fewer points in nine of its 16 games, and its total of 96 first-half points allowed in the first half was the best in the NFL.

  5. Philip Rivers leads the NFL over the past three seasons with 93 touchdown passes.

Follow on Twitter clarkvjudge@TOF

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