Sunday's AFC showdown between the Chargers and Ravens looks like a heavyweight fight. It's the NFL version of "The Contender."
In two games, the Chargers' defense entered the ring looking like the new bullies in town. Linebacker Shawne Merriman has been unblockable and he's establishing himself as arguably the league's best defensive player even though he's in only his second year. Defensive end Luis Castillo has been called the best defensive end to come into the league in the past five years by former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil. Castillo is equally unblockable.
The Chargers rank No. 1 on defense, but they venture into Ray Lewis' turf Sunday. For more than a decade, Lewis has been the man on defense. He's the leader of a defense that hits as hard and moves as well as some of the great defenses in the history of the league. After fighting injuries the past couple of years, Lewis has found the fountain of youth and so have the Ravens. They rank second on defense.
This is an intriguing early matchup of two teams that missed the playoffs last year but are back in contention this season. The only reason the Chargers didn't make the playoffs last year was their schedule. It was brutal. Many of their toughest games were on the road. They won five games against teams that finished with winning records. The only problem is they played 11 games against such teams.
Even though it's said defenses win championship, both teams made interesting moves at the most important position -- quarterback. The Ravens traded for Steve McNair and have been smiling ever since. Quarterback has been a problem for the Ravens even through their great years. Ever since they won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer in charge, Ravens defenders have been waiting for a quarterback to bring them hope. McNair has done that. He's a great leader and a steady hand. So far, his numbers haven't been great. He's completed only 55.4 percent of his passes and his 5.8 yards per attempt is one of the lowest among starters. His quarterback rating is 78.3, but he's a leader and his teammates believe in him. Though the performances might not have been pretty, the Ravens are 3-0 and winning is all that counts.
This game will be a supreme challenge for San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. He took over for Drew Brees and many in the organization believe he could be better than the departed Pro Bowl quarterback. He's taller. He has a stronger arm. He's every bit as smart and he's a more vocal leader. Still, he's started only two games and this will be his toughest challenge -- on the road against a great defense.
This could be looked upon as a potential playoff preview, but there is a knockout aspect to this game. Neither the Chargers nor Ravens are a lock to win their division. The Broncos reign in the AFC West and the Bengals have stepped to the top of the AFC North, a division that still has the Steelers. If the Chargers and Ravens end up as wild-card contenders, this game could be the tiebreaker that could put one team down for the count.