SAN DIEGO — Two years ago, Ray Lewis shot the gap and met Darren Sproles head-on in the backfield on fourth-and-2 in the closing seconds to seal the Baltimore Ravens' 31-26 victory against the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers hardly need to be reminded of that jarring hit. Sproles left for New Orleans as a free agent after last season, perhaps one of the reasons why the Chargers struggled so badly most of this season. And with their playoff hopes barely flickering, the Chargers have to face the Ravens again, although this time it's Terrell Suggs who's bringing the mayhem.
After consecutive wins against downtrodden Jacksonville and Buffalo, the Chargers (6-7) host the Ravens (10-3), who will be assured a fourth straight trip to the postseason if they win Sunday night. A loss would push the Chargers to the brink of missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
"They're as talented as any team in the league," beleaguered Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "They're obviously the best defense in the league, in my mind. They're great on third down, they're physical, they're a great pass-rushing group."
Lewis, the Ravens' long-time defensive leader, has missed four straight games with an injured right toe. The Ravens, who have won those four games, hope to have Lewis back Sunday night.
Suggs had three sacks and forced three fumbles in a 24-10 victory against the winless Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. He also had three sacks in a 16-6 victory against the San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving night, when the Ravens tied a franchise record with nine sacks.
"Suggs is a guy that I think everyone starts with," Turner said. "They have a number of guys that can rush the passer. The one area I think they're better than they were when we played them last time is they've probably improved in the secondary."
That could be bad news for Philip Rivers, who's looked much better the last two games.
The Ravens also have a physical offense, led by running back Ray Rice.
"They're able to keep the ball away from you and limit the number of opportunities you have against them," Turner said. "It's going to be a physical challenge for all of our players."
The Chargers' 37-10 victory against the Bills on Sunday was tempered when Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos rallied to beat the Chicago Bears in overtime. The Broncos are 8-5 atop the AFC West while the Oakland Raiders are 7-6.
After hosting the Ravens, the Chargers finish with road games against the Detroit Lions and the Raiders.
Three Chargers are closing in on significant milestones.
With 582 career catches, star tight end Antonio Gates needs five receptions to supplant Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner as the team's all-time leading receiver. Joiner, the Chargers' wide receivers coach, had 586 catches from 1976-86, the final 11 seasons of his 18-year NFL career.
Rivers needs 255 yards passing for his fourth straight 4,000-yard season. He would join Peyton Manning (1999-04 and 2006-10) and former teammate Drew Brees (2006-11) as the only QBs in NFL history with at least four-straight 4,000-yard seasons. Second-year pro Ryan Mathews needs 57 yards rushing for his first 1,000-yard season. Mathews has gained 100 yards in three straight games for the first time.