AFC West: 2014 Wild Card Chargers-Bengals

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the San Diego Chargers27-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC wild-card round:

What it means: San Diego’s Cinderella season lives on. The Chargers kept Cincinnati’s 22-year playoff-victory drought alive and in the process earned their first postseason win since the 2008 season. San Diego advances to the AFC divisional round, where the Chargers will face a familiar foe in the Denver Broncos. The Chargers split with the Broncos during the regular season, losing 28-20 in San Diego on Nov. 10 and winning 27-20 in Denver on Dec. 12.

Turnover bonanza: San Diego's defense forced the Bengals into four turnovers on Sunday -- a fumble by running back Giovani Bernard and three costly miscues by quarterback Andy Dalton, a fumble and two interceptions. The Chargers scored only six points off those turnovers, but defensively, they did a nice job of putting consistent pressure in Dalton’s face.

Cool-hand Rivers: While Dalton again struggled in the postseason, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers showed the value of having a franchise quarterback. Rivers didn’t throw for a ton of yards, but he didn’t need to. Rivers finished 12-of-16 for 128 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Ladarius Green. More importantly, Rivers and the San Diego offense finished with zero turnovers.

Stock watch: Scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, Chargers linebacker Donald Butler showed why San Diego should consider keeping him around. Butler finished with a team-high 11 tackles, a forced fumble and a tackle for a loss.

What’s next: The Chargers travel to face the Broncos in the AFC divisional round playoffs at 4:40 p.m. ET Sunday in Denver.
CINCINNATI -- John Pagano knew what was coming, and his defense still couldn’t stop it.

After giving up 164 rushing yards to the Cincinnati Bengals in an earlier matchup this season, the San Diego Chargers' defensive coordinator is looking for a bit of redemption on Sunday.

“At times, the same rush that we held to a minus rush or a 1-yard gain, ended up in the second half being a six or an 8-yard gain,” Pagano said. “And you can’t have those things. The biggest thing is we’ve got to tackle. We have to go out and finish, tackle, and get them on the ground.”

[+] EnlargeBenJarvus Green-Ellis
Stan Liu/USA TODAY SportsBehind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Bengals racked up 164 rushing yards against the Chargers on Dec. 1.
Powerful Cincinnati running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the charge, finishing with 92 yards on 20 carries for a robust, 4.6 per carry average, and rookie scat back Giovani Bernard totaled 57 yards on 14 carries.

The two combined for 57 yards after contact, as San Diego defenders failed to get either back down at the line of scrimmage.

“We definitely know we have to gang tackle,” Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget said. “They have two excellent running backs, and we know, defensively, that can’t happen again. We just have to be sound with our tackling.”

After that game, the Chargers played much better against the run defensively. The return of outside linebackers Jarret Johnson (hand) and Melvin Ingram (knee) helped shore up San Diego’s run defense.

And it showed up in the stat book, with San Diego holding its next three opponents to an average of 56 yards a contest, including a season-low 18 rushing yards allowed at Denver.

But all of those good feelings melted away during the final game of the season, when a Kansas City offense led by mostly reserves bulled through San Diego’s defense for 143 rushing yards.

The Chargers had just a week to try and figure things out before facing the Bengals’ talented rushing attack again.

While Cincinnati has several playmakers on offense, the run game makes that team go. The Bengals are 7-2 this season when they rush for more than 100 yards. Running the ball takes pressure off quarterback Andy Dalton to make too many plays in the passing game, and it also helps keep Cincinnati’s defense fresh by keeping it off the field.

And with snow in the forecast for Sunday, the Chargers likely will see a lot of Green-Ellis and Bernard.

“Any time your offense can control the ball and keep Philip Rivers off the field, that’s a good day for your defense,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “He’s such an outstanding quarterback, so it’s important that we do a good job offensively.”

Chargers rookie linebacker Manti Te'o said the defense obviously watched film from the first Cincinnati game, but that doesn’t mean San Diego will see the same running scheme on Sunday.

“It definitely helps a lot,” Te’o said. “But you’ve got to also understand they're watching the same things. And it’s all about knowing yourself. Knowing what you have to work on. Knowing how they’re going to attack you. They could come out on Sunday and run something totally different. Like I’ve always said, it’s all about us in this locker room knowing what we’ve got to do, knowing where we’ve got to be and executing.”

Ultimately, Johnson said his unit has to rely on being assignment-correct.

“We have to be gap-sound,” Johnson said. “They have two very different backs, but they’re both very effective in their own way. Their screen game to the backs is another thing they do really well. So if we’re going to win this game, we have to be effective stopping their backs.”
CINCINNATI -- Although it’s been four years since the San Diego Chargers have been in the playoffs, they do have some guys who have been here before.

Six players on San Diego’s roster were with the team when the Chargers advanced to the playoffs in 2009 -- Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Nick Hardwick, Eric Weddle, Jeromey Clary, and Mike Scifres.

Weddle
Rivers
"It’s kind of like we are back,” Rivers said. “We are in it. We are alive. We have a chance. It’s special. Opportunity is just the first step. We are not in here high-fiving like it’s a destination. Everybody is 0-0 and we have a chance just like everyone else.”

Another 10 players on San Diego’s roster have played in the postseason for other teams. So the Chargers will count on veterans like Rivers and Weddle to explain to the younger players who have not performed in the postseason how to get ready for the team’s big game on Sunday here in Cincinnati.

On the other sideline, the Bengals have 37 players who were in the postseason for Cincinnati last season.

“There’s nothing like the playoffs,” Weddle said. “The atmosphere, the speed of the game, how intense (it is) and how vital each play is. The possessions shrink down.

“You’re going good-on-good, so instead of 12 possessions a game, you’re looking at nine, eight, sometimes. Every play matters. It’s exciting. You live for it.”

Rivers and Weddle spent this week explaining to younger players like running back Ryan Mathews the higher intensity level that comes with NFL playoff games.

“I’ve heard it’s a lot faster, with the intensity and the crowd,” Mathews said. “I heard everything is just amped up, tenfold.”

Chargers rookie receiver Keenan Allen said the biggest game he’s played in up to this point was the 2011 Holiday Bowl for Cal, a 21-10 loss to Texas. But Allen acknowledges a college bowl game does not rival NFL playoff football.

“I had a bowl game my sophomore year in college, but I don’t think it will be as intense as a playoff game in the NFL,” he said. “I expect a fast game, a lot of competition out there. And hopefully we do a good job.”

And what will be your approach, Keenan?

“Just play football,” Allen said. “That’s what it comes down to every week -- just a different team, different uniform.”

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