AFC West: Cincinnati bengals
The last time the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals met, both teams were missing key players, they played in a local TV blackout, and they could comfortably compete on a 60-degree, postcard-perfect Southern California afternoon.
Those were the conditions just one month ago Wednesday.
At least one of them could be the same. With ticket uncertainty rolling over into Thursday, Bengals officials have been working hard to avoid the NFL's first postseason blackout since 2002. On the field, the Bengals and Chargers have been working to get back key members of their teams, and are anticipating playing in conditions much less favorable than what they had on the West Coast.
Sunday's playoff game isn't only a rematch of the regular-season game won 17-10 by the Bengals. It also marks the first time the teams have met in the postseason since 1981, when Cincinnati beat San Diego for the AFC championship at old Riverfront Stadium. Because of a minus-59 wind chill, that game was dubbed the "Freezer Bowl." While it shouldn't feel that cold Sunday, conditions will be tough. Snow, freezing rain and rapidly dipping temperatures are in the forecast. The weather could make passing difficult for two teams that rely heavily on their quarterbacks.
To break down Sunday's game, we turn to ESPN.com NFL reporters Eric D. Williams (Chargers) and Coley Harvey (Bengals).
Harvey: One of the Bengals' biggest keys in the first meeting was running the ball. They rushed for 164 yards, having success even late in the game when San Diego clearly knew a run was coming. How can the Chargers prevent Cincinnati from having another prolific ground game?
Williams: First, the Chargers will have two players available who did not play in the first game -- outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram. Both are pretty good run defenders who should help San Diego play more physical up front. Second, the Chargers have to do a better job of maintaining their gaps and not allowing Cincinnati’s talented offensive line to create space for the running backs. Last, the Chargers have to do a better job of wrapping up BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. Both running backs finished with a lot of yards after contact, as San Diego had trouble bringing down the hard runners in the back end of the defense.
One thing I'm curious about is the Bengals' defense. The Bengals are tied for third in the league in turnovers forced with 31, and have six defensive touchdowns this season, all at Paul Brown Stadium. Why has Cincinnati’s defense been so successful at creating turnovers?
Harvey: If you ask defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer -- which we did Monday -- he'll say it's because his players just know they have to do whatever is necessary to pick the offense up and to put the ball back in its hands. There have been several instances when a turnover put the Bengals' defense on the wrong side of the 50, needing to come up with a stop. Defensive players say they relish those opportunities, and believe in their ability to not only hold for a field goal, but get the ball back. Cincinnati's defensive line plays a major role in helping create a lot of the fumbles and interceptions. Even after losing Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, the defensive line has still pressured opposing quarterbacks, forcing poorly thrown balls. The line and linebackers also do a great job of stripping balls and forcing timely fumbles.
I'll add that there is something slightly different about the defense at home. When it comes to turnovers, for example, 21 of the 31 forced by the defense have come at Paul Brown Stadium. As you mentioned, six have resulted in scores. Each of those scores either changed momentum or helped ice the game.
How much do you think playing the Bengals just 35 days ago will benefit the Chargers? They clearly learned something from that loss, and haven’t lost since.
Williams: That is correct -- the Chargers are on a four-game winning streak since losing to the Bengals on Dec. 1. Defensively the Chargers have been stingy, holding teams to just 18 points a contest in the past four games. San Diego has played more consistently on offense, particularly in the red zone, scoring touchdowns instead of field goals. And the Chargers are playing with more confidence now than earlier in the season. Chargers coach Mike McCoy has figured out a blueprint for his team to win on both offense and defense -- a prolific, ball-control offense paired with a bend-but-don’t-break defense that keeps teams out of the end zone.
Philip Rivers finished the regular season tops in the NFL in completion percentage (69.5), fourth in touchdown passes (32) and fifth in passing yards (4,478). The Bengals did a nice job containing Rivers in the first matchup. What will it take for a repeat performance?
Harvey: It's going to take a lot of pressure, and some tight coverage both downfield and near the line of scrimmage. Bengals cornerback Terence Newman was telling reporters this week about what he felt made Rivers special -- his intelligence. As an 11-year veteran, Newman has seen it all. According to Newman, what is most impressive is Rivers' ability to use his eyes to steer linebackers or safeties one way, only to pass another because he knows he has a tight end or running back open in a soft spot the defense isn't covering. Newman stopped short of comparing Rivers to Peyton Manning, but he believes the two have much in common. Members of the Bengals' secondary know they can't just key on his eyes, they have to know where his playmakers are at all times. Members of the Bengals' line know they have to keep hounding Rivers like they have hounded quarterbacks all season.
Rivers is San Diego's household name, but how important have running back Ryan Mathews and receiver Keenan Allen been to the offense?
Williams: The Chargers leaned heavily on Mathews during the second half of the season, with good results. San Diego is 7-1 this season when Mathews has at least 19 carries. He has carried the ball at least 24 times in the past four games, all wins for San Diego. Allen finished the season with 71 receptions for a team-leading 1,046 yards, becoming the first rookie since Cincinnati’s A.J. Green to finish with 1,000 receiving yards. Green had 1,057 in 2011. Mathews keeps defenses honest with his bruising running style, and Allen emerged as Rivers’ go-to receiver when San Diego gets near the red zone. Allen is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with eight.
We've seen the good (33 touchdowns) and the bad (20 interceptions) from Andy Dalton this season. What type of performance do you expect from Dalton on Sunday? And will it matter if he does not play well?
Harvey: Because of how good this defense is, especially at home, I'm not sure it will matter if he plays well Sunday. Last week against the Ravens, Dalton threw four interceptions -- the first came 1 yard outside Baltimore's red zone -- and the defense ended up acting as an eraser and pretending the turnovers never happened. The one interception that came on Cincinnati's 21 resulted in a field goal. An interception on the following drive also resulted in a field goal. Instead of being down 14-0 early, the Bengals trailed 6-0, giving Dalton enough confidence to calm down and make plays when he needed to as the comeback began. I'm expecting another mixed bag from Dalton. Just like last week, he has shown this season that he can pass for 270 yards, three touchdowns and still have three interceptions. I wouldn't be surprised if his nerves are elevated a little at the start of the game, but as long as the defense keeps playing the way it has been and his receivers are not dropping passes, I believe Dalton will come out OK on Sunday.
A look at the top under-the-radar move made by each AFC West team thus far this offseason:
Denver: defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. The Broncos have made some big-ticket moves, including the signings of receiver Wes Welker, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and guard Louis Vasquez. But landing Knighton should not be overlooked. He fills a big need. He is a massive hole-plugger who should make a good defense even better. He was a favorite of former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, now Denver’s defensive coordinator. Knighton will be used correctly and should instantly be comfortable in Denver’s system. A run-stuffer was one of Denver’s greatest needs after last season. The position is now a strength.
Kansas City: defensive end Mike DeVito. DeVito wasn’t a big name to the average fan, but he is a favorite of NFL scouts. He was expected to be a hot commodity in free agency and the Chiefs made an immediate, winning run at him. DeVito reunites with former Jets assistant coach Bob Sutton, now Kansas City’s defensive coordinator. DeVito is a strong run defender and a relentless player overall. He is versatile and can rotate with 2012 first-round pick Dontari Poe. This could make Poe, who played well at the end of last season, even better. Strong move.
Oakland: defensive tackle Pat Sims. The football people I’ve spoken with believe Sims has among the best upside of the players the Raiders have brought in this offseason -- affordable, young, fringe-starter types who will be asked to take the next step in Oakland. Sims has a chance to stand out. If he can stay healthy and prove he can handle the rigors of being a full-time starter -- he was mostly a rotational player in Cincinnati -- Sims has a chance to be among Oakland’s better players. He is highly skilled, and he can be disruptive.
San Diego: guard Chad Rinehart. Scouts really like this signing. Yes, the Chargers’ offensive line still has question marks and yes, seeing Vasquez go to Denver hurts. But if he can stay healthy, Rinehart has a chance to step in at guard and provide a strong, stable presence. Many scouts thought he was one of the best bargain players available in free agency. He has a chance to develop into a strong starter. He played for new San Diego offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris in Buffalo. D'Alessandris pushed for Rinehart, and there is probably good reason he did so.
Oakland has two starting spots open at the position. Take Terence Newman off the list. He has agreed to return to Cincinnati. Newman visited Oakland early in free agency and took an extended time to decide where he was going to play. He tweeted that he turned down more money from Oakland to return to the Bengals.
The Raiders are still in the mix for Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins. Porter visited this week and Jenkins, who is getting interest from Jacksonville and Buffalo, is set to soon visit Oakland.
Meanwhile, the quarterback wait continues in Oakland. The Raiders are in trade talks with Seattle about backup Matt Flynn. It’s been reported that if Oakland can figure out a contract with Flynn, the deal will happen. Current Oakland starter Carson Palmer could also agree to take a reduced contract to stay.
If both the Flynn and Palmer talks blow up -- there’s already talk that Arizona (starter) and San Francisco (backup) could make a play for Palmer if he is cut --- the Raiders reportedly might turn to former Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb. There is no timetable for this scenario to unfold. It could happen Saturday or extend into next week.
In other AFC West news:
CBS Sports reports the Denver Broncos are an option for veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield. He has other interest, and the veteran cornerback market is not a big priority for Denver right now.
Former Jets guard Matt Slauson signed with Chicago. He had been connected to Oakland because he played for new Oakland offensive line coach Tony Sparano last season.
Pass-rusher Dwight Freeney is being connected to Detroit. Denver has some interest, but Freeney’s price tag is currently too high. Denver might adjust its pass-rushing sights on the draft.
Denver cornerback Tracy Porter is visiting the Raiders on Wednesday, according to an NFL source. He visited the New Orleans Saints on Monday. Both teams have strong interest in Porter. He is expected to decide his future soon. He left the Saints for Denver last year. He fell out of favor in Denver. Oakland head coach Dennis Allen was Porter’s position coach in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Dallas cornerback Mike Jenkins is visiting Jacksonville. Oakland reportedly also has interest in Jenkins. Oakland has two starting cornerback openings. It has visited with Terence Newman. He has been expected to decide between the Bengals and the Raiders for several days.
In other AFC West news:
Former Oakland punter Shane Lechler told San Francisco radio station, 95.7 The Game that he was surprised Oakland did not pursue him. He signed with Houston on Friday.
“This was my first time in free agency. To tell you the truth, man it’s nerve-racking,” Lechler told the radio station. “I didn’t know where I was going to go, where I was going to live or where my kids were going to go to school. I wasn’t hearing anything from Oakland. After giving them 13 years, and plus what the Davis family has done for me, I thought I would at least have a conversation with someone there or something before all of this went down. That was the frustrating part of it. I can’t say that I turned a contract down or anything because I was never really offered one. That was frustrating but I understand. Reggie’s running that thing now like he wants to run it and it’s pretty safe to say I don’t believe I was in the plans.”
Lecher, who was making $4 million a season in Oakland, signed a three-year, $5.5 million deal with Houston. Lechler is from Texas. Oakland is expected to give talented, but unproven Marquette King a chance to replace Lechler.
- Denver slot receiver free agent Brandon Stokley is reportedly visiting the Tennessee Titans on Tuesday. Stokley, who turns 37 in June, had 45 catches in a comeback season in Denver in 2012. His return to Denver lessened greatly when the Broncos signed slot receiving star Wes Welker earlier this month. The only way I can see Stokley returning to Denver is if there are some injuries.
- Former NFL quarterback Vince Young had a pro day-style workout Tuesday. Afterward, he said he has some interest from some teams. Earlier this month, the NFL Network reported Oakland had some interest. If that interest develops further. All I could see is Young getting a chance to be a backup if the team moves on from Carson Palmer.
- Meanwhile, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith offers his take on the Oakland quarterback situation in a way only he can.
- The Green Bay Packers are among the teams former Oakland safety Michael Huff is reportedly set to visit. The Baltimore Ravens and the Dallas Cowboys are among the other teams on his visit list.
- New Oakland tackle Alex Barron expressed his thoughts in a media session Tuesday.
- Former Denver pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil took the high road about his departure from Denver as he was introduced by the Baltimore Ravens.
- San Diego defensive lineman Vaughn Martin is visiting the Dolphins. The Chargers have interest in keeping him. Several teams are interest in Martin.
Traditionally, the Super Bowl champion hosts the season opener on a week night to celebrate the start of the season. But the Ravens had a scheduling conflict with baseball’s Baltimore Orioles (the two stadiums share a parking lot) and the Ravens will now start the season on the road.
The Ravens are scheduled to visit Denver, and many people think the AFC divisional playoff rematch -- Baltimore won in double overtime -- is a possibility.
Update: The Denver Post reports the Broncos don’t think they will host the game . An announcement should be made in the coming days.
In other AFC West news:
New San Diego coach Mike McCoy explains how he plans to get quarterback Philip Rivers out of a two-year funk. My suggestion: Surround him with some good players.
Cornerback Terence Newman said he has yet to make a decision. He said it is coming soon. He is expected to decide between playing for the Raiders or staying in Cincinnati.
There have been some talks, as the Chiefs would like to recoup the second-round pick lost in the Alex Smith trade. The team may draft Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel with the No. 1 overall pick if Albert is traded or not. If Albert is retained, Joeckel would play right tackle.
In an interview with USA Today, Albert seemed ready to handle whatever happens next.
In other AFC West notes:
Cincinnati has re-signed cornerback Adam Jones, a move that could affect Terence Newman’s decision to choose between the Bengals and the Raiders.
The Houston Chronicle reports it expects the Texans to sign Oakland punter Shane Lechler. The Texas native is visiting Houston on Thursday.
Chicago signed Kansas City tight end Steve Maneri, who is a good blocker.
Tennessee has visited with Kansas City defensive end Ropati Pitoitua.
The Chiefs added Dunta Robinson last Friday. He is a starting-quality player, but he is best served as a nickelback. The team also has standout Brandon Flowers. Adding Smith is a nice coup for Kansas City.
Oakland badly needs a cornerback, and Smith would have been the team's best. But the Chiefs won the battle.
In other AFC West news:
- New Denver cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said one of the reasons that he agreed to sign with the Broncos is the coaching he will get. He said his visit with Broncos coaches wasn’t all roses. He was told he needed to improve and he liked that.
“When I came in, the one thing that stood out when talking to everybody, they didn’t really just talk about what I can do as a player, they pointed out my flaws and told me how they can help me get better,” he told reporters in Denver. "Just the guys they’ve got here, the coaching staff, I really bought into the system, to be honest.”
- The Bengals reportedly will try to keep cornerback Terence Newman. He is visiting with the Raiders. It wouldn’t be a killer if Oakland loses out on Newman. There are plenty of good cornerback options still available.
- The Dolphins are interested in San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer.
Oakland signed three defensive players Wednesday. However, these two visitors are different because they are over 30.
The Raiders are meeting with Cincinnati cornerback Terence Newman and Detroit defensive tackle Corey Williams.
Newman, 34, has had a long, nice career, including a solid season in 2012. There are a lot of cornerbacks on the market, and Newman should come cheap. He is not near the top of the list, but he likely would have been Oakland’s best cornerback last season. The Raiders are in need of two starting cornerbacks.
Williams’ production has slipped. He was a solid player earlier in his career with Green Bay where Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie was. If Williams, 32, is signed, he would probably be a cheaper version of Tommy Kelly. Williams is expected to be cut by Detroit.
While Young’s name evokes some surprise, I wouldn’t get too hopped up about it. We’re just talking about a workout.
If somehow Young does find his way in position to be offered a job in Oakland, it wouldn’t be anything more than a backup gig, whether it is caddying for Carson Palmer or Terrelle Pryor.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting Chicago linebacker Nick Roach is visiting the Raiders. He started 14 games last season and had 66 tackles. The Raiders have plenty of needs on defense, and linebackers are among them. ESPN’s John Clayton also reports the Raiders are visiting with Bengals’ reserve defensive tackle Pat Sims.
In other AFC West notes:
NFL Network repots the Chargers are showing interest in cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
The Cincinnati Bengals have re-signed punter Kevin Huber, and Lechler and Huber were considered the best free agents on the market. Kansas City Chiefs re-signed Pro Bowl punter Dustin Colquitt on Monday with a five-year, $18-plus million deal that makes Colquitt the game’s richest punter.
Though he is 36 and coming of an injury, Lechler is expected to get interest on the open market Tuesday. The Oakland Raiders have many needs and limited resources, so keeping Lechler might be difficult. ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported the Texas native is interested in joining the Houston Texans.
In other AFC West news:
In an Insider piece, here is a call for the Broncos to add St. Louis receiver Danny Amendola in free agency. I can see it. He’d certainly be a nice fit there.
The agent for San Diego free agent guard Louis Vasquez said his client is going to test the market. Vasquez is a good player and the Chargers badly need offensive lineman, but the team has not aggressively pursued him.
Oakland coach Dennis Allen was at Texas A&M’s Pro Day workout Friday. He is an alumnus of the school. The Aggies have several NFL prospects this season.
Andy Reid has brought a respected scout with him to Kansas City from Philadelphia. Expect to hear about a lot of personnel decisions in the coming months in Kansas City as the new regime gets its own people in place. The same thing can be said in San Diego with its new regime.
Kansas City has the top claiming priority because it had the worst record in the NFL. While the Chiefs could use a talented young receiver, I agree with the team's decision to pass on Young.
In other AFC West news:
- Frank Pollack, who was Oakland’s offensive line coach last year before being fired, has become Dallas’ assistant offensive line coach.
- Adam Zimmer, an assistant on Romeo Crennel’s staff, has joined his father Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati. Adam Zimmer was arrested on suspicion of DUI late last season in Kansas City.
The Chargers interviewed Lovie Smith on Friday and Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley on Thursday. Former Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt is expected to interview Saturday.
Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden are also candidates. There have also been reports Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy could be a candidate in San Diego. He has had several interviews already. The Chargers will likely fill the job by the end of next week.
- As expected, Denver ruled backup cornerback Tracy Porter out of Saturday’s game against Baltimore because of a concussion. Everyone else on the roster is expected to be available to play.
The Houston Texans beat the Cincinnati Bengals 19-13 on Saturday. Had the No. 6 seed Bengals won, they would have met the Broncos.
A Manning vs. Colts matchup would be the story of the week. Manning went to Denver this year after spending 14 years in Indianapolis. The Colts drafted quarterback Andrew Luck and have been one of the biggest surprises this season.
If the Broncos get the Ravens, they can review a 34-17 victory over Baltimore in Week 15. Regardless of the opponent, the game will be at 4:30 p.m. ET next Saturday.
In our AFC West poll, this week the runaway matchup fans what to see for Denver in the divisional playoff round next week is Indianapolis. The Colts received 60 percent of the vote, while 23 percent voted they want to see Denver play the Bengals and 17 percent voted for a rematch with the Ravens.
The reasons why the Colts were the big winner is that Denver quarterback Peyton Manning spent 13 years with the Colts prior to coming to Denver.
Seeing Manning go against the Colts and his rookie replacement, Andrew Luck, would be an all-time great playoff storyline. So, I can’t disagree. That would be a fantastic matchup.
Thanks to everyone who played along.