AFC West: Keenan Allen

SAN DIEGO -- I wanted to share leftover notes from the only open session for the San Diego Chargers' organized team activities this week.

The Chargers have another OTA practice closed to reporters Wednesday but will open things up to the media again Monday.

Oliver impresses: Undrafted rookie free-agent running back Branden Oliver caught my eye again Monday. The University of Buffalo product does not have elite top-end speed, running a 4.56-second, 40-yard time at his pro day. But he consistently showed good vision and quickness through the hole during 11-on-11 drills, with the ability to make defenders miss. Again, take this with a grain of salt because guys do not have pads on and no one is tackling anybody. But Oliver looks like he belongs so far running with the second and third units.

Depth at defensive end: The Chargers have a pretty good defensive end combination with Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes but not much depth behind those two. Lawrence Guy provided good minutes and had an impact as a spot guy last year. Sean Lissemore can slide out from nose guard and play defensive end. The Chargers also are hopefulDamik Scafe can stay healthy and play to his potential. The Boston College product had chance to make the final roster last season but suffered a foot injury and was released with an injury settlement. The Chargers brought Scafe back on the practice squad at the end of last season and signed him to a futures contract in January. Undrafted rookie free agent Tenny Palepoi also has shown flashes at times during practice.

Open competition at returner: San Diego has a lot of bodies competing for punt return duties so far during offseason work. Rookie receivers Brelan Chancellor, Javontee Herndon and Tevin Reese, along with veterans Eddie Royal and Keenan Allen, caught punts during the specialty period. I wouldn't rule out Royal or Allen handling punt return duties come September. Royal started 2013 as San Diego's main punt returner but yielded to Allen during the second half of the season due to a nagging toe injury. And Allen has said that he'd like to return punts again, although San Diego coach Mike McCoy might not like the idea of his No. 1 receiver fielding punts for a second straight year.

Competition at punter: A player to keep an eye on is undrafted rookie free-agent punter Chase Tenpenny, whose presence is viewed as a move to save veteran punter Mike Scifres' leg during the offseason. At 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds, the Nevada product looks more like a defensive end than a punter. Tenpenny, a left-footed punter, averaged 44 yards a boot at Nevada and finished with 30 punts out of 100 attempts downed inside the 20-yard line. Scifres had a solid 2013 season. He was among the best punters in the NFL in placing the ball inside the 20-yard line, finishing with a league-best 30 of 56 punts inside the 20. He can also kick field goals in a pinch. But Scifres turns 34 in October and is set to earn the second-highest salary among punters for the upcoming season at $3.25 million. Competition at the position could have Scifres thinking about taking a pay cut.
Keenan AllenAP Photo/Gregory BullKeenan Allen became the fifth rookie since 2000 to top 1,000 receiving yards (1,046 on 71 catches).
SAN DIEGO -- It’s been an eventful offseason for San Diego Chargers receiver Keenan Allen.

Just check Allen’s Instagram account for all of the quirky details. He spent a day with friends at Disneyland, caught passes from Johnny Manziel while the quarterback trained for the draft here in San Diego, attended good friend Cincinnati receiver Marvin Jones' wedding and sat courtside to watch his favorite NBA star, LeBron James, perform against the Charlotte Hornets back in Allen’s home state of North Carolina -- all in the span of about two months.

“He takes his work serious, and he has a lot of pride in what he does,” Allen said about Manziel. “And I have a lot of respect for what he does. I respect his game.”

Of course, this offseason hasn't just been about Kodak moments for Allen. The Cal product also put in extensive work getting stronger and faster in the weight room and on the practice field, preparing for an encore performance to an impressive rookie season.

Allen is out to show doubters he’s not just a one-hit wonder, and his production during a magical rookie season wasn't a fluke.

“One thing for him that’s going to be key -- and I think he knows this -- is not to relax and think you’re going to just duplicate that year,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “They’re going to know where No. 13 is, have a plan for him and try to take away the things he does well.”

Rivers said it will be important for Allen to focus on doing the small things well in order to improve in his second season. And Rivers believes his new No. 1 receiver has the right mindset.

Allen said a primary focus has been improving his speed. One reason Allen dropped to the third round in the 2013 draft is that he ran a slow time in the 40-yard dash at his pro day. Still recovering from a knee issue that cut short his final season at Cal, Allen was timed at about 4.65 seconds.

Allen believes he is faster now and fully healthy.

“I mean if you run a 4.3 or 4.4, that obviously says that you're fast,” Allen said. “But a 4.6 guy can still make their way into the league. Some of the best receivers in the league ran a 4.5 or 4.6. So now that I'm healthy, I'm pretty sure I'm faster than 4.6.”

Chargers general manager Tom Telesco benefited from doing his homework, evaluating Allen in person and on film, and understanding how he consistently created separation to make big plays.

“His route-running [stood out],” Telesco said, when asked to provide one trait in the evaluation of Allen that would translate to the league. “Not only his quickness getting in and out of breaks, but his feel for it.”

Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich says Allen’s ability to make people miss at his size -- 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds -- makes him special.

“He has great wide receiver qualities,” Reich said. “He’s great off the line of scrimmage against press. He’s got great feet. He’s really good with the ball in his hand. You just ask him to keep building on what he did last year.

“From the fifth game on, he literally was a Pro Bowl-caliber player in his rookie year. He was phenomenal. Now, it’s all about consistency. Can you do it year in, year out?”

[+] EnlargeKeenan Allen
Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesKeenan Allen took to the air to score a TD in an important December road win against Denver.
Allen could have missed out on the opportunity to shine during his rookie season. Still working his way back from the knee injury, he was mired near the bottom of San Diego’s depth chart behind Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd, Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown during training camp.

Struggling to pick up the offense and unfamiliar with how to handle not being the go-to guy, Allen became frustrated with his lack of playing time and contemplated leaving the team to pursue his other love -- music.

Allen had been singing in the church choir since he was a child, and he also taught himself how to play the piano. He and childhood friend Kenae Stokes spent time in the recording studio and produced a song, with a tentative title “Start the Party.”

But fate conspired to provide Allen with that opportunity to play, as Alexander and Floyd suffered season-ending injuries early last season, forcing Allen into a starting role.

“It was serious to the extent that I was talking to my mama -- and not anyone else,” Allen said about his contemplation of moving on from football. “It was just a thought. I just thought I wanted to do something else. She just told me to stick with it.

“Football is my love, my life. And I just kept playing. Unfortunately those injuries happened, and I was able to make my mark.”

Allen thrived as a starter, leading all rookies in 2013 and setting a team record with 1,046 receiving yards and 71 catches during the regular season. He became the fifth rookie since 2000 to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards, and he was just as effective in the postseason, finishing with eight catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns.

Allen proved to have a nose for the end zone, with eight touchdowns. His signature moment was a 19-yard touchdown on a drag route in a big win at Denver during the regular season. He jumped over defensive back Kayvon Webster and ran over safety Mike Adams to get into the end zone for the score.

A running back in high school, Allen had a growth spurt heading into his junior season, growing from 5-9 to 6-2. That growth spurt led to a change of position from running back to receiver. But Allen kept those instincts for running the football.

He should benefit from the return of Floyd. The 6-5, 225-pound receiver has been a surprise addition for the Chargers, returning from a serious neck injury and looking like his old self during offseason work.

The two receivers forged a strong bond, often getting together to play video games at Allen’s house.

“Malcom is definitely a go-to guy,” Allen said. “He’s one of the best athletes on the team. He’s tall. He’s fast. He’s quick. It’s kind of hard for a DB to get position on him because he’s so big. Just the way he goes out there every day, he works hard and makes plays. He’s just a motivational guy for me.”

While he’s ready to show what he can do on the field come September, Allen is not taking anything for granted. He says he has to once again earn his spot among a talented group of receivers.

“Vincent comes out and has a great practice almost every day,” Allen said. “He puts in work, so it’s real hard to compete with that. Not taking anything from Malcom or Eddie, but Vincent really stands out with his routes and stuff like that.

“There’s always competition. Nobody ever has their guaranteed spot, except for maybe Philip and Antonio Gates.”
Drafted as a developmental prospect last season, receiver Keenan Allen topped the San Diego Chargers' list for performance-based pay in 2013.

Allen added $218,153 to his a little over $1 million in total compensation in 2013. Following Allen on the list for the Chargers were safety Jahleel Addae ($196,582), an undrafted rookie free agent considered a long shot to make the final roster last season; offensive lineman Johnnie Troutman ($187,085); cornerback Richard Marshall ($181,694); and receiver Vincent Brown ($160,243).

Check out the full list for every NFL team here.

Established in 2002 as part of the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL's performance-based pay program is a fund created and used as a supplemental form of player compensation based on a comparison of playing time to salary.

Players become eligible to receive a bonus distribution in any regular season in which they play at least one official down.

Each NFL team received $3.46 million to pay out to their players for the 2013 season. Generally, players who benefit the most from the pool of money are those that played extensively but had low salaries relative to their teammates.

Allen played in 898 offensive snaps in 2013.
Keenan Allen had one of the most impressive rookie seasons for an NFL receiver in recent memory. However, the San Diego Chargers’ receiver group is one of the youngest position groups on the team.

Royal
So keeping a productive, experienced hand around like Eddie Royal is important. Royal, who turns 28 in May, was to make $4.5 million in base salary for the upcoming season –- a high figure that made the Virginia Tech product a potential salary-cap causality.

However, I can confirm a report by Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego that Royal agreed to restructure his contract to a reduced, more cap-friendly number. Royal’s 2014 salary was guaranteed at a lower number that allows him to recoup some of the lost salary through incentives.

The move creates more cap space for the Chargers to bring back other potential free agents, such as the recent re-signing of middle linebacker Donald Butler. Royal will become an unrestricted free agent in 2015.

Royal was a mainstay at slot receiver for the Chargers in 2013, developing a good rapport with quarterback Philip Rivers. Royal gamely played with turf toe for most of the season, missing just one game. He also provides versatility with an ability to return punts and kicks.

Last season, his most productive as a Charger, he finished with 47 receptions for 631 yards and a career-high eight touchdown catches.
Although special teams coordinator Kevin Spencer has an experienced group returning for the San Diego Chargers in 2014, it could still use help in the return game.

Locks: None
Looking good: Nick Novak, Mike Scifres, Mike Windt
Free agents: Ronnie Brown, Lavelle Hawkins

The good: Novak had one of the best seasons in franchise history for a kicker, tying John Carney's team record for most made field goals in a season with 34. Novak also set a franchise record for accuracy with a 91.9 percent conversion rate (34 of 37) on field goals. Scifres was among the best punters in the NFL in placing the ball inside the 20-yard line, finishing with a league-best 30 of his 56 punts inside the 20. Windt avoided having his name mentioned during the year, which means no bad snaps and a full 16-game season played as a long snapper -- both good things.

The bad: Novak finished in the bottom of the league in touchbacks, with 19.6 percent of his kickoffs resulting in opposing teams getting the ball at the 20-yard line. The Chargers averaged just 22.1 yards per kick return, which was No. 23 in the league. San Diego's punt returner also is the team's No. 1 receiver in Keenan Allen. That's probably not a good combination.

The money: Novak is due to make $1.325 million in base salary in 2014, which seems reasonable for an above-average kicker in the league. Scifres is set to make $3.2 million in non-guaranteed base salary for the upcoming season -- that seems a little high for an above-average punter. For comparison sake, San Francisco punter Andy Lee has earned All-Pro honors four times and will make $1.9 million in base salary in 2014. Scifres is signed through 2016 and turns 34 this year. Windt is set to make $730,000 in base salary in 2014.

Draft priority: Low. All three specialists proved their worth and should return, but there's nothing wrong with adding competition during training camp. San Diego's most obvious need is adding someone with juice in the return game who can help flip field position and get extra first downs for the offense. Brown and Hawkins both returned kicks last season and neither player showed that they are someone that can routinely create big plays in the return game.
Like most other NFL organizations, the San Diego Chargers are a team that builds and maintains its roster through the draft. General manager Tom Telesco doesn’t necessarily put any more value on securing impact players through the draft, versus trade or free agency.

But annually selecting rookies that can make an impact on a team’s roster is important, particularly when you consider the player will be under the team’s control for at least four years, likely at an inexpensive salary.

So getting detailed medical evaluations and vetting players through the intense interviewing process are the most important things for teams this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Of the 53 players that finished the season on San Diego’s roster, 23 were secured through the draft, compared to 27 free agents, two through trades, and one claimed off waivers.

The Chargers have seven original picks in this year’s draft, one in each round beginning with the No. 25 overall pick. So they will be paying close attention to the more than 330 players invited to this year’s combine.

Along with evaluating draft prospects, Telesco will have an opportunity to meet with middle linebacker Donald Butler's representation as the Chargers try to get him signed to a multi-year deal before he hits free agency next month.

Here are five things to keep an eye on regarding the Chargers.

1. Physical cornerbacks who can turn and run: A major area of need for San Diego is improving the overall talent and depth at cornerback. Last year’s top free agent signee Derek Cox likely will not be back after being supplanted in the starting lineup by Richard Marshall. San Diego’s 2013 fifth-round selection Steve Williams could work into the conversation at corner in 2014. The Cal product sat out his rookie year after suffering a torn pectoral muscle during preseason play. But the Chargers need to add a couple physical corners who can cover -- through the draft, free agency or trade. Some names to keep an eye on include Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy. Those players stand out to me because of their length, athleticism and playmaking ability.

2. Edge rushers needed: The Chargers have several veterans at this position, but you can never have enough athletes who can rush the passer. And San Diego struggled at creating consistent pressure, particularly on third down. Three guys potentially available on Day 1 of the draft who could make an impact include Missouri’s Kony Ealy, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, and Auburn’s Dee Ford.

3. A run-stuffing defensive tackle: San Diego gave up an average of 4.59 yards per carry on defense in 2013, No. 29 in the NFL. Cam Thomas started the most games at defensive tackle, but will be a free agent in March. Sean Lissemore finished as the team’s starter at the end of the season, but needs to add some bulk to effectively fill this position. San Diego could certainly use a two-gap defensive tackle to control the middle of the defense, similar to Dontari Poe in Kansas City. Potential candidates in the draft include Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III, Minnesota’s Ra'Shede Hageman, and Penn State’s Daquan Jones.

4. Improved interior offensive line depth: With center Nick Hardwick contemplating retirement and veteran guard Jeromey Clary a potential salary-cap causality, the Chargers need to add some depth to the interior of the offensive line. Mississippi State’s Gabe Jackson and Stanford’s David Yankey are the top rated guards in this year’s draft. And USC’s Marcus Martin could be the long-term answer for a team at center.

5. Add a couple explosive playmakers: San Diego could use some help in the return game. Keenan Allen should not be the team’s main punt returner. He’s too valuable on offense. And the Chargers could use someone with some juice in the kick return game. Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, and Oregon’s De'Anthony Thomas makes some sense because of their ability to create explosive plays on offense and in the return game. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers needs a few more weapons on offense to make his job easier, and all three of these players would fit the bill.

Chargers rookies make an impact

January, 28, 2014
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SAN DIEGO -- San Diego Chargers first-round draft choice D.J. Fluker, an offensive tackle, was drafted to play right away. Third-round selection Keenan Allen, a receiver, was considered more of a developmental prospect. But both made a significant impact as rookies in 2013.

Fluker and Allen finished in the top 20 in snaps played among last year’s rookie draft class, according to research compiled by ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando.

Fluker finished No. 8 on the list with 999 snaps played, and Allen (898) was No. 19. Other San Diego draft picks that played meaningful snaps include middle linebacker Manti Te'o (504, second round) and outside linebacker Tourek Williams (204, sixth round). Undrafted safety Jahleel Addae played 354 snaps.

San Diego had a total of 2,605 snaps played by rookies in 2013, No. 10 in the NFL. New England tops the list with 3,595 snaps played by drafted rookies, followed by Chicago (3,186), Jacksonville (3,125), Buffalo (3,014), New Orleans (2,851), Tampa Bay (2,877), St. Louis (2,803), Dallas (2,791), Green Bay (2,719) and San Diego (2,605).

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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 12
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: The production from rookie receiver Keenan Allen is the headline here, with the turnaround of quarterback Philip Rivers a close second. The rookie season of Allen, picked in the third round of 2013 draft, was supposed to be a redshirt year. But season-ending injuries to Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander forced the Cal product to play sooner rather than later. After a sluggish start, Allen responded. He finished the regular season with 71 receptions for 1,046 yards, and tied for the team lead in touchdowns with eight. Allen finished with eight catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason, emerging as an offensive rookie of the year candidate and San Diego's No. 1 receiver.

Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Derek Cox signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Chargers in free agency as the team's top cornerback but failed to live up to that expectation. Cox gave up several big plays and was one of the reasons San Diego's secondary struggled during the first half of the season. Cox ultimately was replaced in the starting lineup by veteran Richard Marshall in Week 13.

Biggest need: More talent in the secondary, with a pass rush help and beefing up the interior of the offensive line a close second. The Chargers gave up 23 passing touchdowns this season, No. 12 in the NFL, but 18 of those came in the first 11 games of the season. And San Diego also finished with just 11 interceptions on the season, No. 26 in the league. Veteran safety Eric Weddle played solid, mistake-free football for the most part in earning his second Pro Bowl berth, but he needs help. Shareece Wright gradually played better in his first season as a starter, but overall San Diego needs to add more young talent in the secondary.

Team MVP: Rivers elevated the play of the entire offense and deserves to be part of the conversation of league MVP. In his 10th season, Rivers benefited from former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's conversion of San Diego's offense to a short passing game. Rivers finished in the top five in completion percentage (69.5 percent), yards per pass (8.23), passing yards (4,478), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (105.5). At 32 years old, Rivers looks like he still has the ability to play a few more years at an elite level. The Chargers need to add a couple of more pieces on offense to make his job easier.

 
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos won’t ask, but in all of the decisions they have to make in the coming days about how they deploy themselves on defense without Chris Harris Jr. in the lineup, there is one thing they shouldn’t do.

They shouldn’t move Champ Bailey. They should leave Bailey in the slot as the team’s nickel cornerback and mix-and-match on the outside.

Harris Jr. suffered a season-ending knee injury Sunday -- a torn ACL -- and no player in the team’s defense had been on the field for more snaps than Harris Jr. had been up until the point he was injured in the third quarter of the 24-17 victory against the San Diego Chargers.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, FileIf the Broncos leave Champ Bailey as the slot cornerback, he could spend much of the AFC title game lined up against New England's top receiver, Julian Edelman.
Harris Jr. played 1,042 snaps on defense in the regular season, the most of any Denver defender. He was one of just two players -- linebacker Danny Trevathan was the other -- to even top 900 snaps in the regular season. So, it is no small consideration, in January, days before the conference championship, for the Broncos to figure out what they want to do next.

Especially when you look at Harris’ impact on Sunday’s game. Looking at the video, it appeared Harris was injured on Keenan Allen's first catch of Sunday’s game -- a 19-yarder on a third-and-3 play with just under eight minutes to play in the third quarter.

To that point, with Harris Jr. in tow plenty of the time, Allen did not have a catch and had been targeted just once -- an incompletion -- by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers before that reception. After Harris Jr. left the game, Allen had five receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

The Broncos used Quentin Jammer in Harris Jr.'s spot to close out the game and it didn’t go well. Jammer, after not getting all that many reps in practice in the defense last week, was decidedly out of sorts. Certainly some of the issues were speed related for a player in his 12th season at a speed-first position.

But there were some basic positioning/footwork things Jammer has done far better this season, including several snaps when he was simply late to make the change out of his back-pedal against a player with the kind of explosiveness Allen has. And Jammer has played some quality snaps as an early down option in the team’s base defense when they wanted a little more size in the formation.

Though rookie Kayvon Webster, who is playing with a cast on his surgically repaired right thumb, has been targeted at times by opposing quarterbacks, he hasn’t had a lost season as some have framed it. He has upper-tier speed, usually plays with good technique with his hands, and has battled snap-after-snap despite the attention he’s gotten when he’s found himself in man-to-man coverage.

If the Broncos mix--and-match on the outside, they can put the help there, because Bailey can play inside on his own. It has been a quality move for him and the defense. And with the Patriots using their top receiver, Julian Edelman, in the slot about 45 percent of the time this season, it would put Bailey in position to square off with Edelman on those premium snaps.

As you would expect from a player with his anticipation and intellect, Bailey has played well in the slot. And there is more than one defensive coordinator in the league who would argue, because of the structure of passing attacks in the league and the variety of players who line up in the slot in terms of speed and power, that the slot corner is one of the most important players on the field.

There are some scouts, as well, who believe it might be the most difficult coverage player to find. Because things happen so quickly inside -- the time between snap to throw -- it take players with quick minds, who understand offensive concepts, and quick feet who are also strong enough to put up with, and handle, all of the contact on the inside.

In their 17 games thus far, Sunday’s included, the Broncos have held opponents to fewer than 300 yards on offense in four games. Bailey has played out of the slot in three of those games. To play Bailey as a nickel cornerback, the Broncos can also keep a pitch count of sorts on a player they need and who has played in just six games this season, Sunday’s included, because of a left foot injury.

Though the Broncos have plenty of folks with plenty of years on their football resumes to make the call, from here it looks like the one to make is to have Bailey keep doing what's he's doing, because it's been good for everybody and the Broncos don't have anybody else who can do that job like he can.
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.”


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.

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Rapid Reaction: San Diego Chargers

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
7:55
PM ET

SAN DIEGO -- A few thoughts on the San Diego Chargers' 27-24 overtime win against the Kansas City Chiefs.

What it means: Everything fell into place for the Chargers to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009, with Baltimore and Miami losing early games. All San Diego had to do was beat a Kansas City squad playing mostly reserves because the Chiefs had already clinched a postseason spot. With the help of a Ryan Succop missed 41-yard field goal at the end of regulation, the Chargers got it done to finish 9-7 on the season. With the final AFC wild-card spot and No. 6 seed, San Diego now moves on to face a familiar foe in Cincinnati, the AFC's No. 3 seed. The Chargers lost to the Bengals 17-10 earlier this season at Qualcomm Stadium.

Mathews to the rescue: Running back Ryan Mathews again came up big, finishing with 144 rushing yards on 24 carries. It's the sixth time this season Mathews rushed for over 100 yards in a game. Mathews finished the season with a career-high 1,255 yards.

No defense for Chargers' D: With nine different starters on offense, including reserve quarterback Chase Daniel and running back Knile Davis, San Diego's defense could not contain Kansas City's patchwork offense. The Chargers allowed over 150 rushing yards, but held firm when they needed to most at the end of the game.

Stock watch: Keenan Allen had another big game, finishing with five receptions for 89 yards to top 1,000 receiving yards for the season, boosting his chances to earn offensive rookie of the year.

What's next: The Chargers travel to Cincinnati to face the Bengals in an AFC wild-card game next weekend.

Prediction: Chargers 31, Chiefs 17

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
9:00
AM ET
SAN DIEGO -- Though they've been mysterious about specific plans for Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers, it's easy to know what to expect from the Kansas City Chiefs.


Players and coaches to a man have talked about how important it is for the Chiefs to beat the Chargers, but Andy Reid has talked about resting key players and trying to keep them fresh for next week's opening-round playoff match, a game that really is important.

If Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles and other star players are out of the lineup early in the game, that sends a stronger message about Kansas City's desire to win this game than anything they say.

Meanwhile, the Chargers may or may not be vying for a playoff berth by the time the game kicks off. If both Baltimore and Miami lose in early games Sunday, San Diego would get the final wild-card spot by beating the Chiefs. If either Baltimore or Miami win, the Chargers are eliminated and as far as the playoffs go will have the same motivation as the Chiefs, which is to say none.

The Chargers seem more motivated than Kansas City does regardless. The 8-7 Chargers have talked about the importance of finishing with a winning record and building momentum for next season. While those incentives aren't nearly as strong as playing for the playoffs, they are more than the Chiefs have going for them.

So the playing field definitely isn't a level one in this regard. Maybe the Chiefs will surprise with their effort but more likely they will be watching the clock and waiting for it to expire like a kid on an average school day.

The Chargers are an improved team since they came to Arrowhead Stadium and beat the Chiefs late last month. They had been allowing a lot of points and gave up 38 that day but since have progressed considerably on defense.

Outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jarret Johnson are finally healthy and playing well. The Chargers made a lineup change in the secondary, benching cornerback Derek Cox, and suddenly they're creating turnovers and getting opponents off the field on the third downs. San Diego is allowing just 16 points per game in the four games since they played against the Chiefs.

Offensively, the Chargers may be without running back Ryan Mathews and wide receiver Eddie Royal because of injuries. But it's hard to shake the memory of how easy things were for Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen against the Chiefs the last time. And they were playing reserves at the end of the game against the Chiefs. It was seldom used wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu who caught the winning touchdown pass.

The Chiefs could rise up and play well, but it's not wise to expect that given the circumstances. They have bigger prizes to play for than Sunday's game and the result should reflect that.

Prediction: Chargers 31, Chiefs 17.
SAN DIEGO – In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, Kevin Weidl of Scouts Inc. gives San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco credit for selecting solid contributors at the top of this year’s draft in right tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round, and middle linebacker Manti Te'o in the second round.

However, Weidl says Telesco’s best selection in his first draft with the Chargers might have been taking receiver Keenan Allen in the third round.

Allen
Allen has performed like a first-round talent in his rookie season, leading all rookie receivers in receptions (63), receiving yards (931) and receiving touchdowns (7). Along with those numbers, Allen has created explosive plays, leading all rookie receivers with 14 catches of more than 20 yards.

Evaluating his college tape from Cal, Weidl says that while Allen did not display top-end speed, he showed that he had the ability to create separation and make plays on the ball on a consistent basis for the Bears. And he’s doing the same thing with the Chargers.

Weidl: “Breaking down Allen on a few of the coaches' copy tapes from this season, it's easy to see why he is having early success. He has a natural feel for the position with his field awareness and route running. Like he did at Cal, Allen is doing a nice job of setting up defenders out of breaks, and is especially effective on selling double moves. In addition, he has a nice understanding of spatial awareness out of his cuts in knowing where the ball is going to be thrown from veteran QB Phillip Rivers, who possesses strong anticipation as a passer.

“Finally, while he will have an occasional mental lapse which can lead to a drop here and there, overall he has shown reliable hands. Allen is adjusting well to throws outside of his frame, and has displayed good toughness, focus and strength working in traffic with contested throws.”
SAN DIEGO -- He hasn’t received as much attention as other rookies on more prominent teams like Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy or Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard, but San Diego receiver Keenan Allen deserves major consideration for offensive rookie of the year.

Allen
The 21-year-old Cal product expected to watch and learn his rookie year, coming off a knee injury during the second half of his final season in 2012. But with season-ending injuries to fellow receivers Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd, Allen was forced into a more significant role in San Diego’s offense and proved more than ready for the challenge.

Allen fell down this year’s draft board because of the knee injury, but he’s been more productive than receivers selected ahead of him in the first round such as St. Louis' Tavon Austin, Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins and Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson.

At 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, Allen is sneaky fast with reliable hands. He does a nice job of creating separation out of his breaks, and for a big guy, he has some wiggle to create explosive runs after the catch. Allen also has a flair for making a big play in critical moments of the game.

Some statistics to consider:
  • He leads all rookies with 58 catches for 843 yards. He’s two catches short of the franchise record for catches of 59 set by LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001. Allen also only needs 159 receiving yards to eclipse the rookie receiving yards mark of 1,001 yards set by John Jefferson in 1978. That’s not bad for the Cal receiver who did not play in the team’s first game of the season, and had a combined three catches for 30 yards in Weeks 2 and 3.
  • Allen has taken on the role as the team’s No. 1 receiver, quickly earning the trust of quarterback Philip Rivers. He already has a team rookie record of five 100-yard receiving games.
  • He leads the team in receiving yards (843), and is the second-most targeted receiver (84 targets) behind veteran tight end Antonio Gates (98).
  • Allen can move the sticks with 45 catches for first downs, which is No. 11 in the NFL. He also has shown some elusiveness, with 316 yards after the catch.

Along with Lacy, Bernard and Hopkins, other players in the conversation for the award include St. Louis running back Zac Stacy and Allen’s teammate offensive lineman D.J. Fluker.

But among those players, Allen has had the most impact on his team’s weekly production.

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