Cincinnati Bengals: San Diego Chargers

Upon Further Review: Chargers-Bengals

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
7:30
PM ET
video
ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Eric Williams and Coley Harvey break down the San Diego Chargers' 27-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs.

Live blog: Chargers at Bengals

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
11:05
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for playoff football between the San Diego Chargers and the Cincinnati Bengals on wild-card weekend.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at noon ET. See you there.



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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Live blog: Bengals at Chargers

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
2:30
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Cincinnati Bengals' visit to the San Diego Chargers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4:15 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Vontaze Burfict and Philip RiversAP PhotoVontaze Burfict and the Benglas travel to face Philip Rivers' Chargers in a game with AFC playoff implications.

The Cincinnati Bengals travel to San Diego on the team's longest road trip this season to face a Chargers team that's re-energized after a big win on the road against AFC West rival Kansas City.

The Bengals lead the AFC North at 7-4, but will have to hold off hard-charging division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh down the stretch for the division title.

Cincinnati should be well-rested coming out of a bye week. But the Bengals have struggled under coach Marvin Lewis in those situations, posting a 3-6-1 record during his tenure after bye weeks.

At 5-6, San Diego needs a win to stay in the hunt for the final AFC wild-card berth. The Chargers finish with four of their final five games at Qualcomm Stadium.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey break down the matchup:

Williams: Coley, what's going on with Andy Dalton? In the past three games, he's thrown eight picks versus just five touchdowns. He's been sacked 10 times during that stretch, posting a nose-pinching passer rating of 55.7. The Bengals are 1-2 in their past three games. Can Cincinnati make a deep playoff run with this guy?

Harvey: Very good question, Eric. If you pose that question to fans, you'll get a resounding ... well, maybe you don't want to hear their answers. While Dalton has his supporters, the naysayers have all the clout right now and with good reason. His November numbers, particularly when compared to his red-hot October that saw the Bengals win four games before Halloween, have folks here somewhat discouraged when they think about Dalton being behind center when the postseason begins. Dalton has run into a tough combination of awful late-season weather and a slew of blitz-happy teams. Five weeks ago, in arguably his best game of the season, Dalton aired it out for 323 yards and five touchdowns. Receiver and Southern California native Marvin Jones was his favorite target. He faced a Jets defense that primarily rushed with its stout defensive line. Since then, the Dolphins, Ravens and Browns have brought pressure from multiple angles. Combined with windy conditions in the latter two games, Dalton just hasn't played like he did a few weeks earlier.

Bengals fans definitely were watching the conclusion of Sunday's Chargers-Chiefs game, and many came away with one question following Philip Rivers' impressive comeback drive: Who is this guy? It seems that after a comparatively down season last year, Rivers is enjoying a true renaissance. What explains his play this year? I see his sacks are down. Does improved offensive line play have anything to do with it?

Williams: It's really been a combination of things. First, coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt tailored the offense to accentuate the strengths of Rivers' skill set -- accuracy on short-to-medium throws and decision-making. Rivers makes more calls at the line of scrimmage this season, and he's getting the ball out quickly. The result has been a career-high 70.8 completion percentage. As you mentioned, the offensive line has done a much better job of protecting Rivers, allowing just 20 sacks this season (No. 4 in the NFL). Tight end Antonio Gates is healthy and back to playing at a Pro Bowl level. And running back Danny Woodhead, along with receivers Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal, is good at creating explosive plays with his legs after the catch.

The progress of middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict has been interesting to watch from afar. Teams passed on the Arizona State product because of perceived attitude and work ethic issues. But Marvin Lewis took a chance on him as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2011. And Burfict appears to have thrived under Lewis' mentorship. What type of impact has Burfict had on the performance of Cincinnati's defense?

Harvey: My instinct is to say that Burfict is the Cincinnati defense. With a league-leading 118 tackles and on pace for more than 170, Burfict has been the pacesetter in the heart of one of the NFL's best units. He's the true definition of an enforcer and has become a modified James Harrison. He's just as intimidating as Harrison, the Cincinnati strongside linebacker who was signed in the offseason. He's becoming just as feared, too. Asked earlier this week about the league's most feared players, some Bengals wanted to add Burfict to that list. Still, I can't in good conscience say he is the defense because the Bengals have been forced into making a slew of key adjustments throughout the course of the season. Without Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, veterans Leon Hall and Robert Geathers, and the versatile Taylor Mays, the Bengals have still maintained their ranking among the league's top 10 defenses.

San Diego has some impressive wins this season. Obviously one of them came last week against the Chiefs, and another against the Colts last month. The Chargers have had some head-scratching losses, too. Dropping games to the Texans and Redskins probably isn't helping their playoff chances. What do you think explains the inconsistency?

Williams: McCoy is in the process of creating an identity for this team, which has led to some questionable decision-making at times in close games. The most obvious example is San Diego's failure to make what would have been a winning score from a yard out against Washington. After failing to get in on three chances, the Chargers settled for a field goal and lost in overtime. McCoy didn't hand the ball to every-down back Ryan Mathews once during that play sequence. The Chargers have struggled to close out games in McCoy's first year. In four of the team's six losses, San Diego has had the ball on the final drive with a chance to tie or win the game in regulation. The Chargers are playing a lot of young guys on both sides of the ball, which leads to inconsistent play.

How have the Bengals made up for the absence of the team's best defensive player in Atkins, who suffered a season-ending ACL knee injury?

Harvey: In order to absorb the loss of Atkins, the Bengals have moved backup tackle Brandon Thompson into the All-Pro's spot. A second-year lineman out of Clemson, Thompson had already been playing well before he was called upon to fill in for Atkins, but he's been even better since moving into the starting lineup, plugging holes and springing linebackers like Burfict and Vincent Rey for big tackles and sacks. Along with moving Thompson into a bigger role, the Bengals have plugged in some defensive ends such as Wallace Gilberry and rookie Margus Hunt into Atkins' position.

This week, though, the Bengals appear to have a little good news on the injury front. Defensive tackle Devon Still is expected to return from a dislocated elbow that he suffered against Detroit.

The Bengals can get production from a host of playmakers in their multiple-threat offense. The Chargers seem to have a similar combination of receivers and running backs and, of course, Gates. What does San Diego's offensive identity appear to be? Is it safe to consider it a team set on spreading the ball and points around?

Williams: I think that's fair. The Chargers run an up-tempo offense predicated on quick throws and getting the ball into the hands of playmakers like Allen, Royal and Woodhead. Like any NFL offense, San Diego wants to find matchups it can win each week, so the player who ends up with the most catches changes from week to week. While San Diego is a pass-first offense, McCoy also wants to create balance, which means using a power running game to complement what the Chargers do in the pass game. This season, San Diego has done that well with Mathews rushing for 731 yards in 11 games, averaging 4.4 yards a carry. Mathews' effectiveness has helped San Diego keep opposing defenses honest.

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