Saturday, January 4, 2014
W2W4: Chargers at Bengals
By Coley Harvey
CINCINNATI -- Before the Cincinnati Bengals began practices this week, coach Marvin Lewis rattled off a list of themes they could expect reporters to write about and ask about this week.
In no particular order, among them were statements about how:
- The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were drafted.
- The Bengals haven't won a playoff game under Lewis.
- The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since 1990.
- The Bengals were good at home, sporting an 8-0 record there this season.
In a week in which Cincinnati was hosting a first-round playoff game against a San Diego team it had already beaten on the road this year, he was trying to get them to feel like underdogs. He wanted his players to feel like they weren't loved by the rest of the football world. He wanted them to feel the same sense of desperation and urgency the fans of their city had felt for 23 years.
He wanted them to know what was at stake Sunday afternoon.
Along with needing a win in order to advance in the playoffs, some around the city simply want the Bengals to win Sunday so they may start changing the city's postseason luck. Lewis knows that. He wanted his players to be aware of that, too.
For a possible drought-ending playoff win to happen, the Bengals will have to do the following four things. Here's this wild-card round Chargers-Bengals W2W4:
Does Good Andy show up? This was the top question most had for the Bengals for 16 weeks this season, as they wondered which version of the team's enigmatic quarterback would make an appearance. "Good Andy," the version of Andy Dalton who posted 300-yard passing games with ease and who could connect with receivers for three and four touchdowns in wins, showed up multiple times this season. But he wasn't present enough to render "Bad Andy" moot. Twice this season, Dalton threw for less than 200 yards in a game and four times had QBRs that were below 30.0. It was mostly against intense pressure that "Bad Andy" arrived on the scene, throwing ill-advised interceptions and forcing incompletions into difficult coverages. During the first half of last month's Bengals-Chargers game, Dalton was bad for one half before completing a 180-degree turn in the second half to help spark a big late-season victory. Of course, Cincinnati will need more of the good guy this week.
Hostile at home. Paul Brown Stadium has been a difficult place for opposing offenses to play this season. Even some of the league's best units -- the No. 3 Packers and No. 7 Patriots -- had their struggles there. New England quarterback Tom Brady saw a consecutive games touchdown streak ended as he was held out of the end zone. Two field goals were all the Patriots could muster in the teams' October meeting in Cincinnati. The Bengals had a timely fumble return for touchdown and a key fourth-down stand that beat Green Bay the week before the Patriots arrived. Inside the building nicknamed "The Jungle," the Bengals are averaging a 17.6-point margin of victory in all eight home wins. Ask the Bengals why they play so well there, and they are quick to defer to fans who attend those games. After needing help from local businesses to make a sellout possible, be on the lookout for how many fans the Bengals are able to have show up. An emptier stadium could lead to a less hostile environment than what the Bengals are accustomed to.
Offensive line shuffle. Last Sunday against Baltimore, Cincinnati's offensive line took a beating so intense that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was growing concerned about whether he was going to get out of the game with a line he could field this week. At one point, a trainer shouted: "We don't have any offensive tackles." When he did, Andre Smith and Anthony Collins, both sidelined by ankle injuries, offered to go back in and finish the contest. Injuries like those were among reasons why the Bengals barely had any linemen practice Wednesday when the week's playoff preparations began. Center Kyle Cook also had a foot injury and guard Andrew Whitworth dealt with his own ankle issue. Because of the line shuffling that resulted, Gruden said preparations this week have been "unique." While all of the injured linemen should be healthy Sunday, watch to see how well they all respond to their apparently nagging injuries. If just one isn't able to go, it could throw the starting line rotation out of whack. The same anticipated rotation that includes Whitworth at left guard and Collins at left tackle was first used the day the Bengals pounded 150 yards of rushing offense at a battered Chargers defensive line.
Kirkpatrick or Newman? In addition to a little uncertainty on the Bengals' offensive line, there are some question marks revolving around the left boundary cornerback position. Second-year defender Dre Kirkpatrick, who missed Thursday's workout with an illness that he was still getting over Friday, appears set to make his third straight start in place of veteran Terence Newman. Although Newman finally returned to practice Friday for the first time since injuring his left knee Dec. 8, it doesn't appear he's had enough time to get fully healthy. He only had the one day of practice this week. Still, he contends that he'll be in shape if needed. Officially, he was listed as doubtful for the game. Tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert could be similar game-time scratches or additions. After missing last week completely, both were declared questionable going into this weekend.