AFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: San Diego Chargers vs. Cincinnati Bengals

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Marvin Lewis and the Bengals will look to stay undefeated at home by beating the Chargers for the second time this season

AFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: San Diego Chargers vs. Cincinnati Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals will try and snap a 23-year playoff victory drought when they host the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Wild Card game at 1:05 p.m. ET on CBS. The Bengals (11-5) won the AFC North and are in the playoffs for the third straight season for the first time in franchise history. The Chargers (9-7) earned the final wild card spot last week by beating Kansas City 27-24 in overtime at home. These two teams met in Week 13 in San Diego, a game the Bengals won 17-10.

This is the first playoff game Cincinnati has hosted since losing to the Jets in the 2009 AFC Wild Card game. The Bengals haven’t won in the postseason in more than two decades, going all the way back to a 41-14 victory over Houston in the 1990 AFC Wild Card game, which was played at old Riverfront Stadium.

San Diego is in the playoffs for the first time since the 2009 season. The Chargers lost to the Jets 17-14 at home in the Divisional Round that season. This is just the second time these two teams have met in the playoffs. Cincinnati defeated San Diego 27-7 in the AFC Championship Game in 1982, as Ken Anderson out-dueled Dan Fouts in one of the coldest games in NFL history. The game-time temperature was minus-six degrees with a 24 mph wind making the wind chill a frigid minus-32.

3 Things to Watch

Week 13 Recap
Cincinnati made the trek west in Week 13 to take on a San Diego team that had just upset AFC West division rival Kansas City on the road. The Bengals brought the Chargers back to reality, however, beating the home team 17-10 in a game that was fairly even, statistically speaking. Only 20 yards separated the two teams (354 for CIN, 334 for SD), as both had the same number of first downs (19) and time of possession was basically split. The Chargers had the edge in passing production (243 to 190), but the Bengals out-rushed San Diego164 to 91 and had one fewer turnover (2 to 3). Andy Dalton hooked up with A.J. Green for a 21-yard touchdown in the third quarter that ended up being the deciding score. It put the Bengals up 14-7, as the teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter and Cincinnati ran out the clock to seal the key road victory. With the win, the Bengals moved to 8-4, maintaining a two-game lead in the AFC North. Cincinnati went 3-1 down the stretch, winning its division by three games and capturing the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs by virtue of a Week 14 home win over Indianapolis. San Diego meanwhile sat at 5-7 following the home loss, seemingly out of the postseason chase. The Chargers rebounded strong, however, winning their final four games, including one on the road against Denver. San Diego also needed some help and got it, as teams in front of them like Miami and Baltimore couldn’t take care of business, setting the stage for the Chargers’ dramatic overtime victory over the Chiefs in the regular-season finale, which rewarded them and first-year head coach Mike McCoy with the final wild card spot.

Welcome to “The Jungle”
Cincinnati calls Paul Brown Stadium home, but it’s more affectionately known as the “The Jungle.” Whatever you want to call it, the Bengals have been beastly there this season, posting a perfect 8-0 record. Among the victims this season were division winners Green Bay, Indianapolis and New England, as well as the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens and fellow AFC North foes Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Cincinnati outscored opponents 275-134 at home, or an average of 17.6 points per game. The defense, which finished the regular season third in the NFL in yards allowed (305.5 ypg) and tied for fifth in points allowed (19.1 ppg), was even stingier in “The Jungle.” In eight games at home, the Bengals’ D yielded just 289.4 yards and 16.8 points per contest. The offense also did its part, putting up an average of 364.9 yards per game, including five games with at least 390 yards. This is Cincinnati’s third straight playoff appearance, but their first at home in five seasons. Having lost in Houston each of the past two seasons by a combined score of 50-23, this is no doubt what Marvin Lewis’ team has been waiting for. San Diego on the other hand, was 4-4 on the road in the regular season, but three of those four were against playoff teams – Denver, Kansas City and Philadelphia. The Chargers have shown they can beat good teams on their turf, but the Bengals have no intention of letting them feel at home in “The Jungle.”

Quarterback Quality
Philip Rivers enjoyed quite the bounce-back season with first-year head coach Mike McCoy calling the shots. Rivers finished fifth in the NFL in passing with 4,478 yards and led the league with career-best 69.5 completion percentage. He tossed 32 touchdowns passes, his most since 2008, leading his Chargers back to the postseason and earning his fifth Pro Bowl invite in the process. Andy Dalton has taken his Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons as his numbers continue to rise. Dalton posted career bests in completions, yards, touchdown passes and passer rating this season. He was third behind only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees with 33 touchdowns and also was top 10 in yards and completions. Statistically similar this season, these two quarterbacks also share something else in common – a tendency to turn the ball over too much and a lack of success in the postseason. Last season, Rivers led the league with 22 turnovers (15 INTs, 7 fumbles), as the Chargers stumbled to 7-9 resulting in the dismissal of head coach Norv Turner. This season Rivers has just 13 giveaways with 11 picks and only two lost fumbles, but he hasn’t always been at his best come playoff time. In seven postseason games, Rivers is 3-4 with more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (8) and averaging just 260 yards passing per game. Cincinnati’s defense was second only to Kansas City in the AFC in takeaways with 31, and 21 of those have come at home. Unfortunately, the Bengals have been careless with the ball at times, as their 30 giveaways are four more than any other team in the playoffs (Denver, 26). Dalton has been the main culprit, throwing 20 interceptions and losing three fumbles. His 20 picks were the fifth-most of any quarterback in the league and he was particularly sloppy with the ball last week, tossing four interceptions against Baltimore. He also has four picks in two playoff games with no touchdowns. Those first two postseason contests were on the road in Houston, so Dalton should feel more comfortable at home. But he still has to make good decisions when he does drop back to throw, especially if the Bengals’ defense does its job by making Rivers uncomfortable in the pocket. Whichever quarterback takes better care of the football this afternoon can at least walk off of the field knowing they did their job.

San Diego Key Players: Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead, RBs
The Chargers’ backfield is powered by the duo of Mathews and Woodhead. The leading rusher, Mathews (right) has posted 99 yards or more in each of his last four games, including a season-high 144 in the wild card-clinching, overtime win against Kansas City last week. Mathews has been dealing with an ankle injury, but it didn’t slow him down at all last week and shouldn’t be a factor entering this game. Mathews needs to be at his best considering Cincinnati finished fifth in the NFL in rushing defense at 96.5 yards per game. While Mathews has been the main ground gainer, Woodhead has had a major impact as a receiver in his first season with the Chargers. An all-purpose threat during his tenure in New England, Woodhead is second on the Chargers with 76 receptions, which have gone for 605 yards and six touchdowns. Mathews also is capable of catching the ball out of the backfield (26-189-1), while Woodhead has rushed for 429 yards and two scores. This versatility will be important against the Bengals’ defense, as yards and points have been hard to come against this unit, especially at home. Whether it’s Mathews or Woodhead or a combination of the two, the Chargers need some plays out of their backfield to help take pressure off of Philip Rivers and the passing game.

Cincinnati Key Players: Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RBs
The Bengals feature more of a speed-power combo in their backfield in the form of Bernard and Green-Ellis. The first running back taken in April’s draft (2nd round, 37th overall), Bernard has made a number of highlight-reel plays this season, using his speed and explosiveness to rack up the yards. He scored eight total touchdowns, as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per reception. Green-Ellis is the veteran and leads the way with 756 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns. His job is to get the tough yardage, especially on third down and near the goal-line, as his 48 first downs can attest. Together this duo has accumulated close to 2,000 yards of total offense and 15 total touchdowns. The Bengals have been more of a passing offense this season, but the running game still needs do its part. San Diego fared pretty well against the run (107.8 ypg) during the regular season, so any real estate Bernard and Green-Eillis can claim this afternoon should make Andy Dalton’s job that much easier.

Final Analysis

After decades of futility, Cincinnati has seemingly found its stride under Marvin Lewis. The Bengals won the AFC North and are in the playoffs for a third straight season for the first time in franchise history. All San Diego head coach Mike McCoy did in his first season was lead the Chargers back to the postseason for the first time since 2009. The Chargers won their last four games to get here, but have a tall task ahead of them as the Bengals went a perfect 8-0 at home.

Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game in 23 years, but its last two losses came on the road, in Houston. The Bengals’ hard work during the regular season has paid off, and I fully expect this team to be fired up and ready to go on their home turf, Paul Brown Stadium, aka “The Jungle.” Cincinnati’s defense was one of the best in the NFL during the regular season and I think it will be too much for Philip Rivers and company to overcome. Andy Dalton makes just enough plays through the air and minimizes his mistakes, as the Bengals snap their long playoff victory drought with a well-rounded effort.

Cincinnati 27, San Diego 17

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