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Chargers – Bengals wild card round preview

via Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

My, oh my has it been a while.  The calendar tells me it's been four years since the Chargers played postseason football, but those Nate Kaeding missed field goals are still fresh in my head.  I'm sure you all remember them quite well, too.  But think about how much has changed since then.  New coach, new GM, new running back, new lead wide receiver, but one presence has been there each step of the way since the first snap of 2006: the QB. Philip Rivers has played in every possible game since he took over as the starter in 2006.  Favre and the Mannings got a lot of press for their streaks, but Rivers holds the second longest active streak (135), trailing only the beloved Eli Manning (kidding!).  Philip led the NFL in completion percentage this season at nearly 70 percent.  His Bolts beat Manning's Broncos in Denver in a battle between the two highest rated QBs of the 2013 regular season. Rivers has really turned a corner after throwing 48 picks in the three seasons following his last playoff appearance.  Many media folks wrote Rivers off and said 2013 would be his last chance.  Check out the links yourself - here and here and here and here.  That third link, from Bleacher Report, naturally, proclaimed Rivers had begun a Delhomme-ian fall from grace.  I've just been wondering why we don't just face the facts from those years.  Rivers turned the ball over more, but not because his skills were wasting away.  Those teams were not very good.  In spite of the diminished talent, Rivers dragged those teams to a .500 record during those three dreaded seasons.

via Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Rivers was blamed for doing something more worthy of praise than scorn.  He took it upon himself to make more plays.  He didn’t come out and complain about the talent around him.  We saw him trying to escape the pocket when things broke down, sometimes trying to take a shot that just wasn’t available.  Rivers had to be superb for those teams to compete.  He put all that pressure on himself, possibly unfairly, but I’d rather it that way than the other side.

2013 Philip Rivers has been the best we’ve ever seen.  He didn’t lead the league in passing TDs like he did in 2008, or lead the league in yardage as he did in 2010.  But the changes around him (coach, weapons, protection) have refreshed him, reflected by his play.  Rivers takes shots when they are there, but is getting hit less, and has a great check down mate out of the back field when he needs it.

So it might be easy to torture ourselves by reliving the missed kicks of 2009, the pounding in Pittsburgh of 2008, the misfortune of 2007, and the utter shortcoming of 2006.  Each of those exits was painful in its own unique way.  But four years changes lots of things.  Be ready for a fight on Sunday morning knowing Philip Rivers is still leading the charge.  The guy who has given everything he’s got to this team for 8 seasons now was also the guy who threw the pads on to battle on a torn ACL (one of the grittiest, most daring performances ever) in New England in January of 2008.  Everything Rivers has done reminds me that he will do whatever it takes for the San Diego Chargers.  So I’m not threatening him, saying this is his last chance.  I’m happy for him.  Because without him?  The last 8 seasons would never stack up to what they have been.

Now we’ve heard about the Chargers QB.  What about Andy Dalton?  He has only led the Bengals to the playoffs in all 3 of his seasons as a professional quarterback.  But questions linger around Dalton.  He just might be the poster boy for maddingly average QBs who appear as if they should be so much more.  Or maybe he’s going to surprise us one of these years with a postseason performance like that of Joe Flacco in last year’s playoffs.  Dalton threw for about 600 more yards than he did last season on 58 more attempts.  Here’s the catch: a steady increase in his interception total.  Dalton threw 16 his rookie season, 17 last season, and 20 this year, including his two playoff games.

It’s hard to not be skeptical of Dalton if you want to analyze this QB match up.  Rivers has been resurrected, you could say, while Dalton has equally encouraged and maddened the Who Dey.  Dalton in 11 wins this season: 64.2 completion percentage, 8.17 yards per attempt, 27 TDs/11 INTs, and a 101.8 passer rating.  In 5 losses: 58.3 completion percentage, 5.96 YPA, 6 TDs/9 INTs, and a 67.7 passer rating.  The splits in wins/losses this season for Rivers are more as you would expect rather than flat out terrifying.

I would argue Dalton and Rivers played each other to a wash when the two teams met just over a month ago, with Rivers attempting more passes.  But, Rivers completed a pass of 15 or more yards to 5 different receivers.  Dalton found A.J. Green 5 times for 83 yards and a touchdown, Andrew Hawkins 3 times for 65 yards, with 50 coming on one play, then a bundle of short receptions.

That didn’t matter in that match up because the Bengals ran all over the place.  They out-rushed the Chargers 164-91 and were able to get both their backs going.  Matthews and Woodhead touched the ball a combined 28 times, but McCoy & co. didn’t get Matthews going at the same rate he’s been going since then: 107 carries for 473 yards and 3 TDs in the last 4 games of the season.  The Bolts are 6-0 when Matthews has been fed more than 20 carries.  He did it last week at less than 100%, but we’ll have to wait and see how much he’s got to give on Sunday.

The clear favorite for skill player that can change the game would be A.J. Green, but Chargers fans shouldn’t fret because Green’s yardage isn’t the best correlation you could find for Cincinnati wins.  The Bengals want to run the ball and if they’re doing it well, Green won’t need 15 targets for them to pull out a win.  He’s the first guy Dalton looks for and can go up and beat just about every coverage out there, but the Chargers should be worried about stopping the Bengals from running up and down on whatever green remains on the field Sunday before keying in too much on, well, Green.

The Chargers aren’t completely outmatched in the WR department thanks to their rookie of the year candidate.  At this point it looks like Eddie Lacy of the Packers or our own Keenan Allen will take home that award, but it’s never too late to motivate those voters with a great game on Sunday.  Allen had 8 receptions for 106 yards against Cincinnati December 1, one of his 5 games with 100+ receiving yards.  Allen is the guy if you’re looking for a big play in the passing game, but that could also come from TE Ladarius Green, who’s gained a nice following among the Charger faithful.

Antonio Gates, like Rivers, has been there through it all with Rivers.  Unfortunately for Gates, he’s suffered more injuries along the way and is now clearly a shell of what he once was.  Gone is some of that explosiveness and leaping ability.  But does he have a big game or two left in the tank?  It’s amazing how much respect Gates still commands, but if he can beat an occasional double team that still comes his way, that could really make this offense unstoppable.  He had two monster games in the first four weeks of 2013 against the Eagles and Cowboys, but since then it’s been a whole lot of 2 catches here, 4 catches there.  Just one, maybe two big catches in the red zone is enough to make a difference.  That would be huge against a top 5 defense that did not allow one red zone trip in week 13 match up between these two teams.

San Diego fans don’t need to be reminded how brutal their defense has been this season.  There was that then back-breaking drive allowed week 9 in D.C.  But then came the domination of the Giants.  The three straight three and outs and -1 2nd quarter net yards for the Broncos in week 15 was a timely statement from that defense.  The interception by Thomas Keiser in the fourth quarter of that game also didn’t hurt.  So the defense has obviously cranked things up; it hasn’t just been Rivers that got us here.  The biggest question for this defense might be whether the front seven is at their best in an early Sunday game in the cold.  The Bolts must stop the run, but their own run game could take care of some of that themselves by keeping Cincinnati off the field for longer stretches of time.

As you know by now, the game can be found on CBS at 10 AM PST on Sunday.  We’ll be serenaded by our good friends Jim Nantz and Phil Simms.  Audio will be available via Rock 105.3 and Xtra Sports 1360.  Ryan Matthews and Eddie Royal are two notables worth watching on the injury report for the Chargers.  The Bengals are keeping an eye on many injuries, including the tight end duo of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.  Snow and rain are expected in Cincinnati on Sunday with temperatures nearing single digits.

Written by Benjamin Dull.  You can find him on Twitter and read his blog here.

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