My heart hurts after yesterday, when on just the first day of these playoffs we were given two games won by a combined three points, one of which required a game-winning field goal as time expired. We can go in one of two directions today then: bitter disappointment and laughers, or much more white knuckle fun.
Bitter will certainly be a theme today. More so later this afternoon in Green Bay, where the human body will need at least 17 layers of clothing to ward off frostbite. But Cincinnati won’t exactly be balmy and pleasant for the wild card game between the hometown Bengals and the visiting San Diego Chargers, with a mix of rain and snow expected right around gametime.
So passing may prove difficult for two teams that do that often and do it well. That possible blustery winter mess may become an equalizer for an overmatched Chargers defense with one of the league’s worst secondaries as it tries to contain A.J. Green, and ditto for the Bengals against offensive rookie of the year candidate Keenan Allen.
Just how overmatched are the Chargers? We have numbers for that…
|Chargers offense||Bengals offense|
|Total yards P/Game||393.3 (5th)||368.2 (10th)|
|Passing yards P/Game||270.5 (4th)||258.5 (8th)|
|Rushing yards P/Game||122.8 (13th)||109.7 (18th)|
|Chargers defense||Bengals defense|
|Total yards P/Game||366.5 (23th)||305.5 (3rd)|
|Passing yards P/Game||258.7 (29th)||209.0 (5th)|
|Rushing yards P/Game||107.8 (12th)||96.5 (5th)|
Keep doing that weather dance, Chargers. Because that feels like the only way a team which is mostly in the playoffs because no one else at the bottom of the AFC wanted to play in January has a shot against an opponent still searching for its first playoff win since 1991.
Or maybe there’s another way. Hey Andy Daltons, which one of you will show up?
The other numbers that matter: These two teams met almost exactly a month ago in Week 13, with the Bengals winning 17-10. In that game Dalton was fine and alright. Translation: meh.
He wasn’t sacked, though he threw one of his 20 interceptions (note: that number is not good). And predictably against a defense that gave up 8.0 yards per pass attempt, he was quite efficient, with 8.3 YPA. But that rate lies a bit, as of Dalton’s 190 total yards — his second lowest single-game total of the season — 50 of them came on one pass. Much of the chunk yardage from an offense that finished second with 15 completions of 40 yards or more was zapped. Yet the difference in the game came on one such a play: a viciously blown coverage up the middle on A.J Green (who’s pretty important) that ended in a 21-yard touchdown.
In some way, that game was a microcosm of Dalton’s season. He was briefly brilliant, but also maddening, and he’d save himself with that key deep connection to either Green, Marvin Jones, or Andrew Hawkins. Dalton’s passer rating fell below 65.0 in five games, but climbed above 120.0 in four others. I expect the latter today, and that inflated Chargers YPA holding up while Dalton picks apart cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall.
The injuries that matter: Both Bengals tight ends are listed as questionable, but they’re expected to play. Tyler Eifert practiced in full on Friday, which strongly suggests his shoulder injury won’t be too restrictive today. The same assumption can be made with Jermaine Gresham, who was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday, but was a full participant Friday with his hamstring problem.
The far more significant Bengals injury belongs to Terence Newman, who could only get in one limited session all week due to a knee injury and is listed as doubtful. That means Dre Kirkpatrick will be taking meaningful snaps while trying to defending the bombing of Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen, and he’s generally struggled in coverage. That gut punch comes to a defense already missing the pressure brought by Geno Atkins (torn ACL).
The Chargers are much healthier, though I suppose we should note the usual Ryan Mathews ding, though I’m confident our world would crumble if he was fully healthy at any point in an NFL season. This time it’s an ankle injury, but he’ll play after he was given the most carries over the final five weeks. During that stretch he finally looked like the Ryan Mathews the Chargers invested a first-round pick in, cutting and slashing his way to 629 total yards. Overall he finished with 1,255 rushing yards (the seventh best total in the league), and six +100 yard games on the ground (only LeSean McCoy had more).
The difference maker: We’ll call it a tie between Allen and Danny Woodhead, as it feels like the Chargers need a huge performance from one of those two.
Mathews will likely be stuffed by Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, and a front seven that was one of only six in the league to allow less than 100 rushing yards per game, and they gave up just six rushing touchdowns. Enter Woodhead then, who finished second in receiving yards among running backs with 605 while scoring six times through the air. He’ll be catching and running against a defense which allowed 46.7 receiving yards to running backs per game.
Then we have Allen, who’s Rivers’ answer to A.J. Green. He’s not on Green’s level (yet?), but he reflects many of the same unique qualities: speed that he combines with length, and physicality to win contested balls. He had five +100 yard games, and his sizzle factor rose to end the season, with five touchdowns over the last four weeks.
The matchup to watch: I’ll echo the always wise words of our own Alen Dumonjic here. If the Bengals want to have any semblance of a running game and get Giovanni Bernard in space where he can do things that make people call him Barry Sanders, they need to win the battle against Eric Weddle. His presence has repeatedly snuffed out long runs (the Chargers allowed on six chunk plays of 20 yards or more on the ground).
The Chargers will win if… Potential inclement weather doesn’t entirely dismantle Rivers’ attempted deep connections with Allen, Antonio Gates, and Ladarius Green, and if Woodhead can continually find space to be creative underneath. Rivers continuing to manage the pocket effectively and stay upright against a still tenacious pass rush even without Atkins (43 sacks) is also key. Rivers was only sacked 30 times this year.
The Bengals will win if… The good Dalton arrives, and that same potentially crummy weather doesn’t limit chances to rip one to Green deep. Leaning on Benjarvus Green-Ellis too much if the Bengals have to run more — which Marvin Lewis still does stubbornly — will end in tears.
Fearless prediction you can maybe laugh at later (or now?): Bengals 24, Chargers 17