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NFL Playoff Preview - San Diego (9-7) at Cincinnati (11-5)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Call it a sequel 32 years in the making.
For the first time since the famous "Freezer Bowl," the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals will square off in the NFL playoffs on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Early forecasts for Sunday's game have the temperature reaching into the low 40s, certainly a positive development for the Southern California-based Chargers and a stark contrast from the last time San Diego visited the Queen City for a postseason game.
In NFL lore, the "Freezer Bowl" was the AFC Championship Game between the Chargers and the Bengals on Jan. 10, 1982. The Bengals won that one going way, 27-7, in what was the coldest temperature in NFL history in terms of wind chill. Air temperature was minus-9 on that day with the wind chill dipping down to minus-37 due to sustained 27 mph winds.
No one in their right mind wants to play in that kind of weather again but the Bengals probably wouldn't mind taking another 10 or 15 degrees off the current forecast.
There was a massive cold front ahead of the relatively balmy temperatures forecasted for Sunday and another looms behind it with the National Weather Service forecasting an 80 percent chance that snow and rain will fall Sunday in Cincinnati, with some of it likely coming during the game.
"Accumulating snow is expected," the weather service said in an advisory. "Snow will change to rain during the afternoon."
Either way, though, Cincinnati, which will be shooting for its first playoff win in 23 years, doesn't figure to be a hospitable place for any opponent because the AFC North champion Bengals finished the regular season a perfect 8-0 record on their home field.
"They have to come here to "The Jungle" and deal with our weather and our fans," Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "We'll see if we get the best out of them."
The Bengals' last win at Paul Brown Stadium may have been the most satisfying as they knocked their division rival and the reigning Super Bowl champion Ravens out of the postseason hunt last Sunday.
Andy Dalton ran for the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter in that one as Cincinnati closed out the regular season with a 34-17 triumph.
Dalton had an uneven performance with two touchdown passes and four interceptions but Baltimore could only turn those miscues into a trio of Justin Tucker field goals. He finished 21-of-36 overall for 281 yards as the Bengals (11-5) posted an unblemished home record for just the second time in franchise history.
Cincinnati scored the final 17 points after squandering a 17-6 halftime lead.
"We overcame the turnovers early and did a great job again in the red zone on defense, holding them to field goals early in the game," said Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis. "We got the lead back and then kind of went to work on offense."
The Chargers, meanwhile, got in the postseason by the skin of their teeth. Kept alive by a pair of losses earlier in the day, including Baltimore's loss to Cincy, San Diego rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to post a 27-24 overtime win over Kansas City to nail down the AFC's final wild-card spot and end a three-year playoff drought.
"It's been a real long time so it feels great to be back in," said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who finished tops in the NFL in completion percentage with a stunning 69.5 rate.
Nick Novak kicked a pair of clutch field goals, the first coming with 3:21 remaining in regulation and the other giving San Diego a 27-24 edge in the extra session, while Rivers threw three touchdown passes to help the Chargers outlast a surprisingly competitive Kansas City squad fielding predominantly backups.
San Diego remained in contention when both Miami and the Ravens lost prior to kickoff, then got another gift when the Chiefs' Ryan Succop pulled a would-be game-winning 41-yard field goal try wide right with four seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Rivers, who finished 22-of-33 for 229 yards with an interception, began the Chargers' comeback with a 6-yard touchdown toss to Eddie Royal early in the fourth quarter, while Ryan Mathews ran for 144 yards on 24 carries in San Diego's fifth straight triumph to close out the regular season.
"A great team effort," said Chargers coach Mike McCoy. "The one thing I'll say about this team and I've said it since day one, the character of the organization and the players we have here never gave up."
A day after the game, however, the NFL was forced to admit an officiating error that would have given Succop a second opportunity to send San Diego packing from five yards closer.
"With 0:08 remaining in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers, Kansas City faced a 4th-and-12 from the San Diego 23. The Chiefs attempted a 41-yard field that was no good.
"On the play, San Diego lined up with seven men on one side of the snapper. This should have been penalized as an illegal formation by the defense.
"The penalty for illegal formation by the defense is a loss of five yards. This is not subject to instant replay review. Had the penalty been assessed, it would have resulted in a 4th-and-7 from the San Diego 18 with 0:04 remaining, enabling the Chiefs to attempt a 36-yard field goal."
If the correct call was made and Succop connected, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have been visiting the Bengals this weekend.
San Diego holds a 19-13 overall advantage against the Bengals but Cincinnati topped the Chargers in the Golden State on Dec. 1, 17-10, when BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 92 yards and a TD and A.J. Green added five catches for 83 yards and another score. Meanwhile, Rivers recorded a season-low passer rating of 80.0 and San Diego turned it over three times.
"I want to be very respectful because they had a lot to do with it," Rivers said. "They caused the turnovers and they covered us. Some of it may not have been the best throw. They certainly were out there causing us to not get in the end zone and our execution wasn't great. We've got to execute better."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Dalton gets a lot of criticism in Cincinnati for what he is not but he doesn't get enough credit for what he is and that's a quarterback who has led the franchise to the postseason in three consecutive seasons, a franchise first and something players like Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason could never do.
Dalton is 30-18 over three seasons as the Cincinnati quarterback and set a pair of single-season franchise records this year with 4,296 passing yards and 33 touchdown passes but now he needs to take the next step and actually win in the postseason, something the Bengals haven't been able to do since topping the old Houston Oilers in a wild-card game on Jan. 6, 1991.
"People can keep saying whatever they want because we haven't won a playoff game," Dalton said. "You've got to win. That's what it comes down to. And for us to get where we want to go, we need to win. That's the way it works. For me, we need to get a win in this one."
When Dalton is on Cincinnati can look like a real Super Bowl contender. The Bengals are 15-1 when the TCU product has a 100-plus passer rating but just 15-17 when he fails to reach that goal.
At home this season Dalton has totaled 20 TD passes versus nine interceptions -- four of them last week -- with a 98.4 passer rating.
He's helped in the backfield by the combination of big-play rookie Giovani Bernard, the first Bengals rookie RB to reach 1,000 scrimmage yards (1,209) since Corey Dillon in 1997, as well as steady veteran Green-Ellis, who has rushed for 246 yards on 58 carries in five career postseason efforts.
Outside the numbers Dalton has one of the league's true gamebreakers in Green, who surpassed Anquan Boldin for the most catches by any NFL player in their first three seasons with 260. Green, already a three-time Pro Bowl selection, is also second to Randy Moss in receiving yards through three campaigns. The Georgia product also tends to excel against San Diego, compiling 14 catches for 168 yards with a TD in two career games against the Chargers.
Meanwhile. Green (11) and second-year running mate Marvin Jones (10) both reached double figures in TD receptions in 2013.
Trying to stop that group will be a pedestrian San Diego defense, which allows 366.5 yards per game. The difference-makers on the Chargers defense are Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, who leads the club with 103 tackles and has two sacks in his past two playoff games, as well as an interception and fumble recovery in his last effort versus the Bengals, along with defensive lineman Corey Liuget, who has a team-high 5 1/2 sacks.
As impressive as Cincinnati's offense can be, the strength of the team remains on the defensive side of the ball despite losing All-Pro caliber defensive tackle Geno Atkins (torn ACL) and starting cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles) to season-ending injuries.
Mike Zimmer's unit allowed an AFC-best 305.5 yards per game and only 19.1 points per game in 2013, tied for the fewest in the conference. Second-year Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the team with 171 tackles while Gilberry had a career-high 7 1/2 sacks. Corner Dre Kirkpatrick comes in hot after two interceptions last week against the Ravens, including a 21-yard pick-six.
The Chargers' offense, meanwhile, is second-best in the AFC, averaging 393.3 ypg. Rivers has been spectacular this year, throwing for 4,478 yards, becoming the sixth player in NFL history with five different 4,000-yard seasons.
The supremely talented Mathews ran for a career-high 1,255 yards this season and has been peaking recently despite a balky ankle, compiling an AFC-best 534 yards in December. He's complemented by third-down back Danny Woodhead, who ranked second in the NFL in receptions (76) and receiving yards (605) among RBs.
Outside, star rookie Keenan Allen made up for the injury losses of Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd by snaring 71 balls for 1,046 yards, both figures tops among all freshman. Allen, who has five TDs in his past four games, also had eight catches for 106 yards against the Bengals earlier this season.
Ageless veteran Antonio Gates (77 catches, 872 receiving yards) continues to handle the middle of the field brilliantly, posting his sixth season of at least 70 catches and 800 receiving yards. Gates now has help, though, in the form of the athletic Ladarius Green, who averages a stunning 22.1 yards per catch.
"We've been on a playoff run for the last month really," McCoy said. "We were 5-7, no one gave us the chance. And we just said, 'Listen, just take care of the next opponent and see what happens.' It's going to be the same thing this week."
The drought stops here.
Lewis is 0-4 in the postseason, Dalton is 0-2 and the Bengals are 0-for-the- last-23-years but everything points to Cincinnati in this one. The Bengals are the more talented club, they are 8-0 at home and the weather figures to favor them heavily.
"We've just got to go play," Lewis said. "We're not going to get any of you to shut up about it until we win."
It's time to shut up.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 30, Chargers 20
01/02 12:36:25 ET
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