The San Diego Chargers needed a lot of pieces to fall into place in order to make the playoffs.
Aside from a win of their own against Kansas City in Week 17, they needed losses by both the Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins to secure a playoff spot. That's exactly what happened on the final Sunday of the regular season.
Now they get to face off against one of the teams that helped them get to the postseason in the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals looked dominant over the Ravens last weekend, especially on the defensive side of the ball, winning 34-17. Both teams are more then capable of leaving Paul Brown Stadium with a win Sunday, but each team must accomplish a certain set of objectives in order for that to happen.
When San Diego is on defense
The Chargers, the 23rd-ranked team in total defense, have a lot of work to do if they want to stop the Bengals offense. The Cincinnati offense is filled with weapons. A.J. Green has lived up to expectations since coming out of Georgia. Marvin Jones has emerged this year as a touchdown threat, and Giovani Bernard has been the complete package as a playmaker at running back.
Who's the most important player in the San Diego vs. Cincinnati game?
Instead of worrying about trying to stop all of these weapons, the Chargers should focus on one thing: getting pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton.
To shut down the Bengals, the Chargers have to stop the guy that runs their offense, and Dalton is the key. When he excels, so does the rest of the team. If San Diego get pressure on Dalton and forces him into some bad decisions, the Chargers have a chance at limiting an extremely talented offense.
The only problem with that theory is that the Chargers don't have a true pass-rushing specialist. Defensive end Corey Liuget leads the team in sacks with 5.5. If defensive coordinator John Pagano can create pressure with his play-calling, then the Chargers have a shot.
When Cincinnati is on defense
The Bengals, even without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, have one of the best front sevens in football. Cincinnati is fifth in the league in both yards allowed through the pass and the run. The key to them stopping the Chargers is to shut down rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen.
Allen, a third-round selection out of the University of California, Berkeley, has come on as of late. Allen has caught five touchdowns in the past four games and has become an integral part of the Chargers offense.
Marvin Jones, a former teammate of Allen at Cal, knows exactly what his defense is going up against in the rookie San Diego receiver.
"From Day One, he’s been explosive," Jones told Bengals.com earlier this week. "He’s explosive and he’s a game changer.”
The Bengals defense has held up well against talented receiving corps all year, but they'll need to do it again for the team to be successful.
When San Diego is on offense
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has had a fantastic season, throwing for 4,478 yards, 32 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. San Diego needs Rivers to have a better performance than he did the first time these two teams met.
In Week 13, Rivers threw for 252 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 17-10 loss to the Bengals. Once again, turnovers could be costly in a game that should be very competitive until the end.
Also, the Chargers need to get the ball to Ryan Mathews more. Mathews carried the ball only 14 times for 61 yards in their last bout with Cincinnati. He needs to get at least 20 rushes for the Chargers offense to fire on all cylinders.
Most Rush Yds in December: 1 LeSean McCoy 598 2 Ryan Mathews 534 3 Matt Forte 488 4 DeMarco Murray 427— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 3, 2014
The Chargers are a perfect 6-0 this season when Mathews gets 20 or more carries.
When Cincinnati is on offense
For the Bengals, the key to a successful offensive showing is to feature a heavy dose of rookie running back Giovani Bernard.
Bernard has been a valuable asset to the Bengals in both running and catching the football. Bernard has 695 yards on the ground and has caught 56 balls for 514 yards on the season. He also has eight total touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden needs to make Bernard an important part of the game plan for the Bengals to have success against a below-average Chargers defense.