The Cincinnati Bengals will host the San Diego Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, Jan. 5, at 1:05 p.m. ET in a battle to determine which revitalized AFC franchise gets to advance to the next round of the postseason.
These two have not met in the postseason since 1982 in the famous Freezer Bowl, and much has changed since.
Cincinnati has now qualified for the postseason in three straight years, bringing things full circle in the modernization of the franchise. San Diego has righted the ship under first-year coach Mike McCoy, who has quarterback Philip Rivers in the middle of a career renaissance.
A few key players outside of the obvious will have to step up on Sunday to help their teams advance. If they do not, one team is going to end a magical season on a sour note.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is important in the grand scheme of things, but he relies on the talent around him to propel the team to victory.
That was the case in a Week 13 showdown with the Chargers in San Diego, when Dalton threw for 190 yards with a touchdown and interception in a 17-10 win.
A strong defensive performance helped, but Dalton was uplifted by running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. The veteran, also known as "The Law Firm," carried the ball 20 times for 92 yards and a score. The rookie Bernard took 14 handoffs and gained 57 yards.
The complementary duo in the Cincinnati backfield will be more important than usual against San Diego due to inclement weather. As Jay Morrison of the Dayton Daily News details, rain is sure to ground both passing attacks:
Cincinnati gained 13 first downs via the rush the last time these two teams met. Add in a read-option look with Dalton that the Bengals have shown as of late, and the importance of the Bengals backfield cannot be stressed enough.
Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers
There is no player more important for San Diego than rookie wideout Keenan Allen. The California product is coming off a season in which he broke a franchise record, as ESPN details:
Keenan Allen (SD):1,046 receiving yds in 2013; breaking the Chargers rookie record set by John Jefferson in 1978 (1,001)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 30, 2013
As the team's Twitter account reports, the result is Allen being a candidate for the NFL Rookie of the Year award:
Allen has always been important, but his contributions will be magnified against the Bengals because of issues in the Cincinnati secondary. Veteran cornerback Terence Newman is listed as "doubtful," which means Allen will get a shot at Cincinnati's rookie corner Dre Kirkpatrick.
As Bleacher Report's Andrea Hangst points out, this is a major development:
With Terence Newman (knee) doubtful, a huge matchup to watch will be Dre Kirkpatrick vs. Keenan Allen. Huge.— Andrea Hangst (@FBALL_Andrea) January 3, 2014
Kirkpatrick has been horrid in recent weeks (don't let interception numbers deter this notion) and ranks as the No. 97 overall player at his position on a list that ranks 110, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Allen was able to find success the first time these sides met with his eight receptions for 106 yards. With the passing game at a premium in poor weather, Allen must exploit the vulnerable Kirkpatrick continuously to keep the San Diego offense on the field.
Andrew Hawkins, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Short pass plays that go for big gains are the name of the game in a slippery environment where deep passes are not an ideal option.
Which team wins?
With the forecast as is for Sunday, Cincinnati has a major leg up in this regard if certain players such as Andrew Hawkins come up big. Hawkins returned from injury in the middle of the season and has come on in the last two games with eight receptions for 111 yards.
San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano understands the threat Hawkins presents, as captured by Ricky Henne of the Chargers' website:
We can’t give up those shot plays to number 18 (A.J. Green) and then we’ve got to be aware of Andrew Hawkins being in that situation with the big play he got. So the biggest adjustments for us defensively is, number one, making sure we don’t give up big plays.
Hawkins is a gadget player who catches the ball mostly behind the line of scrimmage on screens and short passes and explodes for major yardage afterward.
With both tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham officially listed as "questionable" for Sunday's game, Hawkins' role becomes more important than ever. As someone who can break a game open on one short catch, Hawkins may very well decide the game if he can catch a short pass and break free in the sloppy conditions.