The San Diego Chargers are finally back in postseason action. After a wacky final few weeks to the regular season, the Chargers managed to sneak into the postseason party, and now they have to prove that they belong in the playoffs.
It won't be any easy test though for the Bolts. The Cincinnati Bengals are 8-0 at home this season and went to San Diego and defeated the Chargers, 17-10, earlier this year. The Chargers are 3-0 this year when they go on the road and face a team with a winning record.
Sunday's game should certainly be a very interesting matchup between two very talented football teams.
Here are three things to watch for in Sunday's Wild Card showdown between the Chargers and the Bengals.
1. A.J. Green vs. San Diego Secondary
The first name that pops into your head when you think of the Bengals is wide receiver A.J. Green. Green had 98 receptions this season for 1,426 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is one of the top receivers in the NFL, and it is extremely difficult to limit his production throughout an entire 60-minute game.
In the first meeting between these teams, Green caught five passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. That is a pretty good day, and although the Chargers would love to hold him to less than those totals, San Diego can live with those numbers.
The Chargers have the 29th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, and it certainly has to be the weakest part of their team this season. If San Diego can hold Green to around five catches and not allow him to make big plays against the secondary, the Chargers will have a great chance of winning this football game. If Dalton finds Green on multiple occasions in the red zone, then it could be a long day for the San Diego secondary.
2. What will Ryan Mathews do?
Ryan Mathews has been the San Diego workhorse all season, especially over the past four games. Mathews has racked up 473 yards on the ground on 107 attempts during the midst of San Diego's four-game winning streak that helped propel it to the postseason.
While the Chargers are heavily dependent on quarterback Philip Rivers to play great games for them, Mathews has certainly added another dimension to this offense with his breakout season.
Sunday will be one of his toughest tests of the year, though. It will be cold, and there is expected to be a lot of snow in Cincinnati, so that means both teams are going to have to rely heavily on their running attacks.
The Bengals feature the fifth-ranked rush defense in the NFL and showed an ability to neutralize the San Diego running game earlier this season by holding the Chargers to only 91 yards on the ground.
Mathews will be the difference-maker in this game. If he has a big day or even a good day, the Chargers have a great chance. If the Bengals defense shuts him down, though, and forces Rivers to throw the ball in the tough weather, then it could be a long and bitterly cold day for San Diego.
3. How will the elements affect the game?
Forget all that stuff about the Chargers being from San Diego so they won't be able to handle the cold weather. These are tough football players. San Diego will be able to tough it out and handle the cold, especially Rivers, who has shown success in cold weather games in the past.
That doesn't mean the elements won't cause some problems, though, but the problems will be there for both teams.
So who has the advantage in the bad elements?
The Chargers secondary certainly has to be happy about the weather, because it will make it more difficult for Andy Dalton to find Green and burn the Chargers for big plays. The Bengals secondary certainly likes it because it allows them to work on stopping the run more, because it will be difficult for the Chargers to spread the field out and have Rivers distribute the ball around to his many targets.
That means the battle is going to come down to who can run the football more effectively. San Diego has to be happy about that because it has had great success running the ball lately, but conversely the Bengals have excelled at stopping the run this season. On the other side, the Bengals are 18th in the league in rushing offense, while the Chargers are 12th in the league in rushing defense.
The bottom line: We never know what kind of an impact the elements can have on a game. That is why this outdoor, cold weather, playoff football is the best.
Anything can happen Sunday.
The biggest key in the cold and nasty weather is to not try to do too much on each play. This game is going to be old-school football, where every yard is hard fought for and every play is so important. The biggest key for both teams is to value each possession and take great care of the football, because when you start playing in the snow, turnovers start to occur much more frequently then they normally do.
Whichever defense can make the big play and set its offense up with a great scoring chance will be the team that wins the game on Sunday.