The sixth-seeded Chargers upset the Bengals on their home field in frigid temperatures and will now head to Denver for a rubber match with the Broncos. Led by one of the best defensive efforts of the season and a power run game, the Chargers extended their win streak to five and will take that momentum into Sunday's matchup with the Broncos—a team they beat using a similar game plan in the regular season.
Here are takeaways from San Diego's wild-card win on Sunday.
Almost seven months removed from tearing his ACL, Melvin Ingram has returned for the Chargers and is already making his presence felt on defense.
Ingram played in four games during the regular season, totaling a strip-sack and eight tackles. On Sunday, Ingram upped his game with an interception and three tackles. There were a handful of times when he didn't get there in time to make a tackle, possibly stemming from his injury and time off, but he put that doubt to rest when he made an athletic move to undercut a receiver and pick off Andy Dalton.
Conservative play-calling in the first half led to 20 rushing attempts (12 of which went to Ryan Mathews) and just six pass attempts from Philip Rivers—tied for the lowest of his career.
If it was snowing heavily and below 40 degrees, this tactic might be a little more understandable, but it wasn't. Thankfully, Philip Rivers started to cut it loose in the second half, finishing 12-of-16 for 128 yards and a touchdown.
Despite playing their cards close, the Chargers weren't burned in the end by opting to run more. The defense played well enough to keep the game from getting out of hand early, and by going to the ground more, the Chargers were able to open up the passing game later on.
With a reserved passing game in play, Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal were limited to three catches between the two of them—all of which came in the second half. Ladarius Green led the team with three catches for 34 yards and had the game's only receiving touchdown.
It was a bit of a surprise to see San Diego keep the reins tight on Philip Rivers, but it worked out in the end, so there isn't a lot of complaining to be thrown on the part of Mike McCoy or Ken Whisenhunt. Running the ball proved to be the most effective way to move the chains, and the Chargers caught plenty of breaks with turnovers by the Bengals.
Lost in the chaos of Sunday's uplifting win was the troublesome news that Nick Hardwick and Ryan Mathews were forced to leave Sunday's game with injuries.
Hardwick, who hasn't missed a game since 2009, suffered a neck stinger in the first half and was unable to return. The veteran center dealt with a similar injury during the regular season, so the necessary precautions were taken to have him sit out instead of risking further damage.
Mathews, who has been gutting it out despite an injured ankle, played the first half and left early in the third at Mike McCoy's request. According to ESPN's Eric Williams, McCoy opted to rest Mathews in preparation for Denver.
It almost seemed liked San Diego was waiting to unleash its secret weapon in the third quarter as Philip Rivers drove the offense 80 yards in 10 plays to set up a Ladarius Green touchdown. Rivers was a perfect 6-for-6 on the drive and capped it off with a pretty fade to a leaping Green.
Rivers didn't get a lot of throws Sunday, but he made sure to make the few passes he had count. What San Diego proved on Sunday is that it can be productive on offense without forcing Rivers to chuck it up 40 or 50 times per game.
Knowing that Andy Dalton has struggled with turnovers in the postseason, defensive coordinator John Pagano wasn't hesitant to dial up a healthy dose of blitzes. There were several plays when Dalton had three or more players in the backfield gunning for his head.
The increased defensive pressure forced Dalton to throw two picks and lose a fumble, while linebacker Donald Butler helped rack up another turnover when he stripped Giovani Bernard near the goal line. The Chargers will need that same pressure next week when they face Peyton Manning a third time.
Some obvious beef was missing in the third quarter after San Diego stalled on back-to-back series near the goal line. Asking Danny Woodhead or Ronnie Brown to punch it in at the goal line isn't an impossible task, but you'd much rather have Ryan Mathews in that situation.
The Bengals shut the door twice and forced the Chargers to settle for field goals. In the end, those two possessions didn't hurt San Diego, but they might have if the score was a lot closer than it was.
With Mathews on the sideline, there has to be another alternative in moving the ball a few yards. Think back to the overtime loss in Washington when the Chargers had an opportunity to potentially win the game at the goal line.
In addition to forcing four turnovers and holding Cincy to 10 points, the Chargers defense has continued to improve its efforts in limiting the big play.
Marvin Jones caught eight balls for a game-high 130 yards receiving, but neither he or A.J. Green beat coverage deep to make the Chargers pay on the scoreboard. Everybody in the secondary was making plays in batting down balls or staying glued to receivers.
The pressure up front made it easier to defend the pass, but credit those guys in the secondary for making plays when the ball was up for grabs.
With Ryan Mathews on the sideline nursing an ankle injury, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown were forced to make up for his absence (which they did).
Woodhead and Brown combined for 131 yards rushing and two touchdowns. As the need for a dominant running game continued, the two backs answered the call and did so effectively. Would they be just as effective against Denver if Mathews were forced to sit out? Probably not, but it's reassuring to know they can come in and provide relief should Mathews need a break from time to time.