The Bengals entered the game with an 8-0 mark at home in the regular season and had scored more than 40 points in four of their last five contests.
On Sunday, Cincinnati seemingly did not show up. San Diego had its way in the trenches on both sides of the football, and quarterback Andy Dalton's support crumbled.
The loss marks the third consecutive year the Bengals have made a first-round exit from the postseason. Now, the focus shifts to the offseason, where a potentially wild free-agent market and NFL draft await.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the loss.
In a strange turn of events, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's unit simply did not show up to play against the run.
Cincinnati was gashed early and often by San Diego. As a result, the Chargers were able to rack up 196 total yards on the ground. Granted, 58 of those came on a Ronnie Brown touchdown run that occurred after the game had already been decided—but that's a bad thing, as the unit had simply mailed it in at that point.
The Bengals allowed Danny Woodhead to rush 15 times for 54 yards, and Ryan Mathews took 13 carries for 52 yards. Any time a cutback lane presented itself, the Chargers were able to find it.
Fans should be shocked to see those numbers. The team gets defensive tackle Geno Atkins back from injury next season, but the unit had played much better without him for most of the season.
Things were clearly ugly for the Cincinnati Bengals defense from the opening gun, especially when one takes a gander at the rushing numbers.
But San Diego came out with a nifty no-huddle look in the second half, and Zimmer's unit simply had no response. Ricky Henne of the Chargers' website captured the essence of the surprise attack:
Bolts going no-huddle now. I like it!— Ricky Henne (@ChargersRHenne) January 5, 2014
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers only had to attempt 16 passes on the day, the majority of which came in the second half. He completed 12 of them for 128 yards and a score.
This will begin to sound like a broken record, but the secondary will get healthy next season after missing key pieces such as Leon Hall. Zimmer's unit will get praise for forcing critical punts after the offense turned the ball over, but overall, it was far from a good day for the unit.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had a miserable outing against San Diego.
While the TCU product looked great in the opening half, it all came tumbling down as the game wore on. Dalton finished by completing 29-of-51 passes overall for 334 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Oh, and who can forget the unforced fumble Dalton committed mid-dive?
Now, one has to wonder what the future holds. When Dalton is good, he's generally great. When he's bad, the Bengals simply cannot win.
Dalton is also bad at the worst possible times, as Fox Sports illustrates:
No starting QB has EVER reached the playoffs in each of his first 3 seasons & not won at least 1 postseason game. Andy Dalton is the first.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 5, 2014
Now, the dilemma becomes whether or not to bring in some competition. That argument may be swayed by the next point...
For all of the talk about how the Cincinnati Bengals are so talented on the offensive side of the football and Andy Dalton has no excuse, said talent let the quarterback down against the San Diego Chargers.
There were two great examples. First, there was rookie running back Giovani Bernard's fumble in the first half in the red zone. It was a complete game-changer that allowed the Chargers to stay in the game and ultimately win.
But perhaps most detrimental of all was A.J. Green's drop late in the game, which would have put the Bengals inside their own five-yard line. ESPN's Coley Harvey put it best:
A.J. Green's got to go up and high-point that one. Can't wait for it to come down like that.— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) January 5, 2014
Dalton's offensive line was also mediocre. He was under pressure all day, which surely played a role in his two interceptions. Speaking of which...
The talk in Cincinnati for weeks has mostly centered on how hurt the Bengals were, especially along the offensive line.
Andrew Whitworth and the rest of the patchwork line had done a good job of keeping Andy Dalton upright, but that drastically changed against the San Diego Chargers, a team that got two talented pass-rushers in Jarrett Johnson and Melvin Ingram back for Sunday's game.
ESPN tweeted out Dalton's numbers at one point, which demonstrated how horribly his line was playing:
Andy Dalton now 2-9 for 18 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT when facing 5 or more pass rushers today— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 5, 2014
Dalton was sacked three times and pressured countless others. The shifts along the line continued all game, especially when right tackle Andre Smith left the contest:
Andre Smith has a left shoulder injury but is expected to return. Vontaze Burfict has already returned. #Bengals— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) January 5, 2014
Anthony Collins played the game at left tackle and was routinely beat. Center Kyle Cook stood out as a weak link, too. Health issues were a big part of the unit's struggles on Sunday, but Cincinnati still has some work to do in the trenches this offseason.
It is hard to find a positive in such a negative outcome, but if one were to choose one from this game, they would have to point directly at second-year receiver Marvin Jones.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller and Ben Volin of The Boston Globe summarized Jones' day nicely:
Marvin Jones makes at least one crazy grab each week...and how about that throw by Dalton?— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 5, 2014
Marvin Jones, everybody. One of the top 5 catches of the year. Unbelievable concentration— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 5, 2014
Volin was referring to a 49-yard bomb that Jones hauled in, but that was just the highlight of an overall great day that saw him lead the team in receiving with eight receptions for 130 yards.
Fans can rest assured that one question has been answered before new ones arise this offseason: Jones is the answer across from A.J. Green.
With a third straight playoff loss to their name, the Cincinnati Bengals now have to turn their attention to the offseason.
Franchise player Michael Johnson is potentially heading to free agency, especially after the team locked up fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap earlier in the year.
Other players such as receiver Andrew Hawkins could be making an exit, too. Rotoworld's Evan Silva wants to see Hawkins slip away:
Andrew Hawkins is one of #Bengals many underutilized playmakers. Restricted free agent. Hopefully some team frees Baby Hawk this offseason.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) January 5, 2014
There is so much talent in Cincinnati that some players may begin to appear underutilized. Hawkins is one such player—he was targeted just three times against the San Diego Chargers and caught all three for a combined 20 yards.
Finances will also play a part. The front office has to make smart decisions with limited cap room. Cincinnati has been known for keeping its own guys in the Marvin Lewis era, but something may have to give this offseason, especially with guys like Andy Dalton and A.J. Green needing extensions.
The writing is on the wall: Marvin Lewis is now 0-5 in playoff games as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel captured the magnitude of Lewis' postseason futility:
Among NFL coaches, only Jim Mora Sr. (0-6) has gone winless in more playoff games than Marvin Lewis (0-5).— Gregg Doyel (@GreggDoyelCBS) January 5, 2014
Does this mean a change is in the works after a third straight exit from the first round of the playoffs?
Perhaps. Making the playoffs three times in a row is great for some franchises. Is Cincinnati one of those places? Fans may be about to find out. Remember, Philadelphia got sick of being "just good enough" and canned Andy Reid last offseason.
What about the coordinators? On the defensive side, Mike Zimmer has annually come up around the league as a head-coaching candidate. His unit put on another mostly strong showing against the Chargers, despite a drastically different depth chart than what he began the season with thanks to injuries.
Head-coaching possibilities have also surrounded offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, too. But one has to wonder if that talk will keep up after his unit's performance against San Diego. The unit simply looked unprepared, and NFL.com's Marc Sessler provides a chilling account:
Not a good look for Jay Gruden. RT @AKinkhabwala: Multiple Chargers tell me Bengals did NOTHING offensively that they hadn't prepared for.— Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) January 5, 2014
Gruden may end up having to worry about more than just his future coaching jobs from a promotion standpoint.
It is hard to tell if the franchise that calls the Queen City home will be content to roll with the same staff for another year. There are good things in place, and there is much to be said for continuity, but the Bengals continue to reach the promised land and falter.
At some point, something has to change. Time will tell if that change occurs this offseason.