The San Diego Chargers had a 1.6 percent chance of making the playoffs heading into Week 16. They were the Wild Card Weekend's biggest underdogs—expected to lose by nearly a touchdown in inclement Cincinnati conditions.
No matter if it's regular season or the playoffs, it seems all San Diego can do is just keep bucking expectations.
The Chargers' oft-maligned defense forced four Bengals turnovers and avoided major mistakes of their own offensively to pull away in the second half for a 27-10 road victory at Paul Brown Stadium to advance to the AFC Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs.
San Diego will get an opportunity to make its playoff push come full circle next week, as it travels to Denver to face the top-seeded Broncos. It was the Chargers' surprising 27-20 victory at Sports Authority Field in Week 15 that gave hope to their once-dead playoff hopes, and with the way their defense played against Cincinnati, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them do it again.
Ranked dead last in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA metric, San Diego employed an aggressive game plan and came out determined to force big mistakes. The Chargers sacked Andy Dalton three times, hit him six and, more importantly, pushed him into a series of mental errors.
Heading into the halftime break ahead 10-7 and without a turnover, Dalton's final 30 minutes quickly turned into a nightmare. After a 10-play, 80-yard drive culminated with a four-yard Philip Rivers touchdown pass to Ladarius Green to give the Chargers a 14-10 lead, Dalton solidified San Diego's momentum with a critical fumble on Cincinnati's subsequent drive.
That fumble was the first of three consecutive drives ending with a Dalton turnover. He threw two ill-fated interceptions, and while the Chargers managed only six points out of those mistakes, they proved critical in a game where points were at a premium. Including Giovani Bernard's fumble in the first half, Cincinnati essentially coughed up the difference in the game with turnovers alone.
With a downpour causing frustrating conditions for both offenses, San Diego focused on keeping things conservative. Rivers threw the ball only 16 times against 40 rushing attempts, and the Chargers stuck to their plan even when Ryan Mathews exited.
Ronnie Brown led the way with 77 yards, highlighted by a 58-yard touchdown run that finalized the score late in the fourth quarter. Danny Woodhead had 54 yards on 15 carries. Woodhead also scored the game's opening touchdown, a five-yard scamper with 48 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
The new year proved unwelcoming to Cincinnati's home-field advantage, which saw the Bengals go 8-0 during the regular season at Paul Brown Stadium for the first time in a quarter-century. In that 1988 season, Cincinnati advanced to the Super Bowl before losing to a juggernaut 49ers team.
This time around, the Bengals' home-field advantage allowed for nothing more than a confirmation of skeptics' suspicions. Marvin Lewis is now 0-5 as a head coach in the postseason, with losses in each of the last three seasons.
During Friday's practice, Dalton noted that he thought the previous two failures would help his team this time around:
The experience of having those two games has really helped us. We’ve got a lot of guys back (from those teams) and we understand what it takes. We fell short the last couple years. We didn’t take advantage of some plays that could have helped us, so I think understanding and really having that experience is helping us.
Instead, Dalton's performance was better than his first two only from a numerical standpoint. He finished with 334 yards and completed 29 of 51 passes, but much of that was in garbage time after San Diego pulled ahead by two scores. The turnovers proved key once again, and Dalton's record-setting season ends with him throwing six interceptions over his final two games.
Those mistakes may be thanks to Cincinnati's game plan, as the Chargers said post-game that they didn't see anything that wasn't already on film (via Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL.com):
The Chargers will now continue their improbable run. They've won five straight games, and somehow it feels preordained that they would need to take on the monolith Denver offense to continue their run.
Mike McCoy's squad will probably be double-digit underdogs once again. But at this point, can anyone really count them out?
Andy Dalton (QB, Cincinnati Bengals): D
For someone whose inconsistencies were the prevailing storyline coming into this weekend, Dalton started out acquitting himself quite well considering the conditions. He avoided making massive mistakes with possessions at a premium, allowing Cincinnati to dominate the field-position game.
The second half wasn't as kind. Although Dalton's lost fumble was a bit of a fluke—in nearly every other situation, a defensive player would have brushed him there—it still gave San Diego the ball inside Bengals territory and led to a field goal. When the margin of error is so low, it's the smallest factors that can decide a win or a loss.
As a passer, Dalton was his typical up-and-down self. He struggled noticeably against pressure, tried fitting some balls into bad spots and missed a receiver here or there. While Dalton was arguably better in this playoff game than his first two, it still wasn't nearly good enough to win.
John Clayton of ESPN highlighted the existential question regarding the quarterback's future:
Suffice it to say, with a possible contract extension possibly looming this offseason, we'll find out if the Bengals have enough faith in his abilities after three consecutive postseason failures.
Philip Rivers (QB, San Diego Chargers): B
Philip Rivers, game manager? After being arguably the second-best quarterback in football behind Peyton Manning in the regular season, it stood to reason that Rivers would have to be brilliant for the Chargers to have a chance. Which, of course, he was, but in a way different from what anyone could have expected.
With the rain falling, Rivers flipped his Alex Smith switch and executed it to perfection. He tossed a career-low six passes in the first half Sunday, none of which were caught by his wide receivers. San Diego came out with a game plan to hit the short and intermediate routes and hope for yards after the catch.
That didn't necessarily lead to the gaudiest of numbers for Rivers. If you're looking at this game only statistically and didn't watch a moment, it'd be fair to wonder what happened to the vaunted San Diego passing attack. But considering the conditions and the game plan, Rivers did exactly what his team needed for him to win.
Especially when one considers the performance of his counterpart.
Danny Woodhead (RB, San Diego Chargers): B+
Discarded this offseason by the New England Patriots, some thought Woodhead would disappear like many other offensive weapons whose careers were made by Tom Brady. Instead, he turned in the greatest season of his career—right about the time New England could use someone like him.
Woodhead was involved with every facet of the offense. He caught passes out of the backfield, received a surprising amount of carries with Ryan Mathews out and even got into the end zone. San Diego's advancement means it won't see Bill Belichick and the Pats until possibly the conference championship game, but it could create an awfully interesting narrative if the Chargers upset the Broncos.
For now, Woodhead can just rest on merely being the most consistent offensive weapon on a playoff game winner. Not a bad consolation prize.
Rey Maualuga (LB, Cincinnati Bengals): A-
Maualuga hasn't been the superstar the Bengals hoped when drafting him, and his future always feels a bit up in the air considering Cincinnati's stellar linebacking corps. Still, Sunday's game proved why the Bengals keep Maualuga around.
The Bengals linebacker finished the contest with 15 tackles, 12 of which were solo. He consistently made plays against the San Diego run at the line of scrimmage, preventing backs from getting to the second level. Oh yeah, and Maualuga did this all while playing on what had to have been an ailing knee after buckling it in the second half.
There are more decorated and better players on Cincy's roster. There just aren't many tougher.
The Chargers move on to next Sunday's Divisional Round, where they will take on the Broncos in Denver. Cincinnati has been eliminated from the playoffs in the Wild Card Round for the third straight season.
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