The San Diego Chargers' storybook season continued on Sunday with a 27-10 win on the road over the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round of the NFL playoffs. The Bengals hadn’t lost at home this season and beat the Chargers in San Diego on December 1, but they couldn’t muster a single point in the second half of this game.
It was the Chargers’ smashmouth style on both offense and defense that dictated the tempo of the game. It’s a style that has proven valuable for the Chargers this season and translates well to the postseason.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a physical brand of football is having success, because it’s the same style that teams like the San Francisco 49ers have used over the last couple of years.
Against the Bengals, the Chargers’ commitment to the running game paid off when coupled with a great defensive game plan.
Quarterback Philip Rivers only attempted 16 passes, but he took care of the football and made big plays when the Chargers needed them. Rivers averaged eight yards per attempt despite the lack of usage.
The biggest offensive play of the game was when Rivers hit wide receiver Eddie Royal for 33 yards down the right sideline to set up the score that would put the Chargers up 14-10 at the start of the third quarter.
After picking off Bengals QB Andy Dalton late in the third quarter, the Chargers lost four yards on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line and settled for a 23-yard field goal. It was a failure, but the Chargers still managed to extend the lead and take time off the clock.
|CIN 46||5||3||40||Field Goal|
|CIN 3||2||1||-2||Field Goal|
The Chargers had another opportunity on offense in the fourth quarter after another Dalton interception, but they stuck with the run on that drive as well. Three consecutive runs didn’t even net a first down, but the stalled drive still took more than two minutes off the clock.
San Diego's ground-and-pound offense wasn’t overly effective against the Bengals in the second half, but the end result was still 38 designed runs to just 16 pass attempts. Running backs Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead each had double-digit carries and over 50 rushing yards, while Ronnie Brown added eight carries for 77 yards—58 of which came on a long touchdown run that put the game away late in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers were ultra-conservative on offense, but they accomplished their goals. By getting a second-half lead, the offense put the pressure on Cincinnati to produce points with limited opportunities.
Once the Chargers got the lead in the third quarter, Dalton started pressing and the Chargers had a great plan to try to take advantage of him. A sack on first down turned into 3rd-and-14 on a key drive in the third quarter. Dalton scrambled and fumbled while diving for the first down, giving the Chargers great field position and setting them up for a 25-yard field goal and a 17-10 lead.
At 4th-and-3 from the 6-yard line, head coach Mike McCoy made the conservative decision to kick the field goal. But the Chargers weren’t nearly as conservative on defense on the following drive.
Defensive coordinator John Pagano wisely called a blitz on 3rd-and-8 and got pressure on Dalton that forced an errant throw. Cornerback Shareece Wright stepped in front of Mohamed Sanu to make the interception that gave the Chargers the ball at the Bengals’ 3-yard line.
The offense failed again to get a touchdown, but the defense knew it had a lead and its job was to simply limit big plays and keep the clock moving.
It was a role reversal of sorts because it’s usually the offense saving the defense with clock-killing drives.
The Bengals could only get short completions; the Chargers took away just about everything deep. The Bengals marched down the field without even facing a third down after San Diego took a 20-10 lead, but the Chargers were sitting back and waiting to make another big play.
"In the playoffs...it's not necessarily who wins the games, it's who loses them,” said safety Eric Weddle following the victory, via Matt Calkins of U-T San Diego.
San Diego’s defense forced the Bengals to burn four minutes of clock before outside linebacker Melvin Ingram fooled Dalton with a late coverage change and cut in front of a pass intended for tight end Tyler Eifert. The Chargers’ defense kept giving the San Diego offense opportunities to score, but even if they weren’t maximized, the clock continued to roll.
Cincinnati started deep in its own end twice in a row in the second half, each time after the Chargers failed to convert turnovers into anything more than a field goal. The long field and the defensive game plan combined to make it very hard for the Bengals to get a lot of yards quickly.
The Bengals settled for short gains that kept the clock moving. They had just one play over 20 yards in the second half, and their longest play on one drive was a 12-yard gain on their only rush of a 11-play drive.
Nearly every time San Diego's defense stepped foot on the field in the second half, the end result was a time-guzzling drive that ended with something other than a punt. Had the defense not forced so many turnovers, the offense likely would have been forced to be more productive.
The Chargers also may have baited Dalton into making poor decisions, as noted by Calkins:
Chargers only rushing three. Seems conservative, but making Dalton throw never seems like a bad idea.— Matt Calkins (@Matt_Calkins) January 5, 2014
San Diego’s much-maligned defense learned how to control the clock on defense when the stellar offense gets it the lead. This fact could be why the Chargers have been able to reel off five straight victories after starting the season 5-7.
McCoy and Pagano may have finally settled on a way they want the defense to play to maximize the team’s chances to win.
The Chargers now have a new identity on defense and are playing their best football of the season.
The Chargers are never out of the game if they continue to play this brand of football.
The offense can score points and will take time off the clock with the running game to save the defense. The defense is good enough to take away big plays to give the offense opportunities.
The two sides appear to be in perfect harmony no matter what kind of team they encounter. It’s not the most exciting kind of football to watch, but the Chargers’ ball-control offense and bend-don’t-break defense are feeding off each other and playing well at just the right time.
The Chargers were one of the hottest teams in football coming into the playoffs and stayed hot on Sunday. If history is our guide, they have a very good chance to win it all if they can keep it up.