The San Diego Chargers squeaked into the playoffs and many “experts” wrote the Bolts off before the Wild Card game in Cincinnati. Considering the Bengals were undefeated at home this season and beat the Chargers in San Diego in Week 13, it is easy to see why these experts picked Cincinnati.
But the so-called experts failed to take into account that San Diego had the mentality of a playoff team for the final four weeks of the regular season.
Even after the game, most of discussion surrounding the outcome in national media has been how the Bengals lost and not how the Chargers won.
The 27-10 victory was one of the biggest wins in franchise history and several players can take credit for having a positive influence on the outcome.
Philip Rivers was limited in the first half, completing five of his six pass attempts for 48 yards. He surpassed those numbers in the first drive of the second half (6-6, 68 yards, 1 TD) and finished with an efficient 12-of-16 for 128 yards and one touchdown. Nine of his 12 completions resulted in first downs.
The most important part of Rivers’ game was protecting the ball. He did not force passes into coverage and did not turn the ball over.
With the run game effective and the defense stepping up big time, the Chargers did not need Rivers to pass for a lot of yards. He did exactly what was needed and what was asked.
When asked to throw, Rivers looked great.
He showed amazing mobility in the first quarter spinning away from the pass rush and lobbing a throw to Danny Woodhead. His deep ball to Eddie Royal was superb and his touchdown throw to Ladarius Green was fantastic.
The run game was the backbone of San Diego’s offense against the Bengals. The Chargers’ running backs gained 183 rushing yards on 37 carries.
Ryan Mathews was on pace for 98 yards rushing, but he only had one carry for 3 yards in the second half to finish with 13 carries for 52 yards. Mathews missed practices during the week because of an injured ankle, but he told U-T San Diego’s Michael Gehlken he plans on playing in the Divisional round at Denver.
While everyone is anointing Philip Rivers as the MVP of the game, consideration should also go to Danny Woodhead. With Mathews down, Woodhead picked up the load in the second half. Woodhead had five carries for 16 yards in the first half and 10 carries for 38 yards in the second.
Ronnie Brown shocked just about everyone on the planet with his game-sealing 58-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The 32-year old running back had just one rushing touchdown in the regular season and his season-long run was 13 yards.
Le’Ron McClain did a decent job as the lead blocker in the run and was good at picking up blitzers in the pass.
The running backs also were effective in the passing game, hauling in five passes for 35 yards.
It is easy to look at receiving numbers to see how effective wide receivers were in a game, but numbers do not tell the whole story of the San Diego receivers in the Wild Card game.
The entire unit did a great job blocking downfield, whether it was on a designed run or quickly changing from running a route to blocking on a pass into the flats or underneath.
Keenan Allen had a big block on Eddie Royal’s reverse, but that was only one of a number of selfless plays that will not show up in the stat sheet but helped the Chargers win.
In terms of pass catching, only Allen and Royal were targeted with the rookie catching two passes thrown his way for 21 yards and the veteran catching the 33-yard bomb that set up San Diego’s first touchdown.
Any discussion about San Diego tight ends usually starts with future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, but second-year man Ladarius Green had a bigger impact on the game.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Gates was on the field for 40 of the Chargers' 59 offensive plays, whereas Green saw action on 50 plays.
Gates was targeted once, gaining five yards on his only catch.
Green caught all three passes thrown his direction for 34 yards. His fade in the end zone over a Bengal defender was San Diego’s first score of the day.
Jake Bryne was in on 13 plays, 11 of which were run plays.
Things looked bleak for the Chargers early on after starting center Nick Hardwick left after 10 plays with what was described as a neck stinger, but reserve Rich Ohrnberger stepped in and performed well.
Chad Rinehart and King Dunlap did a good job on the left side, but D.J. Fluker and Jeromey Clary had issues on the right side of the line.
Rivers was pressured numerous times and mostly, it looked like it was coming off the edge against Fluker or the inside against Clary.
But Rivers was only sacked once and the running backs averaged 4.9 yards per carry, so it was not a horrible performance by the unit.
Heading into the Wild Card game, a big concern for San Diego fans had to be the defensive line against the Bengals’ offensive line. When the teams faced each other in Week 13, the Cincinnati O-line had their way with the Bolts defense.
In the rematch, it was the San Diego D-line who had the advantage.
Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton was under pressure for most of the game. Corey Liuget and Cam Thomas each recorded sacks, and according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Kendall Reyes had a game-high five quarterback hurries.
If Philip Rivers and Danny Woodhead were offensive MVPs of the win against the Bengals, linebackers Donald Butler and Melvin Ingram were the defensive MVPS.
Butler’s strip of Giovani Bernard was possibly the play of the game, and Ingram was constantly in the Cincinnati backfield, except for the time he intercepted a Dalton pass.
Manti Te’o had a decent game, collecting eight total tackles.
Jarret Johnson, Thomas Keiser and Reggie Walker also contributed with a combined 10 tackles, three hurries, one QB hit and a sack.
The San Diego secondary has been suspect all year, but the defensive backs performed well in the playoff game.
Yes, Dalton finished with 334 yards passing and one touchdown, but he also had to check down to his second and third receiver because the primary target was covered.
After gaining the lead in the second half, the strategy switched to allow receivers to catch the ball but tackle them inside the boundary to keep the clock moving.
The Chargers employed a lot of nickel and dime defenses, giving safeties Jahleel Addae, Darrell Stuckey and Marcus Gilchrist plenty of playing time.
Shareece Wright’s interception was a big play that ended a Cincinnati drive.
Mike Scifres remains one of the most underrated punters in the league. It is a travesty he did not get voted into the Pro Bowl. Scifres boomed kicks and flipped the field position on every one of his punts.
Nick Novak was perfect on the day, hitting all three extra points and connecting on field goals from 23 and 25 yards out. His kickoff power remains a concern as only one of his six kickoffs made it into the end zone.
The coverage units did a nice job. Darrell Stuckey in particular made great open-field tackles on punts to pin the Bengals deep in their own territory.
Head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt limited Rivers and the passing game to start the game but made adjustments and opened up the playbook in the second half.
Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris had the line perform well against one of the NFL’s best defensive front sevens.
Defensive coordinator John Pagano created a fantastic game plan, putting pressure on the quarterback but also getting defenders to drop into passing lanes. Shareece Wright’s interception was a great example of blitzing from an area while also getting someone to fill the void.
The pressure dialed up by the defensive line and linebackers was the deciding factor in the game.