San Diego is going to face an emotional Cincinnati Bengals team (coming off the shocking death of injured wideout Chris Henry) in what is likely to be a direct battle for the second seed in the AFC. This carries with it a first-round bye and home-field against all teams but Indianapolis—who is immovably entrenched as the first seed.
I cannot give this a blanket "biggest game" status thanks to the big victory over Denver in Week 11. That game was to overtake the Broncos and assume the lead in the AFC West, thus giving it number one status until the playoffs begin. The Chargers are essentially assured the division and thus playoffs with a two game lead over Denver now, thus the seeding-only implications.
That caveat cannot downplay the value of this game. San Diego has spent the last several years overcoming late starts to claw into the playoffs.
This has led to a scrappy—but beat up and tired—team entering in the playoffs with their tanks a little low. They have managed early playoff victories, but come up short in mid-round games on the road.
To earn the second seed San Diego would give themselves a week more (and a game less) time to recuperate. It seems faulty logic to excessively rest starters Indianapolis-style and risk an alteration in momentum.
The single week off of earning a bye should not be enough to cause that concern, especially when the team will probably fighting all through Week 17 to ensure that seed.
The results of this game could be what separates the Chargers from being true contenders or threatening up-and-comers. The Chargers have legitimized their win streak by defeating genuine teams in New York, Philadelphia, Denver, and Dallas. The one missing ingredient is a win over a non-divisional conference team.
Losses to Baltimore and Pittsburgh should not be a reason for concern as it was very much a different time and place, but this deep into the season every game has impact. A victory over another division winner will solidify the Chargers’ earning of that second seed and add even more confidence going into the playoffs.
So how do they succeed? What is the recipe for taking down Cincinnati? That is the key. The Bengals strengths tend to be a very direct counterpoint to San Diego’s own.
San Diego owns the 21st rated running defense, and that number would likely be lower if they had not held as many leads as they had. Cincinnati is a tough, run-centric offense that will test the Charger’s round-robin middle.
Finally having the linebacking corps at full health will help after spending the last several games with at least one of the core seven linebackers dinged up and missing time each game. Paired with it is the expected return of safety Eric Weddle, after Wednesday’s full practice.
San Diego’s pass defense will have a much easier time. Carson Palmer has gone five consecutive games with a quarterback rating of 81 or worse, never getting above 220 yards during this streak.
The former aerial assault-based Bengals now posses the 23rd ranked passing offense, easily the worst among division leaders (the Minnesota Vikings all the way at 11th are the second lowest).
These absolute opposites in strengths and weaknesses give two schools of thought. The team can either focus on shutting down the passing game and forcing the Bengals to an offense predicated on rushing alone. This singular dimension can take away options and lead to success.
The second would be to try and increase focus on the rushing defense. Bring safeties up and force the Bengals to win through the air. It is somewhat dangerous because Palmer, despite a down year, is a time-proven veteran and has the capability. If the team can effectively minimize the running game, the Bengals will be put in a position they do not envy.
Cincinnati lacks the depth to spread the field in the passing game, and one safety brought up with the second providing help against Chad Johnson should be enough to effectively neutralize the Bengals on early downs, allowing the Chargers to force Cincinnati into obvious passing situations that should enable aggressive blitzing
Since the Bengals are not built to go into the shotgun with four or five wide receivers on the field, linebackers can be thrown at Carson Palmer in the obvious passing situations an increased vigilance on run defense should be able to produce. The capacity to rotate English into the outside (as well as having four starting-quality middle linebackers) will be vital as the high-attacking style has the potential to tire a defense.
Looking to the offense, San Diego faces the fifth overall defense in the NFL.
A lukewarm running game will not be aided by the third best rushing defense in football.
The passing game (the strength of San Diego) could fare better, facing the 12th rating pass defense in football. Like San Diego, Cincinnati’s success has translated into leads that have forced teams into passing more often, which makes that rating deceptive.
The best chance for San Diego’s offense will be to attack a banged up safety position for Cincinnati. Their corners are effective, which could reduce Jackson and Floyd’s output, but another big game for Gates could be in the works.
Attacking the deep middle of the field with Gates while taking receivers deep should be enough to free up space and chip away at Cincinnati. The physical defense will still clog running lanes, but it should force them to spread enough that a rushing attack can be maintained in a modest sense. Taking Sproles outside and giving 243 pound Mike Tolbert a few carries could help their cause here.
Cincinnati’s tough defense has allowed 89 points the last four games, or a 22.25 point per game average after allowing 16.3 across the first nine. That jump of nearly a touchdown tells to the injuries that makes Cincinnati vulnerable.
Playing in San Diego, while looking to exploit those advantages, should be enough to turn the game in the Chargers favor. That success, translated into a win, should assure the second seed and great reason for optimism going into the playoffs.
Good luck and go Chargers!