CINCINNATI — When you have been playing quasi-playoff games for a solid month, when you had risen from 5-7 and the edge of elimination in early December to 9-7 and an improbable playoff berth four weeks later, when you have survived by the width of a football whizzing past a goal post and won in places where you had no business winning, you are not quite so daunted by the task that confronted the San Diego Chargers late Sunday afternoon.
Down by three points at halftime to a Cincinnati Bengals team that hadn’t lost at home all year, the Chargers retrenched and returned to basics. They pounded the ball on the ground through the teeth of the Bengals’ defense. And they dialed up blitzes and coverages designed to rattle Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton into mistakes — which he graciously delivered as if on script.
The result was a 27-10 Chargers win in an AFC wild-card game in front of 62,277 at Paul Brown Stadium, giving San Diego its first playoff win in five years and extending the Bengals’ skid without one to 23 years and counting. The Chargers move on to play the Broncos next week in Denver, where they scored an improbable 27-20 victory in Week 15 to keep their season alive.
“This was the fifth round [of the playoffs] for us,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said, referencing the four straight must-win victories they tallied just to earn the wild card. “Round six is coming up in Denver.”
The outcome pivoted around a trio of Dalton turnovers in the second half — two ugly interceptions and a fumble at the end of an ill-conceived, head-first dive — which seemingly kept the ball deep in Bengals territory the entire second half of the game. Only a valiant effort by Cincinnati’s defense, which held San Diego to field goals instead of touchdowns following the Dalton turnovers, kept the score from getting out of hand.
Still, the narrative around the Bengals in the coming days will reek of failure: head coach Marvin Lewis’s 0-5 record in playoff games, and Dalton’s 0-3 mark — featuring just one touchdown pass against six interceptions. The last time the Bengals won a playoff game, in January 1991, Boomer Esiason was their quarterback and Paul Brown was still listed as their general manager.
“The finality of things hurt when you lose in the playoffs,” Lewis said. “Obviously, the biggest difference was turnovers. We turned the ball over, gave them points and field position, and we failed to get any back on our side.”
The end of the Bengals’ season will also open the door for three of Lewis’s assistants — offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and assistant head coach Hue Jackson — to interview for open head coaching jobs, including the Redskins’.
The Chargers were outgained by more than 100 yards and trailed by a minute in time-of-possession, but their offensive efficiency was such that they asked Rivers to throw the ball only 16 times, by far his fewest attempts this season. By contrast, when the Chargers came to FedEx Field and lost to the Redskins in early November — the first of three straight losses that put San Diego’s playoff hopes on life-support — Rivers threw it 46 times.
Half of Rivers’s 12 completions came during the Chargers’ opening drive of the second half, when he took them 80 yards on 10 plays, capping it with a perfectly thrown corner-fade to tight end Ladarius Green for the go-ahead touchdown that made it 14-10.
Otherwise, there was no need for the Chargers to throw when they could run with such success. Alternating all three of their running backs — Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown — San Diego rushed 40 times for 196 yards, averaging nearly five yards per carry. Brown’s 58-yard touchdown run late in the game sealed the victory.
Still, with a cold drizzle falling across the stadium, the Chargers held a precarious 10-point lead for much of the fourth quarter, twice forcing the Bengals to turn the ball over on downs near midfield. All told, Cincinnati’s last nine drives ended as follows: lost fumble, field goal, punt, lost fumble, interception, interception, downs, downs, end of game. A.J. Green, Dalton’s favorite target, was limited to three catches for 34 yards.
The harassment of Dalton “got to him pretty good,” Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o said. “The game is won and lost in the trenches. Our front did a tremendous job of getting pressure. Even when we were only rushing four [defenders] we were still getting pressure.”
The Bengals had needed an extension of the NFL’s blackout rule in order to get the required sellout, and only a few thousand soggy fans remained in the stands as the final seconds ticked down. Against the plastic and concrete of the empty stadium, the whoops and screams of the victorious Chargers clanged and echoed as they came off the field and pointed themselves, improbably, toward Denver.