By Dave Thomas
There are times when being a sizable underdog actually comes in handy.
When it came to Sunday’s AFC Wild Card meeting between the visiting San Diego Chargers and the Cincinnati Bengals, the latter was a touchdown favorite to advance to the next round of the conference playoffs. Funny thing, however, someone forgot to tell the Chargers that.
After trailing 10-7 at the intermission, the Bolts ran off 20 unanswered points to shock the Bengals and the home crowd (Cincinnati had been 8-0 at home this season), sending San Diego (10-7) to a date next Sunday in the Mile High City with the top-seeded Denver Broncos. Not bad for a sixth seed that not many had even thought would make the post-season a few weeks ago.
Heading into a hostile environment in cold but manageable weather, the Chargers withstood the predictable home crowd frenzy, sending Cincinnati home early yet again before January had really gotten warmed up.
With the win, this loose bunch of guys in the white and blue uniforms now get to play one more game in January, something that has not happened for a number of years in San Diego. In fact, the Chargers missed the post-season the last three years, that is until new head coach Mike McCoy and a reborn Philip Rivers came on the scene.
San Diego Keeps Dalton and Co. Off Balance
On a day when Mother Nature could have been all so cruel to the Chargers (think 1982 AFC Championship and the “Freezer Bowl” at old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati), almost balmy like conditions existed for early January. Despite wet and chilly conditions, the temperature was manageable for much of the day, allowing the Chargers to operate at will for the most part.
The big key was the ability to keep Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton from ever feeling truly comfortable in the pocket.
In all, San Diego accounted for three Bengal turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble), while sacking Dalton three times. Even though Dalton and the Bengals were able to leave San Diego on December 1 with a 17-10 victory, this rematch was nothing like that day.
Offensively, the Chargers got touchdowns courtesy of three different players, that to go along with a pair of Nick Novak field goals. While Rivers certainly did not pile up any gaudy stats (see below), he did just enough to move the ball when needed. In games in early January in not-so-friendly environments, that oftentimes is just enough to get out with a win.
What Awaits in Denver?
While many likely did not have the Chargers getting past the first round, many more will no doubt have San Diego’s season coming to an end in Denver this coming Sunday. As of the early odds, the “experts” have pegged Peyton Manning and the Broncos as 10-point favorites.
Those same “experts” may have been quite surprised last month when the Chargers went into the Mile High City on a Thursday evening and left town with a hard-fought 27-20 win over their divisional adversaries. Although the Broncos got time to rest their players this past weekend, the Chargers should not exhibit any signs of rust, along with being rather confident at this point of the season.
Even though knocking off the top-seeded Broncos will be a tall task at that, don’t be surprised if Rivers and Co. bring their “A” game to Denver this coming Sunday, perhaps sending a few more shock waves throughout the NFL.
Offense Grade: B-
Far from blowing the lid off the stats chart, the Chargers did enough to compliment a very stingy defense. Rivers was a mere 12-of-16 for 128 yards and one touchdown, but finished with a quarterback passer rating of 118.8, while Dalton came in at an ugly 67.0. Chargers running back Ryan Mathews was limited to 52 yards on the ground (13 carries), but veteran Ronnie Brown came through with 77 yards and one TD on just eight carries, while spirited Danny Woodhead (54 yards rushing, one touchdown) again proved his worth to the team this season. Despite star center Nick Hardwick going out early after a helmet to helmet hit, San Diego’s offensive line hung in there and witnessed only one Rivers sack.
Defense Grade: A-
Facing a team that was perfect at home this season, the Chargers defense turned in one of its best performances of the season. The defensive stars on Sunday included Donald Butler (nine solo tackles), Jahleel Addae (four tackles) and six players with three each. When you get across the board production like that from your defense, you stand a very good chance of winning games.
For more Chargers news and updates, visit Chargers Central.
Dave Thomas has been covering the sports world since his first job as a sports editor for a weekly newspaper in Pennsylvania back in 1989. He has covered a Super Bowl, college bowl games, MLB, NBA and more. His work can be found on