The Chargers overcome some critical mistakes, and a game effort from a good Cincinnati Bengals team, to win their 9th straight game, as well as the their 5th AFC West title in the last 6 years (with some help from the Oakland Raiders).
The Chargers came into this game needing a victory to give themselves a chance at the #2 seed in the AFC, and the desperately needed bye week that comes with it. Against Cincinnati, this is not insignificant - the last time the Chargers faced the Bengals in the playoffs, it was in Cincinnati and the weather was -59 F with wind chill.
Further, the Chargers did what they have done so many times this year; find a way to win the games they have to win. Staving off a good Bengals team with late momentum, and finishing the game without going to a coin toss in OT is the mark of a winner.
Lastly, hats off to the Cincinnati Bengals coaches and players, who overcame the death of WR Chris Henry last week. Their preparation and effort in the face of emotional hardship was truly impressive. It resulted in the most entertaining game the Chargers have played this year, as well as a game that lived up to the hype of two teams competing for a playoff bye.
Grades are below the jump.
Philip Rivers struggled at times against a very fast Bengals defense. Despite throwing 3 TD passes, he also threw a pair of costly interceptions. The first was horrible, heaving the ball up for grabs in the face of an all-out blitz. Rivers was bailed out by the defense following this INT, but he has to realize that on some occasions, throwing the ball away is an acceptable option. The 2nd INT was a game-changer, a less-than-perfect throw to TE Antonio Gates that was tipped and caught by Bengals LB Keith Rivers - this INT opened the door for Cincinnati's comeback in the 4th quarter. However, as has been the case all season, Rivers was money when it mattered most. He moved the team 46 yards in 51 seconds without a timeout to set-up PK Nate Kaeding's game winner. For the day, Rivers was 24 of 38 for 308 yards.
Running Backs: B+
This was the best LaDainian Tomlinson has looked since the game in Kansas City. Tomlinson was terrific on the opening drive, accounting for 34 of the Chargers' 55 total yards. Throughout the game (until the 4th quarter) he found running room outside. For the game, he finished with a respectable 59 yards on 16 carries, and added 4 catches for 58 yards. Darren Sproles was not used much in this game - the Bengals made a point of not blitzing when he was on the field - he contributed 11 yards on 3 carries, as well as 22 yards receiving on 3 receptions. FBs MIke Tolbert and Jacob Hester were virtually invisible this week, as Hester had the only touch - 1 catch for a gain of 5 yards.
Wide Receivers: A
After a quiet couple of weeks, WR Vincent Jackson has returned to monstrous form, posting 5 catches for 108 yards and 2 TDs. On both TDs, Jackson abused Bengals CB Leon Hall - the first on a post-corner for a diving 21 yard catch, the 2nd on an out-and-up for 34 yards. On the 2nd TD, Jackson did a great job of going to get the ball instead of letting the ball come to him - the difference between a TD and an incompletion. Malcom Floyd added 4 catches for 63 yards - none bigger than shaking free of Hall for a 15 yard catch on the sideline to stop the clock and give Kaeding a chance. TE Antonio Gates was the beneficiary of double-teams for a fair amount of the day, he nevertheless contributed 4 catches for 33 yards, including a 3 yard TD catch to open the game.
Offensive Line: B
This game was the best the offensive line has run blocked in some time. Considering the quality of the opponent, and the Chargers' struggles, running the ball for 70 yards and a 3.5 yard average was better than expected. LG Kris Dielman had his best run blocking game in weeks, pancaking Bengals' LBs on more than a few plays. RG Louis Vasquez was also better in run-blocking than in previous weeks. Blitz pickup was generally good, excepting a play where LB Rivers blew through the right side of the line and sacked Rivers (the other sack was the result of good coverage downfield by the Bengals' secondary). For the 2nd straight game, RT Brandyn Dombrowski was more than adequate.
Defensive Line: B-
The Chargers stacked the line to stop the Bengals running game, and overall, the play against the run was more than effective. DE Alfonso Boone blew up Bengals' RT Andrew Whitworth for a sack in the 2nd quarter. As a group, the defensive line contributed 10 tackles overall. However, the line struggled to open up blitzing lanes for the Chargers' LBs. The Chargers ran several stunts and games inside to try and free up Merriman, Phillips, and English - virtually none of these blitzes were effective against the Bengals' offensive line.
Against the run, the LBs were more than solid, excepting 2 plays against Larry Johnson and Chad Johnson, where the backside LBs overran the play and opened up cutback lanes. These 2 plays resulted in 53 of the Bengals 114 rushing yards - this has to be corrected before the Tennessee game and Chris Johnson can take advantage. ILBs Tim Dobbins and Brandon Siler were great in run support, combining for 18 tackles. Pass defense was another story. As stated above, Merriman, Phillips and English barely got within shouting distance of QB Carson Palmer, and the Bengals attacked Dobbins repeatedly in pass coverage - TE J.P. Foschi caused serious problems for the defense, contributing 7 catches for 82 yards - this underscores the importance of ILB Kevin Burnett in passing situations. As for ILB Stephen Cooper, the Bengals did not attack his area of the zone with regularity.
CB Quentin Jammer was attacked when playing off the ball. Jammer is at his best when attacking the opposing receivers and throwing them off their routes - the coaches have to get him closer to the line of scrimmage to increase his effectiveness. After getting beaten by Bengals' WR Chad Ochocinco for a 49 yard TD in the 2nd quarter, CB Antonio Cromartie elevated his level of play considerably. However, the Safeties and CB Antoine Cason were attacked with regular success in the slot, as WRs Laveranues Coles, Andre Caldwell, and Quan Cosby contributed 12 catches for 117 yards. On the plus side, Jammer made a terrific read to get inside Johnson on a skinny post route for a key 3rd quarter INT, and SS Kevin Ellison got through on Palmer for an 10 yard sack. After missing a couple of games, FS Eric Weddle contributed 8 tackles.
Special Teams: A-
Sproles got the game off to a great start with his 45 yard kickoff return to give the Chargers good field position. Following this success, the Bengals did a good job of keeping Sproles from touching the ball. P Mike Scifres was outstanding as usual, forcing 2 fair catches as well as a spectacular coffin-corner punt to pin the Bengals at their own 5 yard line in the 4th quarter. All this however, was the set up for Kaeding's best FG as the Chargers' kicker. Considering the game situation, as well as everything riding on the game, Kaeding's 52 yard game winner was incredible - down the middle with more than enough room to spare. No Chargers' kicker has hit a FG that big since the days of John Carney.
Norv Turner threw the Bengals a curveball early - throwing the ball to Tomlinson underneath the Bengals defense was very effective, as was his call to pitch left to Tomlinson off a FB dive fake. As the Bengals got closer to the line, Turner opened the offense to Gates and Jackson. On defense, Ron Rivera has become more selective with his use of Safety blitzes; he has substituted these for more ILB blitzes off stunts and twists by the defensive line - unfortunately these were not terribly effective. In the end game, Turner was right to use his last timeout with 56 seconds remaining - he allowed Rivers just enough time to drive the offense into Kaeding's FG range. The defensive staff must correct the overpursuit problems on defense (as mentioned earlier) immediately.
Hidden Plays (Non scoring, non-turnover plays that directly affected the outcome):
- Dobbins' forced fumble on WR Andre Caldwell cost the Bengals 16 yards of field position on their final drive, and prevented them from being able to play for a go-ahead TD in the 4th quarter.
- Jammer drops an INT in the endzone at the end of the 1st half, costing the Chargers a FG and allowing the Benagls to settle for a late FG, instead of needing a late TD to tie the game.
- More of a series - following Jackson's 2nd TD and a 21-13 score, the home crowd forced the Bengals into 3 consecutive penalties and a timeout by Palmer.
- On the next series, Rivers was stuffed on a QB sneak on 3rd and 1, forcing the Chargers into their 2nd straight 3-and-out.
- Scifres' punt that went out of bounds at the 5 with 7:20 remaining forced the Bengals to drive a long field.
- Resilience in the face of an energized opponent.
- Increased effectiveness in the running game.
- Home crowd participation.
- Late game management by coaching staff.
- Kaeding converting his biggest clutch FG going towards the playoffs.
Biggest Areas of Concern:
- Coverage against slot receivers and TEs.
- Overpursuit allowing cutbacks lanes for opposing RBs.
- Failure of blitzes to effectively disrupt opposing QBs.
- Dropped or missed turnovers.
Looking ahead to:
Christmas night against the Tennessee Titans. This game will be the acid test for our run defense, as well as a game that carries potential for serious injuries. Rivers, Gates, Jackson and Floyd should have a good day against the Tennessee pass defense.