Prior to kickoff on Sunday, I predicted the Cincinnati Bengals would defeat the San Diego Chargers 24-13. I was feeling pretty good (read: sick to my stomach) about that prediction with roughly two minutes left in the first half when the Bengals were driving to go up 14-7. Running a play from the Chargers' 16 yard line, Gio Bernard ran a route in the middle the field and badly beat Donald Butler. This is where the game changed. Butler recovered well and made an amazing leaping strip of the ball. The ball took a San Diego bounce, and the Chargers had new life.
The conservative game management of Mike McCoy and playcalling of Ken Whisenhunt would run the Bengals out of time outs, but leave them plenty of time to get in field goal range. The Bengals capitalized on their opportunity and took a three point lead into the half. Unfortunately for the Bengals and their legions of obnoxious fans, they wouldn't score again the rest of the game.
The story of the game from where I was sitting was that Chargers repeatedly won at the line of scrimmage. They did this despite being without the interior of both their offensive and defensive lines. Sean Lissemore, the starting nosetackle, injured his shoulder in Week 16 against the Oakland Raiders and was not active for the game. Nick Hardwick, the only holdover from last season's offensive line, suffered what appeared to be a concussion from the way he was wobbling but what the team has termed a "stinger." Cam Thomas and Rich Ohrnberger both stepped up huge. This is even more impressive given the way the Chargers' lines were manhandled in their first game against the Bengals in San Diego.
A lot of ink (can we still say ink?) has been spilled giving credit to Andy Dalton's series of miscues, but this goes too far in discounting the work put in by John Pagano and the entire Chargers defense. Dalton's fumble was very nearly an unforced error, but both interceptions have to be credited to the defense. Were they good reads by Dalton? No, but the coverages were well disguised (especially in the case of the Shareece Wright pick). Were they good throw by Dalton? No, but it's difficult to make a good throw when you have defenders in your face from the snap of the ball.
I don't know that I can give Pagano enough credit for the gameplan he put together and the calls he made in-game. He has been inconsistent this year, alternating brilliant plans with games where it looked like there was no plan. The Cincinnati game falls in the brilliant category. He has also shown a disturbing tendency to go away from what is working well before the offense begins to figure him out. He didn't do this at all on Sunday. Are we seeing growth or are we just seeing the result of having better players on the field? It's impossible to be sure at this time, but I'm in an optimistic mood after watching the Chargers win their first playoff game in five years. Pagano is still only a second year coach and can reasonably be expected to still be getting better.
I've spent a lot of time this year harping on the in-game failings of Mike McCoy, but it can't be stressed enough what an incredible job he's done getting his team ready to play each week. In-game tactics are something that can be learned more easily than being a good football coach. See Ron Rivera and his transition into "Riverboat Ron" this season for evidence of that. Tom Telesco did an excellent job repairing a badly broken roster this off season, but this team doesn't have the depth of talent to justify expectations the likes of which this team has met. That's great coaching and Chargers fans should take a moment to appreciate it.
Ken Whisenhunt's gameplan made it look like they were expecting a lot more in the way of weather than what they got. Luckily for the Chargers, punching the other guy in the mouth repeatedly is a strategy for all seasons. Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown combined for nearly 200 yards on the ground and helped the Chargers put up 27 points on the second best home defense in the NFL. Mathews was lost to injury in the second half or this game might have been even more of a blowout.
Philip Rivers didn't throw many passes, but he was insanely efficient against an excellent pass defense. His finest moment was perhaps when he spun out of a sack, rolled to his left, and lofted a beautiful touch pass to Danny Woodhead on a 3rd down play. He also threw an absolutely gorgeous deep ball to Eddie Royal (who held on while taking a shot like a champ). My favorite play, though, was the perfectly placed ball he threw to Ladarius Green on a fade route in the end zone.
Ladarius Green running a fade route in the end zone is quite simply unfair. That the Chargers don't dial this play up multiple times each game is a crime. There is not a more underrated or underutilized player on the 53-man. He finally saw more snaps than Antonio Gates on Sunday, but I won't stop crying for LAMOARIUS until he's something resembling the focal point of the offense.
Keenan Allen had one of his quietest games in weeks including a bad play in which he ran the wrong route on 3rd down. Just like every time he makes a mistake, though, Allen bounced back with big plays. None was bigger than the vicious block he laid on a Bengals player that might just be his best highlight in a season that deserves to be rewarded with a Rookie of the Year award.
The Chargers are 5-0 since the return of Melvin Ingram, and he had a big game including multiple pressures and an interception that showed off his ridiculous athleticism. He still shows room for improvement in his game (see: horrible missed tackles), but what do you want from a second year player that missed almost the entire off season and second regular season?
The Bengals were clearly the better football team during the regular season, but they were no match for the Chargers on Sunday.