Before I get to the game preview, let me take a minute to mourn Chris Henry. From everything I've read and seen since his accident, Chris had turned his life around and was a model citizen for the Bengals this season. As a football player, Chris was always a threat to make a big play. He was Malcom Floyd, possibly with more speed. As long as he kept his head on straight, he had a successful career and life ahead of him.
Even when Chris wasn't able to stay out of trouble, the one thing that I always noticed was that his teammates were behind him 100%. They loved him, and didn't consider him a trouble-maker in the least. They seemed to think of him as more of a wide-eyed kid who had his heart in the right place and would eventually learn who and what to stay away from.
So this isn't a Cincinnati team that's lost a player who was signed this year, or one that nobody particularly liked until this season. Chris Henry was a part of the Bengals family, and how the players are able to react on Sunday will be the true determining factor of who wins the game. Everything below is stats and info about how the team performed without this emotional burden. It says nothing about the team that will take the field against the Chargers.
When the Bengals Have the Ball
- Contrary to what you may think, this is not the explosive offense the Bengals had with Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh a few seasons ago. The Bengals rank 20th in offensive yards per game and 19th in points scored per game.
- Being 23rd in yards per play means the Chargers have to worry less about giving up the big play against the Bengals than if they were playing the 49ers, Redskins or Jaguars.
- The stats above are no big surprise for a team that focuses it's energy on running the football. The proof that they do it well is in their 13th ranked 3rd down conversion percentage. Cedric Benson has helped Cincy get a lot more 3rd and shorts than 3rd and longs.
- As many of us saw in their game against the Vikings, the Bengals have a penchant for shooting themselves in the foot. They have racked up the 9th most penalty yardage in the league, and their turnover margin is a fairly mediocre +1. This is exactly why they lost to Oakland, and why they haven't been able to get sound victories over the Browns (twice) or Lions.
- The Bengals, who throw about 1 less pass per game than the Chargers, rank 23rd in passing yards per game. Being 18th in yards per play means that, despite having a big-armed QB in Palmer, the Bengals' passing game does not get many big plays.
- Carson Palmer has been less careful with the ball this season as had Philip Rivers, throwing 17 TDs against 10 interceptions. His QB rating for the season is 84.8, or just about average.
- Confirming my suspicions, the Bengals rank 23rd in pass plays of 20+ yards and 24th in pass plays of 40+ yards.
- One thing the Bengals' passing offense does well is protect Palmer. He has been sacked just 23 times this season, making the Bengals the 7th best in that category.
- The Bengals rushing attack, mostly carried by Cedric Benson, is averaging 132.8 yards per game. That's good for 6th in the league.
- Being 19th in the league for rushing TDs shows that the Bengals struggle to pound the ball the ball into the endzone to finish drives. That fits right in with the Bolts' "bend but don't break" run defense.
- The Cowboys are tied for 8th in the league in running play of 20+ yards. With Eric Weddle coming back this week, I'm much less concerned about big plays out of the Bengals' run game. Also, the Bengals are more of an inside running team, whereas the Chargers have struggled the most with runs to the outside.
- The Chargers allow the 12th least yards per game, and rank 12th in lowest yards allowed per play. They are ranked 14th in least points allowed per game.
- The Bolts' problem on D continue to stopping 3rd down conversions, but they did a very good job against Dallas and have moved up to 22nd best in the league.
- The Chargers rank 10th in terms of passing yards allowed per game, and are tied for 10th in yards allowed per pass attempt.
- The Bolts' 11 interceptions ties them for 18th best in the league. Their 31 sacks ties them for 11th.
- TThe Chargers are tied for 3rd in the least amount of passing plays of 20+ yards allowed. All season this has been a defense that does not give up big plays, and that has been the key in victories against the Cowboys and Eagles.
- In terms of rushing yards allowed per game, the Chargers are 21st in the league. Their 4.3 Yards Per Carry allowed ties them with the Falcons for 18th in the league for that stat as well.
- The 8 rushing touchdowns allowed by the Bolts ties them with the Bengals for 9th best in the league.
- The Chargers are tied for 4th best in the league at stopping/preventing running plays of 20+ yards. They have allowed only 5 against them all season. They still have not given up a run of 40+ yards.
- Those stats above are amazing. Even though the Chargers are very poor at stopping 5 yard runs, they are one of the league's best in preventing big runs and are really good at preventing rushing TDs as well. No wonder the lack of run D hasn't killed San Diego.
When the Chargers Have the Ball
- The Bolts are 13th in the league in offensive yards per game, but are still very efficient. They are 6th in terms of yards per play and 3rd in terms of points per game.
- The Chargers' offense has gotten steadily better at converting 3rd downs all season. They've worked themselves up the ranks and are now the 9th best team in the league on 3rd down.
- The Chargers are still the least penalized team in the league. Their turnover margin is +8, after forcing zero turnovers against the Cowboys. This team's identity continues to be one that does not shoot themselves in the foot, and takes advantage of the mistakes of their opponents.
- After throwing for one touchdown and one (dumb) interception in Dallas, Rivers now has 22 TD throws against 7 picks. That's a 3-to-1 TD/INT ratio, which is impressive when you see that Carson Palmer isn't even at 2-to-1 this season.
- The Chargers rank 3rd in pass plays of 20+ yards, having 3 less than the undefeated Saints.
- We've seen the offensive line get better at protecting Philip, and at the same time we've seen #17 get even better at avoiding defenders in the pocket. He did a lot of it against the Cowboys, and was only sacked once. Currently, the Chargers are 5th best in the league at protecting their QB.
- The Chargers ground game, which was stifled for 3.5 quarters in Dallas, is averaging just 87.5 yards per game. That's good for 30th best in the league, or two slots better than the undefeated Colts. Their 3.2 Yards Per Carry makes them the least efficient running team in the league (two slots below Indy).
- Being ineffective over the course of a game does not mean the Chargers aren't able to punch it in when they need to. Their "league worst" rushing attack is tied for 11th with 13 TDs.
- The Chargers are tied for 24th in the league in running play of 20+ yards, and it still surprises me that they're that not worst in the league.
- The Bengals allow the 5th least yards per game, and rank 6th in lowest yards allowed per play. They are ranked 2nd in least points allowed per game. I think we just found out why they're a playoff team.
- The Bengals are one of the best defenses on 3rd down, where they have the 7th lowest 3rd down conversion percentage against them.
- Cincy ranks 12th in terms of passing yards allowed per game, but are 6th in yards allowed per pass attempt.
- The Bengals 15 interceptions ties them for 9th best in the league. Their 31 sacks ties them for 11th. So this team gets to the QB with the same frequency the Chargers do, but they get more picks and allow less TDs.
- Although their defense is sound, there should be some opportunities downfield for Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. The Bengals rank 11th in 20+ yard pass plays allowed, and their Safeties aren't great.
- In terms of rushing yards allowed per game, the Bengals are 3rd in the league. Their 3.7 Yards Per Carry allowed ties them with the Eagles for 5th in the league. This is one of the strongest run defenses in the league, so don't expect a big game from LaDainian Tomlinson.
- The 8 rushing touchdowns allowed by Cincinnati ties them with San Diego for 9th best in that category.
- The Bengals are tied with the Colts for best in the league at stopping big running plays. They have allowed only 3 runs for 20+ yards all season.
This is a game of strength versus weakness. A strong Cincinnati running game against a weak San Diego run defense. A weak SD run offense against a strong Cincy run defense. This game will come down to a few things. One, as usual Philip Rivers will have to play at an MVP level. Luckily, that never seems to be a problem for him. Two, the Bengals will have to make mistakes with playcalling, penalties or turnovers. Three, the Bengals' adrenaline (and how long it can last) will determine what they can and cannot do on offense.
I'd say I'm not picking a winner for this game because there's too many unknown variables, but at this point I'd feel stupid betting against the team who never loses in December and is at home trying to clinch a playoff spot. Chargers win.