With a bit of help from the rest of the AFC wild card contenders, the San Diego Chargers return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. They’ll take to the road to face a Cincinnati Bengals team making its third straight playoff appearance for the first time in franchise history. The Bengals are on a three-game winning streak against the Chargers in the last four years, and their wildcard matchup will be the second re-match in the AFC this weekend.
The first time these teams met this season was a game to forget for the Chargers offense, turning in its lowest scoring game of the year and Philip Rivers’ second-worst passing grade of the year. Cincinnati’s quarterback fared worse, as Andy Dalton posted a -2.6 passing grade despite seeing only six pressured snaps. Instead, the Bengals leaned on the running game, led by Andrew Whitworth’s dominant transition to left guard.
In their last five home games, the Bengals have averaged a 41.6-to-17.6 margin of victory. It’s hard to imagine this one being as low-scoring as the first time these teams met, especially with San Diego healthier at key offensive positions than they were in Week 13. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in 24 years, while the Chargers are hoping their four-game winning streak since last playing Cincinnati continues on into the postseason. Here are three major matchups that could go a long way toward determining the winner on Wild Card Weekend.
King Dunlap vs. Michael Johnson
In Week 13, D.J. Fluker played left tackle for the injured King Dunlap and Michael Johnson had a field day, logging six hurries and grading out well in run defense. Dunlap’s return saw him and his running mate at the other tackle make the “Stock Report” for the fourth quarter, and for good reason. During his time at left tackle, Fluker struggled in comparison to his play at right tackle this year. In the four games where he played most of his snaps on the left, he graded -11.4, compared to +11.8 on the right side. So, relative to the first time these teams played, it wouldn’t be hard to upgrade on Fluker’s performance at left tackle – but the Chargers’ original starter is a huge step up.
Dunlap had seven games in the “green” out of the 11 he played this year and dominated as a run blocker — the top-graded run blocking offensive tackle in all of football this year despite missing significant time. As a pass protector he has only allowed five pressures, none of them sacks, since his return to play, but Dunlap’s calling card is clearly in the ground game, earning green grades in that department in all but one game where he played at least 90% of San Diego’s snaps.
Since his Week 14 return, Dunlap has worked well sealing off defenders to create holes, and running backs have averaged 4.1 yards on carries to left tackle or left edge, and 7.4 yards in the left B Gap. But this week, he might be facing some of the stiffest competition of the season outside of a few snaps against Von Miller in Week 15.
For the Bengals, Johnson is a leader on the defense, his overall run defense grade of +21.2 ranking second among 4-3 defensive ends. His pass rushing has fallen off lately, but the strength-on-strength matchup here is clear; Johnson’s efforts in the run game against Dunlap’s proficient run blocking. In the last four weeks, runs to the left B gap or further outside, Cincinnati opponents have gained just 3.76 yards per carry and of those 21 carries, 15 have been counted as defensive stops. Johnson has been particularly adept at beating blocks to the inside, though he has missed a few tackles in the last few weeks.
The Bengals have boasted a strong run defense lately for the most part, but will be tested with King Dunlap back at his natural position.
San Diego’s Front 7 vs. Cincinnati’s Line
When the Bengals hosted the Chargers, they were allowing 4.9 yards per carry and responded by giving up big yardage to the Week 13 visitors. The Bengals picked up 166 rushing yards on 34 non-QB kneeldown rushes, picking up an average of 2 yards after contact. San Diego missed just three tackles that day, but were especially susceptible to runs to the right side where Andrew Whitworth did an excellent job pulling from left guard. Fairly staunch up the middle, the Chargers showed some capability of stopping the Bengals’ running game, but the front seven will likely be challenged this week.
Melvin Ingram could be a key piece that the Bengals didn’t see the last time around, as he returned to his outside backer position in Week 14, just like Dunlap came back the week after the Bengals game. Ingram has slowly worked his way up to 68% of San Diego’s snaps last week and is on pace to play a normal starter’s workload this week. While he hasn’t been great as a pass rusher, with just six total pressures and one sack on 66 pass rushes this year, he has been a positive addition to the run defense. Returning with Ingram was Jarret Johnson, similarly on pace to take a relatively full game of snaps. Johnson, too, has been more productive against the run and has only seen hurry in the last four weeks on 35 pass rushes.
Outside of the returning linebackers, rookie Manti Te’o has largely struggled inside this season in a two-down role. He’s actually been solid in coverage, but has been criticized for passivity in the running game and has too often found himself blocked out of plays. Alongside Te’o, Donald Butler has graded negatively across the board, and both inside backers have missed 10 tackles on the year.
Along the front for San Diego, Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes have been the mainstays, while Cam Thomas emerged with three green games in the last four, mostly due to his work in the running game. With Thomas’s strong play and the return of Ingram and Johnson, along with solid play from Marcus Gilchrist at strong safety down the stretch, the Chargers’ defense was moving in the right direction for the four-game winning streak that got them into the playoffs.
For Cincinnati, the offensive line has been on shuffle for weeks with injuries, bumps and bruises piling up. It is likely that the combination of Anthony Collins, Whitworth, Kyle Cook, Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith suits up on Sunday, though they all seem to be in various stages of recovery from injury. They’ve all performed admirably on their way into the playoffs, though only Smith played a full game in Week 17.
The Bengals have the highest pass blocking grade in the league, with just Cook and backup center Trevor Robinson posting negatives on the season. Collins has been the X-factor, giving up a total of 12 hurries at left tackle on 317 pass blocking snaps, which is the best mark in the league for tackles with at least 193 pass blocking snaps. With the offensive line playing cohesively and solid pass blocking from the running backs, the Bengals have been strong all year and should feel confident in their pass protection this weekend.
In general, the Bengals haven’t had amazing run blocking outside of Whitworth’s excellent play, especially since he moved to left guard. They had their best run blocking game of the year by a large margin. The Bengals could look to re-establish the runs to the right side that worked so well the last time around, pulling Whitworth from left guard and running behind him, Zeitler and Smith. Giovani Bernard in particular picked up 42 yards on five carries on those types of runs the first time around, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis gaining 65 on 13 right outside runs.
It looks like a test of strength against weakness, but the return of injured Chargers along with some better play down the stretch could make this closer to even than it looks from the season-long numbers. That could be especially true if the Bengals’ big men up front are coping with injuries. It could be a key matchup if Cincinnati looks to re-establish the run as they did in San Diego.
Dalton vs. Rivers
If the running games can’t get going, both teams will look to their passers to get the offenses going. Rivers has been one of the best quarterbacks in football this year according to our graders, finishing second to Peyton Manning in the passing category. Despite the constant criticism and ups and downs, Dalton actually finished several places better this year on the quarterback leaderboard and with a green grade on the season for the first time in his career. Both quarterbacks could reasonably hope for a clean pocket, as Rivers has seen his tackles play great football at their respective natural positions, and Dalton’s offensive line has been fantastic all year.
If the pockets are clean, Rivers still seems to have the advantage, grading +22.2 without pressure to Dalton’s +11.7 non-pressured mark. But, with both players showing solid numbers when they’re not pressured, it could turn into a shootout if neither defense can get home. Rivers is completing nearly 75% of his non-pressured passes, tossing 24 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. By comparison, Dalton is completing 68% for 30 scores and 14 picks without pressure.
One major difference is that Rivers still has a positive grade when he is pressured, and though his completion percentage drops almost 20%, he’s still averaging 8 yards per pressured attempt. If the Chargers get consistent pressure to Dalton, they may have a distinct advantage, as Dalton is completing just 38.5% of his pressured passes with just three touchdowns and six interceptions. Rivers has also been much better against the blitz, grading +11.4 against it, while Dalton’s got a -6.8 when blitzed.
Rivers has the clear advantage looking at the cumulative season numbers, and has been the much more consistent quarterback between the two. That’s visible throughout his statline, as he’s played positively under pressure and when blitzed. He didn’t play his best game against the Bengals, but has only two games this year with multiple interceptions. Dalton, on the other hand, is prone to peaks and valleys.
He has three grades greater than or equal to Rivers’ best performance of the year from Week 2 in Philadelphia, but many games in the red, while Rivers has no red games on his report card. If Dalton plays to one of his valleys rather than high points, as he did in the Week 13 game, it could cost the Bengals. Before the season finale, he had gone three games without an interception since he played in San Diego and in a game where offense might rule the day, interceptions could turn the tide.
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