For the third straight Wild Card Weekend, the Cincinnati Bengals have seen their season end, this time at the hands of the sixth-seeded San Diego Chargers. The battle-tested Chargers were an unlikely playoff team after an up-and-down regular season, but a defensive turnaround combined with the stellar quarterback play of Phillip Rivers has them looking as dangerous as any team in the AFC.
As for the Bengals, their promising season was derailed as QB Andy Dalton’s inconsistent play crept back to the forefront. It’s certainly not all on him as the Bengals had a few mishaps on offense, including three turnovers from Dalton and a fumble from rookie running back Giovani Bernard’s at the end of the first half. For a team that a appeared strong across the board for much of the season, it was a disappointing, and all-too-familiar finish, to their season.
For San Diego, they’ve earned a return trip to Denver to take on the top-seeded Broncos next weekend. Storylines abound in this one as Chargers head coach Mike McCoy returns to take on the team for which he was offensive coordinator just a year ago. With Rivers playing his best football in years, the Chargers should continue to be a difficult out, even for the AFC’s best team.
Here’s a look at the performances that shaped this Wild Card showdown.
San Diego – Three Performances of Note
Despite throwing the ball only 16 times, Rivers played an excellent game making some big-time throws, particularly in the second half. His first beauty came at the 2:19 mark of the first quarter as he broke free from pressure, scrambled to his left, and lofted a perfect pass to Danny Woodhead, just over the reach of Rey Maualuga. While the 11-yard gain looks innocent on the stat sheet, it was a huge play to convert the first down rather than facing a long yardage situation. Two plays later, Woodhead punched it in for San Diego’s first score.
Perhaps Rivers’ best throw of the afternoon, and one of the game’s biggest, came at the 7:40 mark of the third quarter as he looked off free safety Reggie Nelson and fired a strike down the sideline to wide receiver Eddie Royal for a 33-yard gain. He followed it up with a well-thrown fade route to tight end Ladarius Green for a 4-yard touchdown that put the Chargers ahead for good at 14-10. While the 12-for-16 for 118 yards certainly doesn’t jump off the page, Rivers moved the chains when needed and on an afternoon that saw the Bengals turn the ball over four times, playing error-free football was more than enough to lead San Diego to the victory.
A quartet of safeties saw significant action for the Chargers Sunday, with three of the four players grading positively. Eric Weddle is the jack-of-all trades of the group as he often rotates back and forth between free safety in their base 3-4 package to nickel linebacker in their subpackages. It’s not often that you’ll see a safety run the seam as the middle linebacker in cover-2 on one play before dropping back to free safety to play the same coverage on the next play, but Weddle is versatile enough to handle the assignment. He graded at +1.9 on the afternoon.
Also in the mix was Darrell Stuckey who played free safety in San Diego’s dime package. He made one of the best plays of the game at the 6:09 mark of the fourth quarter as he ventured from his center field position to knock away a deep pass intended for A.J. Green. The ball hit Green’s hands, but Stuckey swiped it away to thwart the Bengals’ big play attempt and put a big damper on their comeback hopes. The final safety to make an impact was Jahleel Addae who plays free safety in both nickel and dime packages. He finished at +1.9 on his 61 snaps. It’s rare to see four safeties all playing at least 40 snaps, but the Chargers got the most out of their group Sunday.
Right Side Struggles
It wasn’t a perfect day for the Chargers, particularly on the right side of the offensive line where right guard Jeromey Clary and right tackle D.J. Fluker graded at -2.7 and -1.7 respectively. Their problems were opposite in nature as Clary struggled in the running game while providing stellar pass protection and Fluker showed well as a run blocker, but graded a team-worst -3.2 as a pass blocker. Defensive tackle Brandon Thompson got the better of Clary a number of times, including plays at the 13:47 mark of the first quarter and 9:38 mark of the third where he got inside to make the stop. Fluker had his issues with Carlos Dunlap who beat him for four of the five pressures he surrendered. Dunlap bull rushed Fluker into the quarterback’s lap on two different occasions and he beat him to his outside shoulder for the other two pressures. For Clary, the struggles at guard have been a season-long even as he’s now grading at -21.6 at the position while Fluker had an off day after grading at +11.8 in his 11 regular season starts at right tackle.
Cincinnati– Three Performances of Note
The Bengals’ storyline starts and ends with Andy Dalton (-6.6), and rightfully so given his uneven play in his three seasons in the league. He’s mixed fantastic games with disastrous ones throughout the season, and this was certainly fits the latter’s description. Our own Neil Hornsby sums it well, as the passing charts show a wide range of performances that would make any coach a bit queasy. As we’ve seen in recent years, it only takes a one-month stretch of good quarterbacking to make a Super Bowl run, but unfortunately for the Bengals at this point, Dalton’s play has gone the other way once the postseason starts.
Before we even mention the back-breaking mistakes, Dalton failed early on some of the little things such as overthrowing a wide open Bernard in the flat on 3rd-and-1 at the 13:48 mark in the second quarter. Instead of a first down in San Diego territory, the Bengals were forced to punt, as the overthrow proved nearly as costly as a turnover minus the field position deficit.
As for the major blunders, they were multiple, starting with a dropped snap the Dalton was able to recover. He fumbled again in the middle of the third quarter, but this time it was Addae who found the ball as Dalton lost the ball as he hit the ground while diving for a first down. In addition to the fumbles, Dalton’s two second half interceptions were as bad as it gets. Both came on out-routes, the first one a horrible decision as Dalton was pressured and threw off his back foot right into cornerback Shareece Wright’s waiting arms. The second interception came in a clean pocket, but Dalton mis-judged linebacker Melvin Ingram’s coverage on tight end Tyler Eifert and the result was an easy pick.
It certainly was not Dalton’s finest hour and the third straight wild card loss will do nothing to ease the offseason discussion about whether or not he’s the right man to lead the Bengals.
Marvin Makes Plays
Among the bright spots for Cincinnati, Marvin Jones continued his outstanding season with a +1.9 grade as he caught eight of his 11 targets for 130 yards. He put on a clinic on Dalton’s deep pass at the 2:28 mark of the second quarter. While it was a fine throw, the catch may have been even better as Jones burst away from Richard Marshall and fully extended to haul in the 49-yard catch. In addition to the deep ball, Jones did some fine work on the sideline on outs and comebacks and four of his eight catches went for first downs. Much of the talk in Cincinnati the last few years has surrounded the No. 2 wide receiver position opposite Green, but Jones has emerged as that and more here in 2013.
Strength at Defensive End
The Cincinnati defense performed admirably given the poor field position supplied by the offense at times. Among the standouts were Dunlap (+2.4) and fellow defensive end Wallace Gilberry (+2.2). Dunlap was the top pass rusher on either side, grading at +1.8 with four hurries on only 19 rushes. He did all of his damage on Fluker while also adding two stops in the running game. Gilberry did most of his damage against the run where he graded at +0.9 with four stops. He got inside Fluker to meet running back Ryan Mathews in the backfield at the 1:41 mark in the second quarter and he made the key third down stop with 9:04 to go in the fourth quarter as he stopped fullback Le’Ron McClain in the backfield for no gain.
– Dalton graded at -3.7 on throws traveling between 0 and 10 yards while grading at +1.5 on throws beyond 10 yards.
– The Bengals blitzed on only two of 19 drop-backs, surrendering an eight yard gain and picking up a sack.
– After starting center Nick Hardwick went down to injury after only 10 snaps, backup Rich Ohrnberger came in and graded at +2.2 overall, including +2.6 as a run blocker.
PFF Game Ball
In a game decided by turnovers, Phillip Rivers stood out for not only taking care of the ball, but also making key throws on all of San Diego’s scoring drives.
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