Bolts, Bengals clash
January 3, 2014
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AFC Wild Card Playoffs (CBS, 1:00 p.m. ET)
Matchup: San Diego (9-7 SU, 9-6-1 ATS) at Cincinnati (11-5 SU, 10-5-1 ATS)
Sportsbook.ag Line & Total: Cincinnati -7 & 47
Sportsbook.ag Opening Line & Total: Bengals -7 & 47
Two red-hot teams meet in cold weather Sunday when the Bengals host the Chargers in an AFC Wild Card playoff matchup.
San Diego won five of its final six games (4-2 ATS) to earn the last playoff spot in the AFC, but its one loss during that stretch was a 17-10 home defeat to Cincinnati, which is also 5-1 (SU and ATS) in its past six contests. In that Week 13 matchup, the Bengals outrushed the Chargers 164 to 91.
San Diego has pulled off two straight impressive road wins at Kansas City and at Denver, but Cincinnati is 8-0 (SU and ATS) at home this year, outscoring opponents 34.4 to 16.7 PPG. The Bengals are also 5-1 ATS (4-2 SU) in this series since 2003, winning the last meeting in Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 26, 2010 by a 34-20 score.
Since 1992, the Chargers are 10-2 ATS (83%) on the road versus excellent ball-control teams (32+ TOP) after 8+ games, and are 39-23 ATS (63%) in games played on turf. But in that same timeframe, Cincinnati is 23-8 ATS (74%) versus poor pass defenses (7+ YPA) in the second half of the season, and is 11-2 ATS (85%) in the past three seasons when facing defenses allowing 5.65+ yards per play.
Both teams have a number of key players listed as probable for this game, including Bengals star WR A.J. Green (knee) and Chargers top RB Ryan Mathews (foot), but the only major contributors that are questionable are Cincinnati CB Terence Newman (knee) and C Kyle Cook (foot).
The Bengals are just 5-11 in their playoff history, including five straight defeats since their last playoff win in 1990, while San Diego is 9-12 all-time in the postseason, going 3-7 since its lone Super Bowl appearance after the 1994 season. The forecast for this game calls for a mid-30's temperature with a 70 percent chance of snow with winds between 10 and 15 mph.
The Chargers offense has been very efficient this season, leading the NFL in both time of possession (33:35) and third-down conversions (49%). They have compiled 393 total YPG (5th in league) with the NFL's fourth-best passing attack (271 YPG). However, they have not always been able to capitalize on these long drives, ranking tied for 26th in the league in red-zone efficiency (50% TD rate), and scoring 24.8 PPG (12th in NFL).
QB Philip Rivers is having his best pro season under first-year head coach Mike McCoy, completing 70% of his throws for 4,478 yards (8.2 YPA), 32 TD and just 11 INT. Rivers has not shined in the postseason though, going 3-4 in his playoff career with a 79.2 passer rating (58.5% completions, 260 YPG, 8.0 YPA, 8 TD, 9 INT). However, Rivers has been quite good in cold weather throughout his career, going 10-5 with 242 passing YPG (7.9 YPA), 23 TD and only 11 INT. This includes a 3-0 record with 7 TD and 0 INT in the past three seasons.
And this season, Rivers has three players with at least 70 receptions in long-time TE target Antonio Gates (872 rec. yards, 4 TD), rookie WR Keenan Allen (1,046 rec. yards, 8 TD) and RB Danny Woodhead (605 rec. yards, 6 TD), who has blossomed in his first year in San Diego.
But if the Chargers are to pull off the upset, RB Ryan Mathews (1,255 rush yards, 4.4 YPC, 6 TD) will need to have a huge performance in the frigid air. Mathews was able to log a full 16 games for the first time in his four seasons, including 107 carries for 473 yards (4.4 YPC) during his team's season-ending, four-game win streak. He also gained 92 total yards in the loss to Cincinnati, averaging 4.4 YPC on the ground.
The San Diego offense is in great shape, but defensively it still has plenty of weaknesses. Despite being on the field for just 27:30 per game, this unit has allowed 367 total YPG (23rd in NFL) and 259 passing YPG (29th in league). The Chargers have given up the second-most yards per play (6.1) in the NFL, surrendering 4.6 yards per carry (27th in league) and 8.0 yards per pass attempt (30th in NFL). Although its red-zone defense has also been subpar (62%, 27th in league), San Diego allows only 21.8 PPG (11th in NFL). Scoring has been kept down recently because of the team's increase in takeaways. After forcing just seven turnovers in its first 10 games, the Chargers have tallied 10 takeaways in the past six contests.
The Bengals won their division with a balanced offense that ranks second in the NFL (behind only San Diego) in time of possession (32:50). They also own the league's second-best offense in the red zone, where they have converted 73% of their trips into touchdowns, leading to a hefty 26.9 PPG (T-6th in NFL). But this team has been much more efficient throwing the football (7.4 YPA, 10th in league) than rushing it (3.7 YPC, 28th in NFL).
QB Andy Dalton has led his team to the postseason for all three years he's been in the league, posting a career-best 88.8 passer rating this year with 4,293 passing yards (7.3 YPA) and 33 TD, but has also tossed 20 interceptions. Dalton has not fared well during his two playoff defeats (192 pass YPG, 5.3 YPA, 0 TD, 4 INT), which both came on the road in Houston, but he has been excellent at home this year, where he has completed 64% of his throws for 2,064 yards (7.8 YPA), 20 TD and 9 INT.
Although WR A.J. Green (1,426 rec. yards, 11 TD) is clearly his first option with an NFL-high 178 targets, five other players have caught at least 39 passes this year, including WR Marvin Jones (712 rec. yards, 10 TD) and rookie RB Giovani Bernard (514 rec. yards, 3 TD). Bernard has also rushed the ball effectively in his first season with 695 yards on 4.1 YPC and just one fumble on his 170 carries. He splits carries with RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is asked to run in between the tackles, averaging a mere 3.4 YPC on his 756 rushing yards, but finding the end zone seven times.
While the offense has been solid this season, the defense has been outstanding, ranking third in the NFL in total defense (306 YPG) and second in yards per play (4.7). Cincinnati has been strong both versus the run (97 YPG) and the pass (209 YPG), ranking fifth in the league in both categories. The unit has also thrived in key situations, placing second in the NFL on third downs (33% conversions) and tying for 8th in the red zone (50%), leading to a mere 19.1 PPG allowed (T-5th in NFL). Scoring has also been kept to a minimum because of a playmaking secondary that has 20 interceptions this season as part of the team's 31 takeaways. The Bengals have forced at least two turnovers nine times this season.