NFL Playoff Preview: San Diego-Cincinnati

NFL 1st-round playoff action continues on Sunday, and the day will start with San Diego-Cincinnati (1:05 PM ET, CBS). Below is the Notebook Nine, the important points to take into the battle between the Chargers and Bengals.

  • *Ice-cold temperatures are expected throughout the Midwest, and its ironic this would fall on the day of a San Diego-Cincinnati playoff game. The only previous time these two organizations met in the postseason was the 1981 AFC Championship Game, and the high-powered Charger offense led by Dan Fouts was rendered useless by freezing conditions and winds. The Bengals won the AFC title going away, before losing to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers, who won their first Super Bowl.
  • *Cincinnati is the biggest favorite of the first round, and by a lot. The Bengals are favored by seven points, where no other line is even as high as three. The Over/Under for the game is 46, so figure a final score of roughly 27-20.
  • *Bengal quarterback Andy Dalton is a boom-or-bust passer. He excels at getting the ball down the field to A.J. Green, the completion percentage is solid and the offensive line does a good job keeping him upright. But Dalton is one of the worst at taking care of the ball, with 20 interceptions. In the world of the NFL playoffs, a performance even half that bad is enough to send you home.
  • *Philip Rivers has been the polar opposite in a comeback season for the Charger signal-caller. Actually, not really the opposite—he mimics Dalton in being a high-percentage passer who gets the ball downfield, but Rivers doesn’t throw interceptions, and in fact he’s better than Dalton at the areas they both excel.
  • *In spite of Rivers’ great year the variable that usually determines whether San Diego wins or loses is the running game. Ryan Mathews rushed for 1,255 yards and played his best football down the stretch. Cincinnati has not found a consistent rusher, with the tandem of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard having the same boom-or-bust tendencies as the offense.
  • *Cincinnati has a good front four, but they lost defensive tackle Geno Atkins for the year several weeks ago. Atkins is a Defensive Player of the Year kind of talent and a true havoc-wreaker. The remaining lineman—Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap on the ends, are good, but without Atkins they haven’t dominated. The Bengals still rank 10th in sacks, but are in the middle of the league at stopping the run.
  • *San Diego plays a 3-4 scheme and is absolutely inept at pressuring the quarterback. You can normally find an outside linebacker with good sack totals in this alignment, but Melvin Ingram hasn’t stepped it up and no one else is even a candidate to do so.
  • *The Charger defense is the ultimate in a survivor unit. They’re in the bottom third of the league in key statistical categories individually, including takeaways, but they’ve somehow managed to rank in the upper third in the bottom line of points allowed. It’s a magic year however you cut it, but does the magic run into the postseason?
  • *Cincinnati hasn’t won a postseason game since 1990. That includes an 0-4 record under Marvin Lewis. To make matters worse, none of these are cases that can be excused by getting a first-round bye and not playing until the second round. Every one has been an opening round exit and two have been at home.  As for San Diego, they’ve won three playoff games since the AFC title run of 1994, but two of them were over the Colts. Maybe it was just a bad break that they didn’t catch Indy this time around.

I’m picking Cincinnati, but not with a great deal of confidence. The combination of the Bengals’ defense, their homefield advantage (8-0 at home) and the belief that they’re due to at least win a first-round game lead me to give them the edge. But if I were at a sportsbook, I would lay off this game. That (-7) is too high for a team whose quarterback can blow up at any time.