There is no reason to worry. These Bengals are built for this game. They have created this moment for themselves and tomorrow they will seize it.
Over the past four years, Cincinnati has stockpiled talent all over their roster and is now perhaps the deepest team in the league. A large part of that credit rests with the front office for identifying quality players, the rest goes to the coaches for consistently developing them.
All of this good stuff has landed the Bengals back in the playoffs for the the fourth time in five years, but for the first time, they were expected at the playoff party. There will still be the huge masses of doubters on Sunday who stand with their arms crossed and ask, "Well?" After all, they have never won one of these affairs with Marvin Lewis, and to many, seeing is believing.
Yet I am not interested in the beliefs others have of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton. I have seen both men grow at their position this season and each are respected professionals among their peers. The Bengals beat quality teams on a regular basis in 2013 (something that was lacking the previous two campaigns), they have been incredible when playing at home and it's a Sunday afternoon game which means the routine for the players stays the same. Outside of superstition, there is no valid reason to think the Bengals can't win their Wild-Card game on Sunday.
Why should there not continue to be an abundance of touchdowns against San Diego? Because Dalton throws too many picks, you say?
Last week the offense felt unstoppable even with four interceptions and won convincingly. The weeks before that showed that if it's a pick-free day for Dalton, games become silly blowouts. Those are big wins either way. This offense is purring and exploding with points at PBS.
The Charger corners should be worried. The Bengals have 31 flavors of variety in their offense. They can find mismatches in their mismatches. Sometimes they are guilty of overdoing it and killing themselves with needless complexity or getting too cute, but in general, the offense outsmarts its opponents. San Diego has no one who can adequately cover A.J. Green. They can double him, but that's when the supporting cast goes for the jugular. Marvin Jones has emerged this season as a very serious NFL wide receiver. When Dalton sees Jones in single coverage, he takes his chances. Jones has tremendous concentration which allows him to make extremely difficult catches, or at least come close practically every time. Another player hitting his stride recently is Andrew Hawkins. After coming along slowly from injury, Gruden has featured him more by using his blazing quickness in space. The sheer speed of these three players puts a lot of pressure on the Charger corners, and that says nothing of their other rich abilities.
The linebackers should be even more worried. Their collection of 3-4 linebackers are typically overgrown and therefore perhaps not all that fleet of foot. If they find themselves covering in any single man situation, they are an easy target. Giovani Bernard is seeing more action in the passing game, but his small self has proven to be at times a difficult object to throw to. Nonetheless, if Bernard sees that Manti Te'o is lined up across from him, seam routes to the end zone would seem in order. If it isn't the backs, the dynamic tight-end duo is giving defenses headaches with their length and speed. Jermaine Gresham was vilified for his poor play in last year's playoff game and I especially hope to see a good game from him to cleanse that lingering negativity many fans still harbor in him.
Marvin Lewis said that his team is best when it remains aggressive, so I would look to see Dalton challenge the Bolts through the air all day. He might throw a pick or two, but he is playing with a lot of confidence in his abilities and looks pretty comfortable in the only pro offense he's ever known. They collectively play like a college offense in that it seems like the scheme itself scores the points rather than the players. Sounds crazy, I know, but at times it feels like every play works with this bunch.
The Chargers can play offense too, and they have seasoned veterans in key areas, but the difference is the defense they will face. While the Zim Clan seems a bit less dominant up front getting in the quarterback's face these days, they remain a fundamentally sound group that stays disciplined, trusts each other, and focuses on their keys. This week it's imperative that they set the edge and control the flats when San Diego is passing.
Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews get a ton of cheap yards on dump off throws into the flats. They are both capable receivers and they prove to be hard to tackle on the outside-especially Woodhead-therefore the Bengals linebackers need to get out to the flats quickly and at least slow these men up for gang tackles. Take away this seemingly innocuous element to their offense, and I think you force the Chargers to punt at least three more times.
No one is worried about Vontaze Burfict doing what he has to do, and Vincent Rey has shown himself to be excellent in coverage, but Rey Maualuga knows (or should know) that defenses are coming after him. He was another goat to last year's loss, and can also redeem himself for a long time with a nice game, but it's important he finally make the big play. I know he has been much improved this year by simplifying the game and not trying to do too much, but in college he was a play-making machine, looking like a larger Troy Polamalu on a regular basis. On the pro level, though, he always seems a second or two late in making the game-changing impact.
I look for Philip Rivers to take into account of Maualuga's whereabouts on a regular basis and attack him when he can. But then I look For Rey to meet the challenge and make the big play. I think the Chargers will move the ball successfully but find it hard to reach the endzone, just like in the first game. Ryan Mathews won't enjoy a huge day because the Bengals are good tacklers and that alone pretty much takes care of Mathews. Ladarius Green is still the scariest matchup on the team, and Zimmer will have to scheme to limit his explosiveness, and Keenan Allen will make teams pay with his quickness and big-play potential but I think Rivers gets harassed out of his game just enough to keep the Chargers frustrated with settling for field goals and coming up short.
This is the game we've all been waiting for; the one to feel good about for a change. The Chargers are a decent team. They closed out the regular season nicely and should feel good about a lot of their younger players and their new head coach. The playoffs, though, are the true litmus test of teams, and the Bengals are simply more fortified for this kind of action. There is nothing more they could have done this season to strengthen their case any further. They have the right players, the right coaches and the right venue to win. Now it's simply a matter of seeing it happen.
Bengals 35, Chargers 21
Mojokong-faith in facts.