The narrative will always be there. Until it's not.
If the question is, who needs to win more this weekend against the San Diego Chargers, the answer is Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton. No matter the opponent, or the season, that will always be the unfortunate narrative.
Lewis will be entering the playoffs for the fifth time in his 11th season as the Bengals head coach, and third season in a row. The previous four appearances, ending with depressing defeats against the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets and Houston Texans, has reached a point that Lewis is known for not winning the big game. We're not talking about the Steelers or Ravens in the regular season, which are big but on a scale smaller than this. No game is bigger, and when those games happen, Lewis' Bengals have faltered.
Andy Dalton is pedaling in the same boat as Lewis. In two postseason games, both against the Houston Texans, Dalton has through four interceptions without a touchdown and a passer rating of 48.6. More importantly is the narrative about Dalton, who is perceived by many as the weakest link in Cincinnati's industrial-sized chain. Simply put, Dalton needs to win a playoff game, in front of the entire nation, not to prove that he's an elite quarterback but a good enough quarterback to contribute towards Cincinnati's greater good.
Lewis, who irritatingly takes the same questions about Dalton, admits that his quarterback needs to erase those persistent questions. And Lewis knows that those same questions stain his own tenure in Cincinnati as well.
"He’s been a three-year starter so he’s accomplished a lot of things in his career thus far," Lewis said during an appearance on NFL Network. "But until we win playoff games these questions you have … those will always continue to be there. And that’s all we can do is erase them for Andy and myself."
Cincinnati won't have a greater opportunity to snap the 23-year old drought than they have right now.
With all due respect to San Diego, the Chargers needed a four-game winning streak for a chance to get into the postseason. Only after Miami and Baltimore had suffered their own demoralizing losses did San Diego clinch, with a little help from an officiating blunder at the end of the fourth quarter that sent the game into overtime against Kansas City's backup players.
Cincinnati is playing at home where they haven't lost since Dec. 2012, with an explosive scoring differential between the Bengals and the visiting team. Their offense and defense rank in the top-ten respectively and, despite recent struggles with punters, their special teams unit is one of the league's top units (especially in coverage). And if it matters, the weather favors the Bengals, who live in this (crap) every day.
Regardless, the signs point to being heavy favorites. At least on paper.
Make no mistake about it, San Diego is a dangerous team. All teams are dangerous in the playoffs, so San Diego isn't some exception out of nowhere. If the Bengals enter the game believing themselves as favorites (Bengals are giving seven points in Vegas), it could reach a critical breaking point with a loss reaching riotous reactions in Bengaldom.
Philip Rivers pieced together one of the best seasons in his career and Ryan Mathews ended the year as the best runner in the AFC for the month of December. Keenan Allen is a legitimate candidate for offensive rookie of the year. Offensive tackles D.J. Fluker and King Dunlap have played exceptionally well since the Bengals 17-10 win in week 13.
Even the Chargers defense has improved. Before the Bengals played San Diego in week 13, the Chargers defense ranked No. 29 allowing 389.5 yards per game. They've improved their overall defensive ranking by six spots (ranked No. 23), reducing their average allowed per game by over 20 yards (366.5). They've allowed 14, 20, 13, and 24 points in the final four games after surrendering 30 points or more in four of their first 12.
The narrative isn't about that. It's not about San Diego.
It's Cincinnati and their drought without a playoff win in 23 years. It's Marvin Lewis, who is 0-4 in the postseason and Andy Dalton, who has massively struggled in these games. It's not just a must-win to advance into second-round of the 2013 playoffs. It's a must-win for Lewis and Dalton, both of whom need that playoff monkey off their collective backs or feel the weight of it growing throughout the offseason.
This should be their time.