Another year in the playoffs.
Another frustrating first-round exit.
Despite all of the signs suggesting that Cincinnati would finally break free from a 23-year old drought without a playoff win, the Bengals did what the Bengals do: Collapse in a big game, lose a playoff game and confirm the talking points about Marvin Lewis failing to get that elusive playoff win, reaching 0-5 for his postseason career. Reexamining his future is going to be fervent, if not with unfavorable consensus.
Andy Dalton will receive a bulk of the criticism, and in one respect, he should. Though the offensive line struggled against San Diego's pass rush, Dalton routinely held onto the football taking sacks or making panic-like throws. Often failing to recognize the blitz, or finding hot reads to get rid of the football, his scrambles usually led to quarterback sacks or untouched fumbles caused by the ground. At one point, feeling a nonexistent pass rush and bailing from the pocket, Dalton was often scrambling into pressure. Failing to recognize the blitz and his hot reads led to much of it.
Asking if Dalton should be considered the quarterback of the future is a legitimate question, from every divisive angle of the debate. Dalton is up for a contract extension over the offseason and the Bengals have to ask themselves, do they want to go forward with this.
However, it would be foolish to level all of the blame on Dalton and Lewis. The offensive line was manhandled with a performance that evoke embarrassment, if not down right shame. Giovani Bernard fumbled inside the ten-yard line on a drive that should have scored points. A.J. Green dropped a deep pass midway through the fourth that would have enabled a late comeback effort -- but we're come to accept that he'll drop the occasional big pass. Jay Gruden is Jay Gruden; not unlike being Pinky and the Brain with disastrous ambitions that typically over-complicates something as simple as running for it on third and one.
Both teams tried establishing the run early, with Ryan Mathews gaining eight yards on the game' opening play. After generating a first down, the Chargers were forced to punt after Mike Zimmer dialed up a seven-man blitz with Chris Crocker and Vontaze Burfict sharing the quarterback sack. BenJarvus Green-Ellis picked up consecutive eight-yard runs. However, a batted ball on first down and three-yard loss by Giovani Bernard led to a third and long that ended with a seven-yard reception to Marvin Jones, well short of the first down marker.
San Diego opened their second possession from the 14-yard line with 7:44 remaining in the first. Utilizing a motivated Chargers offensive line running roughshod over Cincinnati's front seven, San Diego took a 7-0 lead with :48 seconds remaining in the first quarter to cap a 12-play possession that took nearly seven minutes off the clock.
Cincinnati was unable to respond. After picking up a first down, Andy Dalton and Kyle Cook fumbled the snap exchange, which Dalton recovered and the third-year quarterback threw wide to an open Giovani Bernard that would have generated an easy first down.
After forcing a three-and-out, the Bengals strung together a 10-play drive, starting from their own 40-yard line and ending with an Andy Dalton touchdown throw to Jermaine Gresham near the front right pylon to tie the game at seven with 5:59 remaining in the second. The drive was highlighted by Giovani Bernard, who touched the football six times for 39 yards.
Another three-and-out later and Cincinnati threatened. Starting from their own 32-yard line, Andy Dalton launched the football down the left sidelines where wide receiver Marvin Jones hauled in the reception of his right shoulder for the 49-yard gain. Unfortunately, Giovani Bernard lost the football after Donald Butler chopped the football away from Bernard at the Chargers four-yard line, giving San Diego the football back with 1:47 remaining in the second quarter.
Content with wiping out as much clock as possible, San Diego ran it on all three downs. Fortunately, the Bengals had saved all three of their time outs, limiting the time of possession to only :33 seconds.
San Diego punted the football back to Cincinnati at the Bengals 32-yard line with 1:14 remaining in the half. Dalton completed a string of receptions to A.J. Green (14 yards), Mohamed Sanu (13 yards) and Jermaine Gresham (13 yards) to reach the San Diego's 28-yard line. With two seconds remaining in the first half, Mike Nugent converted the 46-yarder to give Cincinnati a 10-7 half time lead (a lot happened on the Jermaine Gresham reception, but in the end, it held up).
San Diego reclaimed the lead with 6:46 remaining in the third quarter on a jump ball to Ladarius Green near the back left pylon over Chris Crocker, taking a 14-10 lead. Included in the ten-play drive that spanned 80 yards was a 33-yard reception to a wide open Eddie Royal down the right sidelines, badly beating Dre Kirkpatrick, reaching the four-yard line setting up first and goal.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton single-handedly crushed Cincinnati's ensuing possession with little help from the offensive line. Forced to scramble on the series of downs, Dalton was sacked on first down, threw an incomplete on second and lost a fumble on third, giving San Diego the football back at Cincinnati's 46-yard line. San Diego extended their lead, 17-10, following a 25-yard field goal with two minutes remaining in the third.
Andy Dalton's second half continued to deteriorate. On the next series, facing a significant interior pass rush, Dalton threw an inadvisable pass off his back foot with no strength behind the throw. Cornerback Shareece Wright jumped the pass, intended for Mohamed Sanu, returning the interception 30 yards to the Bengals three-yard line.
Cincinnati's defense kept San Diego out of the end zone, thanks to Rey Maualuga shooting the gap for a four-yard loss on third down, forcing a field goal and limiting the damage to a field goal.
Dalton threw his second pick on the afternoon after targeting tight end Tyler Eifert on a quick out that Melvin Ingram blanketed. Cincinnati's defense held San Diego to a three and out and punted the football back to Cincinnati with over eight minutes remaining. The Bengals reached the Chargers 41-yard line with under five minutes remaining, but Andy Dalton badly overthrew the fourth down pass, turning the ball over to San Diego.
The Bengals are done. There is no tomorrow.