Is it possible for a Week 2 game to be a "must-win" type of contest? The fantastic aspect about the game of football resides in the fact that every game means so much, week in and week out. While the San Diego Chargers aren't in the AFC North, it's a conference game with many implications for both clubs in 2015.
For all of the bloody-knuckled history between the Bengals and their divisional foes, the Chargers have a special place in Cincinnati's historical annals. Whether it was "The Freezer Bowl" in January of 1982, the Chris Henry memorial in Southern California back in 2009, or the Wild Card disaster in during the 2013 playoff bracket, the two teams have had some epic battles.
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A decade ago, the Cincinnati Bengals took a chance on a talented, but troubled wide receiver in the NFL Draft. What transpired over the next half-decade brings smiles and tears to fans' faces.
Both the Chargers and the Bengals had impressive wins on Kickoff Weekend in the Golden State of California. In Northern California, the Bengals took it to the Raiders in a game that was decided within the first quarter. Cincinnati re-discovered their infatuation with Tyler Eifert to the tune of 104 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Hue Jackson also employed the two heading running back juggernaut of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard upon his homecoming, allowing the defense to swarm Oakland's offense and grab a 33-13 victory.
Meanwhile, after a back-and-forth affair with the striking Detroit Lions, it appeared the playoff hopes for Philip Rivers and his Chargers were off to an inauspicious start. However, after digging deep, getting a few lucky breaks, and making the most of opportunities, San Diego super-charged back to a big Week 1 win.
So, as it was back in December of 2013 and January of 2014, two playoff contenders have a face-to-face to decide who would emerge as the better team. Perhaps the biggest irony about the Wild Card loss was that of Who Dey Nation being ecstatic of the Bengals' drawing of the Chargers in the postseason. They seemed to be the easiest path to Cincinnati's first playoff win since the 1991, but it turned into one of the worst losses in team history.
Rivers has mastered the art of surmounting incredible deficits and the odds that are ushered in with those circumstances. The recent slow starts in regular season games is really just a microcosm of some of the Chargers' seasons. Rivers has gone from regular season stat king to comeback kid as his career has unfolded. It's this newfound ability that has us believing the Bengals will need to embrace the cliched adage of "playing 60 minutes" this Sunday.
The Chargers are a frustrating opponent Just when you think you've got them on the ropes, irritating short passes and opportune runs from a committee whittle away at opponent. Suddenly, San Diego's opposition looks up at the game clock and realizes their on the wrong side of the score after seeming to have everything under control. No lead is safe from Rivers who seems rejuvenated with some added weapons.
If Andy Dalton is believed to be undergoing a renaissance in 2015 because of the return of Eifert and Marvin Jones, consider Rivers to be the co-captain of that ship. Danny Woodhead, a poor man's version of Bernard for the Chargers, came back in 2015 after missing 13 games last year and exploded in the opener. And, after other wide receivers disappointed and/or left over the years, Stevie Johnson was added this offseason and has given Rivers a nice option aside from Malcolm Floyd and Keenan Allen.
Don't take Allen as an afterthought, though. After a strong rookie season and a disappointing sophomore campaign, Allen had an incredible Week 1 with 15 catches for 166 yards. Johnson, his counterpart, had 82 receiving yards and a touchdown to go along with Woodhead's two on the ground against Detroit.
That isn't to say Rivers is going bombs away with deep passes, though. This San Diego offense under Mike McCoy doesn't resemble anything close to the pass-happy offense ran by Norv Turner. Rivers uses high-percentage passes to all of his skill positions in hopes they will use their yards-after-the-catch abilities to either maintain a lead or chip away at one they're facing.
Does this play into or against the strengths of the Bengals? It's hard to say, but Paul Guenther's defense seems to be a bit different from Mike Zimmer's scheme. While both like(d) to be diverse and rely on the prowess of the front four to get pressure without much help from additional blitzers, Zimmer's defense liked to use pressure to create either sacks or turnovers. Guenther seems a bit more conservative in his 18 games as an NFL coordinator, preaching a limiting of big plays and forcing of punts. It could change a bit once he fully gets his feet under him and all pieces return (cough, Vontaze Burfict, cough), but for now, it seems to be the M.O.
This week's game might very well be won or lost by the secondaries of both squads. In his first game named as an actual starter, Dre Kirkpatrick looked like a seasoned veteran while his counterpart, Adam Jones, scrapped, tackled and slammed his way to a solid showing against the Raiders as well. Cincinnati's young star safety, George Iloka, may or may not play, but the rest seems to be intact. On the flip side, the Chargers will have Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle heading up their secondary, though theirs might not be as formidable as Cincinnati's.
If you're not a believer of the secondaries being the key, perhaps it's going to be the tight ends. Eifert, if healthy, could be putting up Pro Bowl numbers, while San Diego's Ladarius Green is another emerging star at tight end in a decorated history at the position in franchise history. Are either of the players' successes in their young careers flashes-in-the-pan, or are they laying a foundation to a big career. Who will have the bigger impact on Sunday?
For the Bengals, it's also on the "other Green" in the game, with the first name of A.J. After signing a mega-extension two days before the opener, Green had an up-and-down day against the Raiders with a dropped touchdown, but five other catches for 63 yards. In three games against the Chargers, Green has 17 catches, 202 yards and a touchdown.
Some might call it a coin-flip game, but with the Bengals hitting on all cylinders in Week 1 and having the home crowd behind their back, I'll have them taking revenge on San Diego from January 2014.
Chargers 23, Bengals 26
AC -- Giving you a great Philip Rivers impression since 2012.