When looking back at the annals of NFL history, there are a small handful of iconic games that have paved the way for the sport to be arguably the most popular in the world. “The Ice Bowl”, Joe Namath’s brash prediction and follow through in Super Bowl III, “The Catch” are a few, but “The Freezer Bowl” (AKA the 1981 AFC Championship Game) is another on the Mount Rushmore of famous NFL games.
Two Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks faced off on January 10, 1982 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, pitting San Diego’s Dan Fouts against the Bengals’ Ken Anderson. The latter beat the former in -9 degree weather (-37, factoring in the wind chill), sending Paul Brown’s squad to Super Bowl XVI.
Simply getting to this game was a part of Fouts’ Canton resume, while winning it in dominating fashion hasn’t opened up the HOF committee’s eyes to the greatness of Anderson, for whatever reason. But, I digress.
Since that game, there were some other big matchups between the two clubs. Recently, 2009’s crazy one right after Chris Henry’s untimely death and 2013’s preview to a subsequent playoff matchup that postseason have had big regular-season implications.
Yet, for a variety of reasons, this one in 2021 may be the most important game for both teams in quite some time. The respective parallels between the teams can’t be denied and both the Chargers and Bengals need a win to continue solidifying playoff hopes.
When both teams entering rebuild mode last year, they hitched their respective wagons to two of the more exciting quarterback prospects in a long time. Cincinnati went with the steady, heady option in Joe Burrow at No. 1 overall, while Los Angeles went with the boom-or-bust athleticism of Justin Herbert.
The choices have paid off for both teams in different ways, as both young signal-callers have their teams in the very crowded AFC playoff hunt. The Chargers and Bengals have both taken on a personality resembling these passers.
It’s been a lot of good, with the occasional “what the...?” moments for these quarterbacks and their squads. L.A. and Cincy have both endured growing pains this year, but they also look to be potential conference powerhouses, should they continue to build around these two 2020 picks.
Still, as these two young quarterbacks go, so do their teams. And, when looking at the stats on the year, the similarities are uncanny.
Herbert has the edge in passing yards (3,230 to 2,835), passing touchdowns (24 to 22) and interceptions thrown (10 to 12), but Burrow is better in passer rating (101.6 to 96.5) and completion percentage (69.3 to 66.0).
Additionally, as it predictably goes with two seemingly-evenly-matched teams this time of year, the team stats and injury reports reign supreme. For the former category, what Cincinnati’s offense and Joe Mixon have achieved the past two weeks completely plays into the Bengals’ hands this week.
San Diego Los Angeles is dead-last in the NFL against the run, at least in terms of total rushing yards allowed this year, while Mixon has pounded for nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns on the ground the past two games. With the weather being questionable, as is part-and-parcel of Ohio in December, this is a weakness Zac Taylor will undoubtedly try to exploit.
Yet, the Bengals may be without one or two starting offensive linemen. Center Trey Hopkins and right tackle Riley Reiff are questionable and game-time decisions. We don’t really know what the future holds with these two on Sunday, but one practice squad activation on Saturday raises questions:
We’ve made the following roster moves:— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 4, 2021
- Signed HB Trayveon Williams to the active roster.
- Placed WR Auden Tate on the Reserve/Injured list.
- Elevated G Keaton Sutherland & WR Pooka Williams from the practice squad to the active roster for tomorrow’s game.
Meanwhile, the Chargers’ revamped offensive line has had injury issues of its own. Rashawn Slater has been outstanding, but a myriad of injuries has at least partially led to Herbert’s thrown of three interceptions against just two touchdowns in the past two games.
As it goes with so many games at the NFL level, the offensive line will tell the tale of the result. And, with able bodies on both teams being questionable, it makes this one even more of a coin-flip game.
The last time the Bengals rode a win streak this year and became media darlings, they were embarrassed by two consecutive losses. From there, Cincinnati went into the bye week and emerged with two straight wins, averaging 25 points in the respective margins of victory.
Coming out of the bye, we knew this would be a treacherous back-half of the schedule for the Bengals. Every team in those eight remaining games were either in the current iteration of the playoff bracket, or right outside of it.
Now, as the Bengals collect wins and the schedule dwindles, in terms of remaining games, each continues to reek of “must-win”. This is one of those, even though it isn’t within the division.
If we want to romanticize this one, there are visions that can be conjured up of this being the next dynastic conference rivalry between two great quarterbacks from the same draft class. At the risk of being hyperbolic, this Sunday could be a stepping stone in that process.
It’s an odd thing about this Bengals team, as opposed to other good ones we saw under Marvin Lewis. Even though they’re young and technically amid a rebuilding effort, they seem to be more trustworthy now in big moments than before.
Even so, those losses to the Bears, Jets and Browns keep the overconfidence reined in on a matchup like this.
The Chargers are a good team. However, this being at home and looking at the rest of the schedule, the matchup against L.A. seems to be one of the more favorable remaining on the list of opponents.
I can see an uncomfortable, but fun win for the Bengals this week. The potential of this becoming one of those great, non-divisional rivalries should be palpable by the time the afternoon hits on Sunday.
Chargers 33, Bengals 37