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NFL Playoff Preview: San Diego Chargers vs. Cincinnati Bengals

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The Chargers and the Bengals are probably the least intriguing matchup of the weekend, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an entertaining game between two teams that believe they can reach the Super Bowl. Let’s take a closer look.

HOW THEY GOT HERE?
The Chargers had quite the journey to get into the playoffs, winning five of their final six games, including two against Kansas City and one against Denver just to stay mathematically alive heading into week 17. With Miami and Baltimore losing games early in the day last Sunday, San Diego controlled its own destiny in their game against the Chiefs, but struggled to defeat a watered down Kansas City roster, needing a 4th quarter comeback and some good fortune to beat the Chiefs in overtime and clinch the final playoff spot in the AFC. The Bengals, meanwhile, have been as steady and consistent as any team in the NFL this season, and while they didn’t clinch the AFC North until week 16, Cincinnati won their division with a three-game cushion after putting up a record of 11-5 during the regular season.

SAN DIEGO OFFENSE VS. CINCINNATI DEFENSE
Philip Rivers has had a resurgent season, and he and the San Diego offense are rolling heading into the postseason, as the Chargers won five of their final six games. Of course, their only loss over that span was to the Bengals in week 13, when the Chargers only scored 10 points, in part because of three turnovers. Rivers has received plenty of help this season from rookie receiver Keenan Allen, reliable tight end Antonio Gates, short-yardage receiver Danny Woodhead, and running back Ryan Matthews; as a result the Chargers have a top-5 passing attack. However, the Cincinnati defense is top-5 against both the run and the pass, which made it tough for San Diego to put points on the board back in week 13. In that game, Allen was the only dangerous skill player for San Diego, and in the rematch this weekend they’re going to need a few more players to step up and make plays for them, especially since they’ll be on the road. It’ll also be critical that Rivers doesn’t turn the ball over, which is a problem he’s had in the past but has been able to keep in check this season. If Rivers can avoid turnovers and spread the ball around, it’ll put the Chargers in a position to score points against a tough Cincinnati defense.

CINCINNATI OFFENSE VS. SAN DIEGO DEFENSE
The Bengals have one of the top wide receivers in football in A.J. Green, as well as a deep contingent of skill players, who have helped Andy Dalton have a great season in 2013. However, Cincinnati has two issues on offense. First is the health of tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, as the presence of those players opens up the offense and helps give the Bengals a dynamic passing attack. Without them on the field, opposing defenses can pay more attention to Green on the outside, which makes it harder for Dalton to get the ball to their best playmaker. The other issue Cincinnati has is that Dalton can be turnover prone, throwing 20 interceptions this season. Dalton has looked brilliant at times this season, but he’s also looked terrible at times, and that inconsistency from week to week can be both frustrating and costly. If Dalton doesn’t play well, the Bengals have trouble winning, and considering the fact that he’s coming off a four-interception performance in the regular season finale, there’s no telling how Dalton will fair this week. However, the San Diego pass defense is vulnerable, as even Chase Daniel had success throwing against them last week, so Dalton should be in a position to have success, although he was mediocre against the chargers in week 13, and if he has a similar performance the Bengals will be in for a fight, as Dalton’s performance will dictate the direction of the game.

PREDICTION
The first meeting between these teams was low scoring, but expect this game to open up a little more, as San Diego struggles defending the pass, while Rivers should rise to the occasion and play well to help make up for a bad defense. However, the Bengals have a better defense and a better overall roster, so unless Dalton has a disastrous game, they’ll be in good shape. Cincinnati is also perfect at home this season, and it’s hard to imagine that ending now. Cincinnati 28, San Diego 23.

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