Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers are back in the postseason after a three-year drought.
That pales in comparison to the Cincinnati Bengals’ wait for a playoff victory.
The AFC North champion Bengals seek to end their 23-year drought without a postseason win Sunday when they host the surging Chargers.
San Diego (9-7) won four straight West titles between 2006-09, going 3-4 in the playoffs with Rivers in those years. The Chargers finished second each of the three previous seasons to miss the playoffs, but four straight victories to close the regular season for a third-place finish was good enough in 2013 to finally return.
“It’s been a real long time so it feels great to be back in,” said Rivers, who led the NFL in completion percentage at a career-best 69.5 percent.
It must feel like an eternity, meanwhile, for Bengals fans to see their team taste playoff success. A loss Sunday would extend Cincinnati’s drought to 24 years - which would mark the sixth-longest such streak in NFL history.
The Bengals (11-5) will be making their fourth playoff appearance in five seasons and third in as many seasons with Andy Dalton at quarterback. Dalton hasn’t been up to par in losses to Houston in each of the last two postseasons, throwing four interceptions with no touchdowns while getting sacked six times.
More is expected now that Dalton finished third in the league with 33 touchdown passes - one more than Rivers. There are still concerns about his play after last Sunday’s 34-17 win over Baltimore in which he threw for 281 yards and two scores but was also picked off a career-worst four times.
“People can keep saying whatever they want because we haven’t won a playoff game,” Dalton said. “You’ve got to win. That’s what it comes down to. And for us to get where we want to go, we need to win. That’s the way it works. For me, we need to get a win in this one.”
The onus is also on coach Marvin Lewis, now 0-4 in the postseason in 11 seasons with Cincinnati. He had an easy answer on what it will take to prove that he can win in the playoffs.
“We’ve just got to go play,” Lewis said. “We’re not going to get any of you to shut up about it until we win.”
Lewis’ counterpart will be San Diego’s Mike McCoy, one of three coaches in his first season with his club in this postseason along with Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly and Kansas City’s Andy Reid. The former Denver offensive coordinator is credited with helping Rivers turn in a stellar season.
Rivers threw for nine touchdowns and 845 yards with a 109.8 passer rating over the Chargers’ four-game win streak to close the regular season. That run culminated with last Sunday’s wild 27-24 overtime home win over the Chiefs, who missed a field goal at the end of regulation that would have eliminated San Diego.
“We’ve been on a playoff run for the last month really, to be honest with you,” McCoy said. “We were 5-7, no one gave us the chance. And we just said, ‘Listen, just take care of the next opponent and see what happens.’ It’s going to be the same thing this week.”
McCoy unwittingly gave Lewis a tool to motivate the Bengals. In his post-game speech to the team, McCoy said that San Diego ‘owed the Bengals’ - a reference to a 17-10 home loss to Cincinnati on Dec. 1. Several Chargers were also heard saying the famed Bengals chant ‘Who Dey’ in the background, and Lewis showed the clip to his club.
That Dec. 1 defeat preceded San Diego’s winning streak. Rivers was held to a season-low 80.0 passer rating as the Chargers turned the ball over three times and posted their lowest point total.
“I want to be very respectful because they had a lot to do with it,” Rivers said. “They caused the turnovers and they covered us. Some of it may not have been the best throw. They certainly were out there causing us to not get in the end zone and our execution wasn’t great. We’ve got to execute better.”
Dalton managed only 190 yards passing with one touchdown and one interception in that game although he improved to 2-0 against San Diego along with a 20-13 road victory a season ago in which Rivers was sacked four times.
This rematch figures to be tougher for the warm-weather Chargers since the Bengals are 8-0 at home, where they have amassed 24 sacks while limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 60.6 rating with nine touchdowns to 15 interceptions. Super Bowl champions Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers all failed to win in Cincinnati this year.
“They have to come here to ‘The Jungle’ and deal with our weather and our fans,” Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. “We’ll see if we get the best out of them.”
The only previous postseason meeting between these clubs was a memorable one. Cincinnati won 27-7 over a Dan Fouts-led San Diego team in the AFC championship game in 1982 in one of the coldest games in NFL history.
McCoy wouldn’t address the situation involving linebacker Thomas Keiser, who was arrested after a fight at barleymash, a San Diego bar and restaurant, several hours after Sunday’s win.