The last time the Bengals won a playoff game, George H.W. Bush — that would be the first one — was president. Nirvana's "Nevermind" was still eight months away from CD stores, and the start of the first Gulf War was 11 days away. The NFL's MVP was Joe Montana, and the Bengals played two teams in the playoffs that don't even reside in their cities anymore: the Houston Oilers and the Los Angeles Raiders. The last time the Bengals won a playoff game was 1991, and it was a long time ago.
So it's with that backdrop in mind that the Bengals (11-5) have entered every postseason since, the "can you win in January?" weight growing heavier and heavier around their shoulders. They've reached the playoffs three of the past four seasons, and bowed out in the first game of each one. This year, with a combination of home game and relatively weak opponent, they have their best opportunity for a victory since that 1991 playoff run. Can they get it done? Head coach Marvin Lewis expected the question this week, and met it head-on.
“I thought we prepared very well a year ago," he said. "I thought we prepared very well the year before that. I’ve thought we’ve had good weeks of preparation and we’ve just got to go put it out there. We’ve just got to go play. We’re not going to get any of you to shut up about it until we win."
Fair enough. But can the Bengals beat San Diego (9-7), which required overtime in Week 17 to make the playoffs? It'll be a matchup of strength on strength: the Chargers ranked 4th in passing offense behind Philip Rivers, but the Bengals' defense is stout, ranking fifth against both the pass and the run. Defensively, the Chargers are a miserable 29th against the pass, which would appear to give Cincinnati's Andy Dalton a prime opportunity. The Bengals ranked sixth overall in points scored, and eighth in passing offense.
The numbers, then, tilt toward the Bengals, as do the oddsmakers; the line favoring Cincinnati by 7 is the largest, by a factor of three, of any game this weekend. This is the postseason, though, and you can't predict how a team will — or won't — respond with its season on the line. With scars come knowledge, however, and the Bengals say they've learned plenty from their recent history of losses.
“Every little thing matters," Dalton said. "That’s something you can see the last couple of years – when you have chances and you have opportunities to hit plays and to score points, you’ve got to hit them because every little thing counts. You never know what’s going to be the play that defines the game. That’s something we didn’t do the last couple of years. We didn’t take advantage of some of those opportunities."
(Also interesting: referee for this game will be Jeff Triplette, who made two errors late in the season bad enough to warrant reprimands from the NFL: the botched play clock at the end of Washington-New York in Week 13 and an incorrect first down in the Indianapolis-Cincinnati game in Week 14. Proceed with caution.)
Cincinnati remains this year's version of the 2012 Baltimore Ravens — a squad that doesn't appear to be in the same class as the Patriots, Broncos and Seahawks until you start digging into the numbers. This is a squad that can win on the ground and through the air. And while they'll need both talent and luck to get past the two leviathans in their conference, as the Chargers can tell you, luck shows up where you least expect it.
The Chargers, as you'll recall, needed every single bit of luck, good fortune, and referee incompetence that they could muster up in order to get into the playoffs. Coming into Week 17, they were fighting three other teams for the final playoff spot, and it was only through a complex series of losses and blown calls that San Diego reached the postseason. Nine wins in the AFC West isn't a shabby achievement; even though the Chargers lost to Cincinnati 17-10 in Week 13, they knocked off the Broncos in Denver two weeks later, and closed the year by winning five of six.
The Bengals know this, know that Rivers could go insane and throw for 350 yards and three touchdowns if they're not careful. They know full well that come Sunday night, this season could look like so many before it ... or could look better than any of them.
"What we did in San Diego doesn’t matter now," Lewis said. "What we did out here doesn’t matter now. We’re starting from scratch. We’ve got to be the best team for the next five weeks and we’ll be fine.”
Chargers at Bengals, Sunday, 1:05ET, CBS