Game Scout: Chargers at Bengals

Derek Harper, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
*Keys to the game: The Bengals were 8-0 at home during the regular season, won in San Diego five weeks ago and ranked in the top 10 in both total offense and defense. Cincinnati has every reason to enter Sunday's game with confidence - which will either grow or quickly deteriorate based on the performance of QB Andy Dalton. While the Bengals often resemble one of the NFL's most potent offenses, Dalton has completed 41 of 72 passes for 384 yards, no touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 48.6 in two career playoff games. Yes, he's more mature and enjoyed his best season to date. Dalton also had five multi-interception games during the regular season, including a four-pick performance against Baltimore last week. RBs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard should have success working against a defense that allows 4.6 yards per carry, setting Dalton up for higher percentage passes working off play-action. If that blueprint works out, the Bengals have far more downfield weapons than San Diego can contend with.
The Chargers enter with a four-game winning streak, courtesy of a controversial victory over Kansas City last week. Their streak was possible due to the emergence of RB Ryan Mathews, who rushed for 534 yards in five December games, helping balance the offense and take some pressure of QB Philip Rivers. Rivers relies on a lot of short drops to get the ball out quickly and enable the likes of RB Danny Woodhead, TE Antonio Gates and WR Keenan Allen to make plays after the catch. Cincinnati lost its biggest defensive stars - DT Geno Atkins and CB Leon Hall - to midseason injuries, but plays extremely well as a collective unit.
*Matchup to watch - Chargers CB Shareece Wright vs. Bengals WR A.J. Green: Wright will figure significantly into the Chargers' plan against Green, who caught five passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in the regular-season meeting. Wright was left in Green's wake on a sideline route, but he's the swiftest of San Diego's cover men. Whoever is on Green on a given play will receive help over the top.
*Player spotlight - Bengals P Zoltan Mesko: Signed after Shawn Powell shanked a 10-yard punt into the stands last week, Mesko is the Bengals' third punter of the season but does bring significant playoff experience with six playoff games during three seasons with New England.
*Fast facts: WR Keenan Allen finished the regular season with 1,046 receiving yards, making him the first Chargers rookie to top 1,000 yards since John Jefferson had 1,001 in 1978. Allen had eight catches for 106 yards in the first meeting. ... The Bengals have gone an NFL-high 22 seasons since their last playoff victory.
There is no quicker way to keep an underdog with little to lose in a game faster than turning the ball over. Bengals QB Andy Dalton must be smart in his decision-making, but look for Cincinnati to chip away on the ground early on in brisk conditions, softening the Chargers secondary to be overmatched off play-action.
*Our pick: Bengals 27-19

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