The San Diego Chargers looked cooked at 5-7 on Dec. 1, with a road trip to Denver still on the schedule. They looked done in Week 17, trailing by 10 points in the second half to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Philip Rivers has played like the second-best quarterback in football all season, but the Chargers have played like a complete team during their five-game winning streak. Defensive coordinator John Pagano confused Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton all day with a variety of looks and blitz packages, forcing four turnovers.
The team's smashmouth running game racked up 196 yards on 40 carries. And Rivers was sharp as always, even if the Chargers only needed him to throw 16 passes.
Dalton was a disaster in the second half, making predetermined reads, poor throws and worse decisions. (He had three turnovers, although we thought the game truly turned on a first-half Giovani Bernard fumble.)
The Bengals have not won a playoff game in 23 years, with coach Marvin Lewis now 0-5 in the postseason, three of them with Dalton. This is the type of loss that will cause some necessary soul-searching in the organization about whether Dalton is the right quarterback to end the team's streak of futility. Dalton's regular-season numbers belie his inconsistency.
"I don't have any questions about Andy's role," a downcast Lewis said after the game. "A tough day."
The Bengals were 4-0 against playoff teams in 2013 and 8-0 at home before the loss, which makes this no-show more inexplicable. On paper, it was a good matchup for Dalton against one of the worst defenses in the league. But this Chargers group has improved dramatically over the last six weeks, giving up just 16 points per game. They are healthier and rushing the passer better than earlier in the season.
Chargers coach Mike McCoy is too conservative with his play-calling and decision-making at times, but his strategy to play to his defense and running game has worked. Even with starting running back Ryan Mathews on the sideline for the second half, the Chargers outscored Cincinnati 20-0 in the second half.
Like Norv Turner before him, McCoy has started his career as Chargers coach with a surprising playoff run. Next stop is Denver. The Broncos will be heavy favorites next Sunday, but the Chargers are used to that. They have been beating the odds for more than a month.