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Wild Card Weekend preview: Chargers-Bengals

The NFL regular season is history, and now it's time for teams to enter the playoff fray for Wild Card Weekend, with trips to Divisional Round Weekend on the line. Let's take a closer look at all four games.



The backstory

Playoff schedule


The first two rounds of the NFL's postseason schedule for the 2013 season were released Sunday night. **More ...**

The Cincinnati Bengals have developed a bad reputation in January.

Two years running, this Marvin Lewis-led squad has earned an AFC playoff spot only to show up to the party DOA.

Back-to-back lifeless losses to the Texans have people doubting Cincy's killer instinct, but Sunday brings a different opponent. Instead of Houston, the AFC North champs will meet a Chargers team coming off four straight wins, including victories over the Broncos and -- while controversial -- the Chiefs.

A reborn Philip Rivers makes San Diego a tough out, but the Bengals are a perfect 8-0 at home, having more than doubled the points of their opponents at Paul Brown Stadium this season. Cincy was six points shy of becoming the first team in NFL history to score 40-plus in five straight home games.

The last time the Bengals went undefeated at home was 1988, a season that ended with the team reaching Super Bowl XXIII. That kind of talk is premature for this year's squad, but Cincy has plenty to prove.

Under pressure

Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals: Seen by many as the one guy holding the Bengals back from being a beast in the AFC, Dalton must win this game to get the critics off his back. His play catches heat because he's dangerously streaky. Dalton's 33 touchdown passes this season are a new franchise record, but what we saw last week is typical of an Andy-esque meltdown: Going 21 of 36 passing for 281 yards and two scores through the air against the Baltimore Ravens, Dalton nearly sunk the ship with four interceptions.

My biggest issue with Dalton? The occasional dark corner he sinks the team into. Back in Week 11, I watched the guy toss back-to-back ugly picks against the Browns, helping Cleveland build a rapid-fire 13-0 lead. The Bengals fought their way out of it, despite Dalton's off-kilter play. He threw back-to-back picks again against the Ravens last week, too, but his teammates bailed him out. That margin for error doesn't exist in January.

The truth is that Dalton has been sensational at home, completing 63.5 percent of his passes with 20 scores, nine interceptions and a 98.4 passer rating. Continuing the pattern Sunday will do wonders for this young quarterback's reputation.

Matchup to watch

Bengals receivers vs. Chargers secondary: Cincinnati was the only team other than the Broncos to have two receivers with 10-plus touchdown grabs this season with A.J. Green (11) and Marvin Jones (10) doing the trick.

San Diego's defense is the worst unit in this game. An utter trainwreck for much of the season, the Chargers have tightened up of late, having allowed less than 350 yards in each of their past four games. Safeties Eric Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist have played well, but I don't trust the cornerback duo of Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall. San Diego's great hope Sunday is Rivers turning the affair into a shootout.

The "good" Dalton can keep up, especially if Green is winning his matchups in coverage. Whereas a player like Joe Haden has proven that Green can be taken out of the equation, San Diego has no such player. Green's 1,426 receiving yards on the year included five straight 100-yard games from Weeks 6 through 10, but he hasn't had one since. Jones has picked up the slack, with three touchdown grabs over his last four games.

Mind-blowing stats

The Bengals have clinched a playoff berth in three straight seasons for the first time in franchise history, but haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season. They previously beat the Chargers 27-7 in the 1981 AFC Championship Game, a contest that famously featured a minus-59 degree wind chill.

Back to Rivers: What a season. Especially on third downs, where his 103.8 passer rating is second in the NFL to only Colin Kaepernick. His overall rating of 105.5 is his highest since 2008, partly because his deep ball has improved. After slumping to a 67.2 rating on throws of 21-plus yards in 2012, he's earned a 99.7 rating on those throws in 2013.


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