For the third straight season the Bengals offense imploded in the wild card game as four turnovers doomed this postseason run and paved the way for San Diego's 27-10 victory Sunday before a stunned Paul Brown Stadium sellout of 62,277 that watched Cincinnati generate just one touchdown against the NFL's 23rd-ranked defense.
To rub it all in, Chargers running back Ronnie Brown broke the longest run against Cincinnati in two years and four days, a 58-yard touchdown run with 2:17 left against a proud Bengals defense that allowed 196 yards rushing on 40 runs.
An Andy Dalton fumble and an interception on back-to-back possessions in a horrendous third quarter of offense stretched a 14-10 deficit to 20-10. Only another heroic effort by the defense that turned the turnovers into field goals instead of touchdowns kept the Bengals from getting blown out.
When Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga penetrated the backfield from the San Diego 1 on third down to drop Brown for a loss, that forced Nick Novak's field goal that gave San Diego a 20-10 lead with 14:16 left in the game. Then the rain began to fall.
At that point Dalton finally found wide receiver A.J. Green for the first time in the second half with about 13 minutes left and the Bengals started to move for the first time all half as they got to midfield. But with 10:28 left in the game, Dalton tried to hit tight end Tyler Eifert outside the numbers and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram undercut the sideline route and picked it off for Dalton's second interception of the game.
It was a curious performance against a defense that came into the game No. 30 in the NFL forcing turnovers with just 17 in 16 games and for a Bengals offense that was plus-seven in its unbeaten home season when it came to the turnover ratio. While Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw the ball smartly in his eighth playoff start, he only threw it 16 times while the Chargers sold out in the running game. Rivers completed 12 balls for 128 yards for a 118.8 rating. Dalton threw it 51 times and completed 29 for 334 yards and a 67 passer rating.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Dalton threw a great bomb to Green inside the 5 down the right sideline, but strong safety Darrell Stuckey batted it away at the last instant, conjuring up memories from Houston in last year's wild card game in which the two didn't connect late. Green finished with three catches for 34 yards on nine targets while Marvin Jones had 130 yards on eight catches, breaking Cris Collinsworth's playoff club record. The Bengals went 0-for-5 on third down in the second half.
The Chargers took a 14-10 lead with 6:46 left in the third quarter after a vintage drive of 5:40. Quarterback Philip Rivers converted a third-and-five when he hit tight end Ladarius Green over the middle for eight yards and then he hit wide receiver Eddie Royal for a 33-yard completion that put the ball on the Bengals 4 when Royal beat cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick off the line of scrimmage. Rivers then lobbed a four-yard touchdown pass to Green on a jump ball over nickel back Chris Crocker to make it 14-10 with 6:46 left.
At that point the Bengals went to three straight passes and they couldn't keep the Chargers from coming up the middle. After outside linebacker Jarret Johnson's sack over the left side and an incompletion, Dalton got chased out of the pocket and fumbled the ball away at the end of his run at the Bengals 46.
The Bengals pitched another defensive stand to force Novak's 25-yard field goal with two minutes left in the third quarter that made it 17-10 and after a two-yard run to running back Giovani Bernard from the Bengals 26, Cincinnati went to pass again and still couldn't keep out the Chargers pass rush. Dalton threw away second down and on third down he was running backward away from pressure and made an ill-advised throw as he backpedaled. Cornerback Shareece Wright picked it off as Dalton tried to heave it for wide receiver Mohamed Sanu outside the numbers and he took it down to the 3, where the Bengals offered another stand.
In a dead even game, the Bengals committed the cardinal sin of postseason football and committed the only turnover of the first half, but their PBS resiliency flared when they still managed to take a 10-7 lead over the Chargers on Mike Nugent's 46-yard field goal as the first half expired.
Following Bernard's fumble with 1:47 left in the half, the Bengals forced their third three-and-out of the half, a gold star accomplishment against a Chargers offense that had an NFL-low 23 of them during the season. With all three timeouts left the Bengals used them to get the ball back at their own 32 after Chargers punter Mike Scifres's blast with 1:14 left.
Dalton then moved the Bengals 40 yards on six plays, starting with 14-yarders and 13-yarders to Green and Sanu, respectively. He spiked the ball with two seconds left at the Chargers 28, where the Bengals survived a replay of tight end Jermaine Gresham's 13-yard catch as he went out of bounds.
On the last play before the two-minute warning, Dalton threw a beautiful "go" ball to Jones running past Chargers cornerback Richard Marshall down the left sideline for a 49-yard catch that put the ball on the Chargers 16. Dalton then hit Bernard over the middle and as Bernard turned upfield and started to tuck the ball, Chargers inside linebacker Donald Butler jumped over his back and knocked it out.
As advertised, the Bengals and Chargers muscled for field position and the clock in the first half. The Bengals had the edge in field position, but only a 46-second edge in time of possession. The Chargers clearly tried to smash it as Rivers completed five of just six passes for 48 yards in the half while their backs ran it 18 times for 74 yards. Dalton went 12-of-17 for 164 yards, including his first postseason touchdown while Bengals running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis (six for 27) and Bernard (seven for 26) combined for 53 yards rushing.
The Bengals matched San Diego's 12-play touchdown drive with a 10-play march of 6:07 that tied it midway through the second quarter.
After Green-Ellis and Bernard ran the ball seven of the nine plays for 33 yards, Dalton faced a second-and-goal from the Chargers 4 and unloaded a pass over the back of Jarret Johnson failing to keep pace with Gresham to tie it at seven with 5:59 left in the second quarter. The ball fluttered because as Dalton threw it he got blown up in the back by Ingram.
Exactly what the Bengals didn't want to happen, happened in the game's first quarter when they let the Chargers take control of the game with a grinding 12-play touchdown drive that took nearly seven minutes for a 7-0 lead when running back Danny Woodhead walked in from five yards out through a gaping hole up the middle with 48 seconds left in the first quarter.
San Diego, leading the NFL in time of possession, only had to convert a third down once in the drive and that was a third-and-inches as running backs Ryan Matthews and Ronnie Brown took turns smashing through a front seven that had trouble getting off blocks and wrapping up tackles. The killer came in the red zone (where the Chargers never took a snap back in their Dec. 1 loss to the Bengals) when left end Carlos Dunlap had Rivers for a sack and let him get away. When Rivers scrambled away, he had Maualuga caught between a rock and a hard place in coverage and Rivers shotputted a ball over Maualuga to lead Woodhead for an 11–yard completion to the sideline.
But the defense regrouped on the next possession to force the first of its three-and-outs. The Bengals held Matthews to two runs of seven yards and on third-and-two Rivers overthrew wide receiver Keenan Allen on what appeared to be a mixup.
Dalton, looking to erase the playoff disappointments of the past two seasons, had a rough start. He had a screen pass knocked down at the line, had to fall on a fumbled center exchange and badly missed the wide-open Bernard when he rolled out on third-and-one.
Green had just two catches for 23 yards on four targets in the half.
NEWMAN OUT: Despite going limited in practice Friday, Bengals cornerback Terence Newman was ruled out of Sunday's wild card game against the Chargers at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium but he was the only one of head coach Marvin Lewis's walking wounded not to be active.
Also inactive were wide receivers Dane Sanzenbacher and Ryan Whalen, running back Rex Burkhead, offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson, as well as two players that just joined the team in tight end Kevin Brock and defensive tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo.
Newman practiced for the first time since he sprained his knee Dec. 8 in the win over the Colts, but Lewis opted to give Dre Kirkpatrick his fourth straight start at left cornerback. WARMING UP:Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was named the MVP of the 2004 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in weather not much different than what finally transpired at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium two hours before kickoff of Sunday's wild card game (1:05 p.m., Cincinnati's Channel 12) pitting the Bengals and San Diego.
Despite all the winter warning advisories, temperatures were in the low 40s in pregame warmups and are expected to stay that way throughout the game, according to the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio.
A bit different than that last Bengals-Chargers playoff game, the Jan. 10, 1982 "Freezer Bowl" in which the Bengals won the AFC title in the second-coldest game ever played. The Bengals planned to honor the players from that game moments before kickoff, anchored by former running back James Brooks, a four-time Pro Bowl running back for the Bengals who played that day as a San Diego rookie. Also slated to be on the field are Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Muñoz and wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, making a beeline from announcing Saturday night's wild card game in Philadelphia for NBC.
Other Bengals Freezer Bowl alumni scheduled to be present are Ken Anderson, Jim Breech, Louis Breeden, Glenn Bujnoch, Tom Dinkel, Archie Griffin, Ray Griffin, M.L. Harris, Robert Jackson, Pete Johnson, Rick Razzano, Mike St. Clair, John Simmons and David Verser. Also honored is Dave Lapham, who will be in the PBS home radio booth at the time of the ceremony, preparing for his role as analyst on the Bengals Radio Network.
Maybe the guy with the biggest smile during the reunion was Brooks, at the center of the greatest Bengals trade of all-time. Brooks was drafted by the Chargers, but he's best remembered for being Sam Wyche's matchup nightmare in the no-huddle.
"These guys are my friends. When the trade happened, my time in San Diego was over and that was it," Brooks said. "This is the place where it really began. They gave me an opportunity to show what I could do."
Brooks could only shrug about the 59-below wind chill of that day.
"We got in on Friday after playing in Miami the week before and we had a walkthrough Saturday," Brooks recalled. "We got off the bus, walked through, and walked back on to the bus."
Quarterback Ken Anderson was wearing gloves Sunday, the ones he couldn't wear 32 years ago when he outdueled Hall of Famer Dan Fouts in that 27-7 victory. The modern equipment, he said, just wasn't here yet.
"The receivers wore what they called scuba gloves, but they were too thick for a quarterback," Anderson said as he recalled the equipment that was worn, such as kicker Jim Breech's panty hose and tight end M.L. Harris's winter gloves.
With the temperatures reaching 40 degrees, Anderson was bundled up and smiling.
"I'm wearing everything I own," he said.