The two things that don't lie are the thermometer and the stats and with the Bengals playing the Chargers on Sunday in the wild card game at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium (1:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), the Bengals.com Media Roundtable is sticking with the cold, hard facts while picking Cincinnati to extend this season's home unbeaten streak.
Alex Marvez, the estimable Fox Sports reporter behind the mike and with the pen draws on his experience as a Bengals beat reporter for the Dayton Daily News two decades ago to opt for Cincinnati's maturity and the NFL's fifth-ranked run defense in its third straight postseason game.
Joe Reedy, The Cincinnati Enquirer beat man, believes Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton bounces back against a Chargers defense ranked 29th against the pass on a day of postseason redemption for everyone from Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis to tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Kevin Goheen of FoxSportsOhio.com, who has covered the Bengals for a decade, raised some eyebrows in the locker room this week with his column about covering the 0-9 Bengals and Reds in playoff games. But he thinks the streak is broken because of a Bengals defense that has shut down all-comers this season at home to the tune of 17 points per game while scoring six touchdowns of its own.
Sam Farmer, the longtime NFL reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is the only one on The Table opting for the Chargers, but he's using facts, too. The Chargers have sprung two upsets in cold-weather road games in the last six weeks and quarterback Philip Rivers has more playoff wins (three) than Dalton has playoff appearances (two).
Let's go around The Table:
The Ryan Matthews issue is a big one. He didn't practice Wednesday and Thursday and he practiced limited Friday and is coming off a career-high 144 yards. This offense has been changing. Philip Rivers told me when they're most balanced is when they're most dangerous. So their No. 1 goal is to get Matthews on track to set up the pass. I think that's something that the Bengals have to be wary about.
Defensively the Chargers have a big change up front at the nose guard position and that has been better for them. And they've really done a nice job in the secondary from a schematic standpoint. But I don't know if they have an answer for Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. I just don't know if they have an answer for all these weapons. If they can pressure, it's one thing. Outside linebacker Melvin Ingram being back is big, but if this offensive line can hold up I can see Cincinnati making hay in the passing game even with the weather.
Amazing the way the Chargers have possessed the ball in their winning streak. The way they played the Broncos, that's what they like to do. Grind it out. Pound it. Move the ball methodically down the field, set up a few things in the passing game. It's easier said than done sometimes.
I like the maturity of this Bengals team. It's such a different squad than the one I covered on a daily basis in the mid-90s. It's like the old Bengals are washed away. But you have to win a playoff game. I get the feeling it's different than it was the previous two years. As an outsider, I sense that from this team. They understand what's at stake here. They're not tight talking about this, but there's also a sense of urgency. Marvin Lewis made a great point when he was asked if this is the best team he's had. I think it is, but you know what? If they don't win, it doesn't matter. If they win, it's in the passing game and they limit Matthews to 61 yards or less like last time. If they can limit his per carry average they're in good shape.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-17. Because they'll have success in the passing game and they will stop Ryan Matthews.
The biggest thing is these are two of the top three teams in yards after catch. Not only running backs, but receivers. The running backs are similar in Matthews and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are grinders. And then you've got Danny Woodhead and Giovani Bernard. In the first half in San Diego the Bengals didn't do a great job in limiting them in yards after the catch. They did a lot better in the second half. But wide receiver Keenan Allen has gotten a lot better. Tight end Antonio Gates has a lot to atone for and Rivers has that short passing game.
But I also think the Bengals have guys with an awful lot to atone for. You've got Andy Dalton in the two postseason games, you've got A.J., you've got tight end Jermaine Gresham with those two drops in the first quarter in last year's wild card game. This offense has the vibe that they can do it. San Diego has a low-ranked pass defense and the Bengals didn't abuse them that much in the first game because the run game worked. But it would be interesting to see how these receivers work.
Rivers did have the massive rally here in '06. That's the thing. All the years Rivers was favored in the playoffs and they fell short. Now you do a reverse conventional wisdom this time. But this Bengals team just feels like it knows it's confident, it's built for the long haul, it's not looking over its shoulder like the end is near.
The matchup that defines the game is Bengals WILL backer Vontaze Burfict against Chargers running back Danny Woodhead. Tez injured still had 13 stops in that first game, really a defining game for him. I think if you hold Woodhead like you did the first meeting, it should bode well.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-23. I like the vibe from this team. I think Andy bounces back. He got all the bad things out of him. I think we got the bad Marvin Lewis replay challenge out of the way last week, too. This team is due. If they don't do it this year, when are they going to do it?
The Bengals have been led by their defense all year long. It is a unit if they play well, they've got more than a better chance of winning. Can they tackle? Can they contain a Ryan Matthews? I think he's run as hard as any running back I've seen all year. They did such a good job of containing Woodhead the first time in San Diego where he was pretty much a non-factor. Can they do that again? That's my starting point with them.
I think Dalton got a little bit greedy last week against Baltimore. Maybe it's just me, but I think when he plays Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the division teams, I think he presses a little bit more against those guys. He doesn't relax as much. He didn't play well in the first half out in San Diego, but the second half was really one of his better halves of football. He really sharpened up. I expect him to play well. The term "unflappable" we all hear Marvin Lewis use it, the fact is the guy has a little bit of moxie to him. He doesn't let things bother him. I expect him to have a good day. I don't know if he's going to be Really Good Andy, Great Andy. I don't expect him to be Raggedy Andy. They just need him to be pretty good Andy.
The matchup that stands out to me the most is when the Chargers have the ball. When it comes to that, the Bengals do such a good job getting pressure with just four. They don't have to blitz. They don't blitz because they have to. On the flip side, I'm looking at the Bengals tackles. San Diego has outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jarret Johnson back. I don't know if that necessarily means anything on the pass rush. Can they get those guys blocked in the run game? Can they run the ball effectively enough? That doesn't necessarily mean going 4.5 or 5 yards per carry, but can you hold on to the ball enough? Keep converting on third downs and keeping the ball out of Philip Rivers's hands? That's a huge thing. It doesn't have to be sexy running, but it has to be effective running.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 31-17. I like how this defense holds people down. They have an edge about them. They don't give up much. You saw it last week with Baltimore. Baltimore has the ball from four turnovers, plus a shanked punt and they got three field goals and a short-field touchdown. Somewhere along the line the Bengals get one of those unconventional scores (Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham) likes to talk about it. Be it on defense or special teams.
I think the Chargers are a better team on the road than at home. They won in Kansas City, they won in Denver, they won in Philadelphia. The Kansas City and Denver games were cold-weather games. In years past with the Chargers, it always seemed like when they made the playoffs they were the bully on the block. Everyone knew they were the team to beat and that's when they got knocked off in the first game.
This is a different team. Right now it's playing with house money and knows it as the sixth seed. There's not a lot of pressure there. For the past month they've essentially been in the payoffs because if they lost one game they'd be out of the picture. Even though they are very light on playoff experience, you might say the last four games were playoff games because it was win or out.
I look at the Bengals weapons, particularly their receiving corps, and say the Chargers cornerbacks are overmatched. They can give up big plays and we know the Bengals can take advantage of that. Rivers is seasoned. He came out in that divisional playoff game in New England and tore an ACL and played well. The Chargers aren't going to worry about him cracking. I think he's going to be really good. Keenan Allen has really come on this year. He felt very overlooked. Didn't light up the combine. Didn't run well after the combine. Plays with a chip on his shoulder. Wide receiver Danario Alexander went on injured reserve in training camp and then wide receiver Malcom Floyd went on injured reserve after got hurt against Philadelphia in the second game of the year, and Allen came in and made a key diving catch on his first NFL catch and they knew at that point this guy was good and he became a multiple winner of the Rookie of the Week award.
Some unexpected guys have come on for them. Woodhead has been very good in clutch situations, Matthews has been reliable and Allen has been a find for them. Eric Weddle is impressive. He's one of the best safeties out there. But Rivers has had a phenomenal year and that's due in part because he sat down with head coach Mike McCoy, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterbacks coach Frank Reich during the offseason and they came up with what he likes to do. They really involved him in the collaborative process. I think they'll be able to move the ball and make a better showing than the first time these two met.
THE EDGE: Chargers, 21-20. All season long this has been a team that has won the games it shouldn't win and lost the games it shouldn't lose. That's been their bugaboo all along and I look at what the time was a significant upset in Philadelphia in Week 2, I look at winning at Kansas City and Denver in the cold. This team won't be overly affected by the weather.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bengals are loose, confident, focused. And with good reason. They and the Saints are the only teams in the NFL in the top 10 in both offense and defense.
Green, Dalton and the rest of the Bengals offense are feeling the heat of poor playoff performances the past two seasons, but Sunday's game is going to be decided by the eight PBS games that have come before it this season.
The Bengals 8-0 record at home is buttressed by a remarkable 4-0 stand against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, but San Diego's Rivers is having a better year than all of them and he's got a 5-3 career record when the temperature is less than 35 degrees. Plus, he's making his eighth playoff appearance and has delivered some huge efforts on the road, including two this season in Denver and Kansas City in cold weather with the season on the line.
Even though defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has held Rivers to one touchdown in the past eight quarters, the Bengals are extremely wary of Rivers's fire, arm and smarts, as well as weapons ranging from wide receiver Rookie of the Year Keenan Allen, Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates, and running back Ryan Matthews coming off a torrid stretch he has racked up three 100-yard games and one 99-yarder since the Bengals held him to 61 yards in San Diego.
Rivers has the Chargers operating at a high level in the four-game winning streak, hogging the ball and cutting down the exposure of San Diego's 23rd-ranked defense. Their shortest time of possession in the four games has been nearly 35 minutes against the Giants as they've jacked the NFL's best third-down conversion rate to 46 percent. But they've done it the last three weeks against defenses ranked 19th, 22nd and 24th.
The Bengals are second in the NFL stopping third downs, smothering opponents on 23 percent (24-for-104) at PBS, and their terrific nickel package is going to get tested. They'll have to keep their eyes on plenty of weapons. Allen is fifth in the AFC with 27 catches on third down, Gates is second among AFC tight ends with 22 catches on third down and Woodhead is second among AFC running backs with 17 catches on third down. Slot receiver Eddie Royal (toe) didn't play the last time the teams played and he didn't practice this week, but he has 14 third-down catches in what is shaping up as a battle of savvy veterans against Bengals nickel back Chris Crocker.
Crocker and the linebackers had their shots on Gates and they held him to five catches for 41 yards. Crocker is having a big year in the slot. The only TD he's given up came last week. The key back on Dec. 1 in San Diego is that Woodhead had just two catches for 13 yards and Gates did what he never does and turned it over, once on a fumble and once on an interception.
Rivers makes this thing work with quick drops and even quicker throws, but his tackles have still given up some hits on him. In the last Bengals and Chargers meeting, massive 6-9 King Dunlap was hurt and massive rookie D.J. Fluker played the left side. But Dunlap is back and Fluker is back on his more natural right side. Pro Football Focus ranks Dunlap as the 38th-best pass protector among tackles (allowing three sacks and 13 hurries) and Fluker is 57th allowing six sacks and 33 hurries.
So it will come down to the run and Matthews's ability to get the Chargers to third-and-short and force Zimmer to call off the dogs. Matthews has run it 107 times since the Bengals beat San Diego and led all AFC rushers in December. While he racked up pretty much four 100-yard games since, the Bengals held teams to 86 yards per game on the ground in that stretch and have allowed just two 100-yard rushers this season, none since Halloween.
Plus, the Bengals have to do what they did in San Diego and make sure they tackle. Gates is second in yards after catch among NFL tight ends, according to PFF, and Woodhead is fourth in yards per pass pattern among running backs.
With cornerback Terence Newman (knee) doubtful and likely to miss his fourth straight game, all eyes are again on second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick in his first extended stint as a starter. He had his first NFL interception in San Diego when he ripped it away from Gates after stopping him before the first down sticks and he had two picks in the fourth quarter last week against Baltimore's Joe Flacco, one for a pick-six. But Rivers has no doubt noticed Kirkpatrick has been vulnerable to the double move while also being very strong on third down, and one of his interceptions came on fourth down.
The Bengals are facing a new-look San Diego defense with a new nose tackle and the return of two injured outside backers in Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram.
Ingram looks like he's still bothered but he's tough as well as a good pass rusher and the additions have made the Chargers saltier against the run. After allowing Cincinnati's second-most rush yards of the season with 164, only the Giants have averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry against the Chargers, although Andre Brown of the Giants got them for 5.1 on 16 carries and Oakland's Rashad Jennings for 4.5 on 10 carries. The Chargers feel better with Richard Marshall at cornerback but three of their top four corners have allowed four TD passes each and teams have a 96.4 passer rating against them. Yet Rivers does such a great job possessing the ball, no one lately has had a clear shot at putting up numbers on that defense.
The bad news is the Bengals have a new punter. The good news is this is his seventh playoff game after playing in the cold weather of New England. It's quietly a huge matchup with San Diego's Mike Scifres, the NFL leader in percentage of punts inside the 20.
Everybody has demons. Rivers is terrific and is now 30-6 in December as he finished his MVP-type 105.5 passer rating season. But, remember, there was a time when he was knocked for not being able to win the big one in the playoffs, but he's bounced back to bring his team on an improbable run. Dalton can take notes. He's got the crowd and the defense on his side. The vibe has been good around this club this week. The Bengals know the defense is going to keep up with something.
But as Marvin Lewis observed himself when asked if this was his best team, "We'll find out."