So confident during the week, the Bengals were downright stunned to be going home so early after their third straight postseason loss in 24 months. On Sunday in the wild card game at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium, the only team in the AFC to finish in the top 10 in both offense and defense scored just one touchdown and gave up its most rushing yards (196) in a game that mattered since the 2011 regular-season finale.
"We're a good football team, no question about it, but when you get in this playoff thing, you have to show up," said left guard Andrew Whitworth. "You expect at home you come out and play well, to play better than we did. They had a great plan offensively and moved the football a lot. Our defense did a great job holding them to field goals. Offensively, I thought we were going to run it a lot on them and we just didn't seem to."
The Chargers turned rhe tables on their 17-10 loss to the Bengals on Dec. 1, when Cincinnati ran it 38 times for 164 yards and the Chargers went 24 times for 91 yards. On Sunday the Chargers chewed up 196 yadrs on 40 carries while the Bengals ran it 25 times for 113 yards.
"Just talking generally," Whitworth said. "We have to really study what seems to work for teams and what teams do well in the playoffs to be good."
Defensive tackle Domata Peko, like Whitworth, one of the veterans who has been here for four playoff berths in the last five seasons, couldn't hide the pain.
"I'm not ready to go home. Very disappointing. Stunning, yeah," Peko said. "The way they ran the ball on us, which was disappointing. Missed tackles and mental errors and not in the right gaps at the right time. Trying to do too much."
» Quarterback Andy Dalton's postseason struggles continued with one touchdown and three interceptions, making him 0-3 with one touchdown and five interceptions. But Marvin Lewis, still looking for that first postseason win himself with an 0-5 record, backed Dalton in the tough moments after his toughest loss in 11 seasons when the inevitable question about the future of the quarterback was broached.
"I don't have any questions about Andy's role in this thing. We just have to keep working it," Lewis said. "We've got to make sure we're doing everything to help Andy all the time. He's going to be very disappointed in himself today, obviously. He is the football team, and I'm sure he's very disappointed."
» Wide receiver Marvin Jones set a single postseason game Bengals record with 130 yards receiving, breaking Cris Collinsworth's 120 set in another nasty one-and-done game against the Jets in 1982.
"I don't really care about that," aaid Jones, who had eight catches as the Chargers shaded Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green in a Cover 2. "I just wanted to win."
Collinsworth probably said the same thing.
» With 6:09 left, the Bengals had a chance to cut the lead to 20-17 when Dalton floated a ball down the right sideline to Green running past everyone. It was a perfect throw and it looked like it was going to be a patented 44-yard touchdown between the two. But Green waited on it and when he went to put it away inside the 5, strong safety Darrell Stuckey tipped it away at the last instant.
"I thought I had it. It stuck to my hand. The safety just came and swatted it," Green said. "I tried to lay hand to it. I had the corner beat so bad. I just tried to slow play it like I usually do. The safety just made a great play on it."
It brought back bitter memories of last year, when Dalton and Green just barely missed hooking up on what would have been a go-ahead 39-yard touchdown play with less than three minutes left in the 19-13 wild card loss in Houston.
"We all had a hand in this," Green said. "Me included."
» Even though it had nothing to do with the nightmarish second half in which the Bengals got outscored, 20-0, the turning point came on the first play after the two-minute warning in the first half. Dalton hit running back Giovani Bernard for a 12-yard pass over the middle, but as he went to tuck it in and turn it upfield, inside linebacker Donald Butler hopped over his back at the Chargers 4 and poked it out for a fumble. The Bengals, who were plus-seven in turnovers at PBS this year, were minus-four on Sunday.
"I went to tuck it and he knocked it out," Bernard said.
» Rivers is no stranger to big second halves at PBS. In 2006 he brought the Chargers back from a 28-7 halftime deficit with a 42-13 second half.
» It was also a rough day for a Bengals defense that had been so good all year, rising to third in the rankings by being particularly stingy against the run. With 2:17 left in the game, Chargers running back Ronnie Brown broke the longest run against the Bengals in two years and four days with a 58-yard touchdown run that featured no one at the second level.
"That's guys not in the right gaps and missing tackles," Peko said. "We had some guys unblocked, you have to wrap them up and make the tackle and make the play. At that point it seemed like the game was kind of over. When you're out there you have to give your 100 percent. I didn't want to go out like that. Especially a big run right there. You never want that to happen on your defense."