San Diego is 9-7 on the season, and the fact that the Chargers are here is somewhat remarkable. Few expected them to make it into the playoffs, but everything happened exactly as it needed to for the Chargers to keep on playing.
Cincinnati is 11-5 on the season and despite rocky play here or there, will be heavily favored to win this one. They took the AFC North from the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens -- who missed the playoffs. Let's take a look at both teams below, starting with the home team:
Meet the Bengals
One stat in particular really stands out when you talk about the Bengals: an 8-0 home record this season. Cincinnati has lost five games, all of which came on the road. It's clearly a better team at home this season, and quarterback Andy Dalton is much better when he's not traveling.
Cincinnati boasts the No. 8 passing offense in the NFL at 258.7 yards per game on average. The rushing attack doesn't fare quite as well, coming in at No. 18. San Diego actually bests the Bengals in both areas, with a passing attack ranked No. 4 and a rushing attack ranked No. 13.
Fortunately, the Bengals are very solid against both the run and the pass on defense, unlike the Chargers. If the Bengals can stop the Chargers a few times early on and if Dalton can remain mistake-free, then they've got a solid chance at winning.
Meet the Chargers
The Chargers had to have multiple teams lose in Week 17 in addition to their win to make the playoffs. They looked to be well on their way to losing to a Chiefs team that was playing primarily backups, but the Chargers forced overtime and kicked a game-winning field goal. Running back Ryan Matthews had 144 yards in the game.
Matthews' resurgence has been one of the big positives for San Diego thus far. He's had yardage totals of 103, 127, 99 and 144 yards over the team's past four games and will be counted on against the Bengals. Cincinnati boasts the No. 5 rush defense and the No. 5 pass defense, but one of them will have to give if San Diego is to win.
It's been a long, improbable road for the Chargers. Handing the Bengals their first home loss this season would be just as improbable as everything else that's happened, but it's not impossible.
Local Takes: Bengals
Josh Kirkendall of Cincy Jungle thinks it wasn't scheme or exotic formations that stopped the Chargers' offense last time these teams met: it was effort:
When the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the San Diego Chargers earlier this season, they held San Diego to a season-low 10 points and Philip Rivers to a season-low 80.0 pass rating. While one could articulate a sense of mass confusion from mad scientist schemes concocted in Mike Zimmer's laboratory, it's actually far simpler than that. It's effort.
In fact, it's the same thing that it's always been this season: Rush the passer (effective even if you don't get a sack), get your hands up if you can't pressure the quarterback, and be physical in the secondary.
Local Takes: Chargers
Kevin Grauel of Bolts From The Blue notes that the return of Melvin Ingram is one key difference from the first time these two teams played:
Ingram failed to record a QB disruption in each of his first few games back, but has six in the last two games including a forced fumble. Where he has excelled is against the run. He may not have all the explosion back required to rush the passer off the edge, but he is still strong at the point of attack and sets the edge.
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Top Stories of 2013: No. 1, Bengals Clinch The AFC North http://t.co/qtAPbgtbuY— Josh Kirkendall (@CincyJungle) January 1, 2014
Positional Breakdown: San Diego Chargers Receivers vs. Cincinnati Bengals Secondary http://t.co/d9jfmP1mh8— Bolts From The Blue (@BFTB_Chargers) December 31, 2013
Five of SB Nation's six NFL experts picked the Bengals to hold at home. That includes Ryan Van Bibber, Joel Thorman, Stephen White, Jason Chilton and Matt Ufford. The lone dissenter was David Fucillo. For all of the wild card picks, go here.
The Bengals opened up as seven-point favorites for the matchup. The line didn't move that much, though some sites have them as high as 7.5-point favorites, according to OddsShark.