Marvin Lewis, Bengals Face All the Pressure As They Host Chargers in AFC Wild-Card Matchup

Marvin LewisThe San Diego Chargers last played a playoff game in Cincinnati in 1982, when the wind chill was minus 59. The weather will be a lot warmer this weekend, but will the Chargers be able to do against the Cincinnati Bengals what they couldn’t in the “Freezer Bowl”? The rematch is 1:05 p.m. Sunday on CBS.

Let’s take a look at the key factors in this game.

Chargers X-Factor: Hitting Big Plays

The Chargers’ best two games of the season came on the road, so this game is an opportunity for San Diego to prove once again how good it can be in a difficult environment. The Chargers scored 41 points in Kansas City against the Chiefs in November, beating a defense that — at the time — was thought to be one of the best. If San Diego can score at a high rate in this game, Cincinnati’s offense will find it hard to keep up. The Chargers should welcome a shootout.

Bengals X-Factor: The Defensive Line

The absence of prime pass rusher Geno Atkins has left the Bengals shorthanded on the defensive line, but other players have been rising to the occasion. Cincinnati’s defense has made a lot of big plays the past month and has adjusted very well to its evolving situation. The Bengals can really gain a stranglehold on this game if their defensive line can generate a consistent pass rush and fluster Philip Rivers. Making Rivers bail out of plays will help Cincinnati put San Diego on its heels.

Key Injuries: Ryan Mathews (Chargers), Tyler Eifert (Bengals)

The Chargers’ top running back, Ryan Mathews, did not practice Thursday, indicating San Diego head coach Mike McCoy is being very careful about managing his workhorse ball carrier this week. Mathews will probably play Sunday, but he’s also likely to not be as effective. That’s one reason why the NFL line on this game has not moved in San Diego’s direction but has instead held steady at Cincinnati -7.

For the Bengals, both tight ends — Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert — have been battling injuries for the past few weeks, but it’s Eifert who has been more limited in practice and is particularly questionable for this game. The Bengals have a great wide receiver in A.J. Green and a very skilled running back in Giovani Bernard. Having effective tight ends to work other areas of the field gives Cincinnati’s offense so much more strength and balance. Not having Eifert could really affect the Bengals on third downs.

Outlook:

The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in more than 20 years but are favored by seven points at Bovada to do so. Head coach Marvin Lewis is 0-4 in playoff games over the past decade. There’s a lot of pressure on the Bengals to win this game, while the Chargers are just happy to be in the playoffs and will probably show that with their play.

The regular-season meeting between these teams was a defensive game, with Cincinnati winning in San Diego, 17-10, and successfully covering the -2.5-point spread. The Bengals got two takeaways from the Chargers’ offense inside the Cincinnati 40-yard line. Turnovers are going to loom large in this game. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton threw four interceptions in Week 17 against Baltimore. If Dalton doesn’t adjust, San Diego will win. The feeling here is that Dalton will struggle, enabling the Chargers to pull off the road upset.

Photo via Facebook/Marvin Lewis