Friday, January 3, 2014

NFL Wild Card Playoff Predictions 2014: Chargers vs Bengals

San Diego Chargers vs Cincinnati Bengals: SD +7 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

When Las Vegas released point spreads for the Wild Card round, they listed the Bengals as -7 point favorites for this game. Since then we've seen some support for the underdog as many sportsbooks have moved the line to -6.5.  You can still find +7 for a bit of extra juice if you shop around, so the best number is available no matter which side you like.

As we inch closer to kickoff, 59 percent of the bets are coming in on the Bengals.

Keep an eye on

This game should boil down to three specific areas.

In their first meeting, the Cincinnati Bengals dominated the lines of scrimmage. This is always an important component of a game, but it was the deciding factor when they met back on December 1st. Coincidentally, it was also the last time the San Diego Chargers lost a football game.

Many analysts aren't giving the Chargers a chance in this game because the Bengals have the top rated pass blocking offensive line in the NFL. Whitworth and Collins are a big reason for that and thanks to them, Dalton's blindside is usually sealed off.  The OL was also a big reason why Cincy piled up 166 yards on the ground in their first meeting.

That could change in this game though. The Chargers defense has been a weakness all year long, but they've gotten back Ingram and Johnson in December.  This has translated into some improved play down the stretch.

On the other side, the Chargers have Dunlap back for this matchup. He wasn't in the lineup during their previous meeting and Michael Johnson took full advantage on the left side. Since Dunlap's return, he and Fluker have been the most improved tackles for the month of December. Combined they only gave up nine QB hurries down the stretch. Also, since Week 11, Johnson only has one sack and three QB hits.

Will these additions for the Chargers be enough to overcome the mismatches on the lines of scrimmage? Probably not, but they should be able to prevent the manhandling that they suffered in their last meeting.

The second factor comes from the advanced stats categories. It's important how teams play in the "make-or-break" moments. The Bengals have been one of the best teams on third down and inside the red zone on both sides of the ball all year long.

This hasn't been the case for San Diego though. Rivers has no trouble moving the ball up and down the field, but they've settled for too many field goals this year rather than touchdowns. And their defense usually folds when their team needs a stop.

Yet, when it comes to the Bengals and the big moments, we need to add an asterisk.  The final factor that will decide this game comes in the form of Andy Dalton.

Dalton might have great protection, and Jay Gruden does a good job of getting the ball out quick, but none of that will matter if Dalton can't raise his game to the next level. In 2013, he had stretches of brilliance, but when the lights shone the brightest, he didn't step up.

Week 2 was the only prime-time game that he came out on top, but it was a cagey game against a banged up and underachieving Steelers team. Dalton only managed one touchdown in that game, and didn't look very impressive. The next time they played in prime-time, they lost to the Dolphins. Dalton has no touchdown passes in that one, and he turned it over four times (3 interceptions and a lost fumble).  In Week 15, they lost another prime-time game, this time against an improved Steelers team. Finally, in the final week of the season, the Bengals had a huge game against the Ravens for playoff seeding. Cincy won big, but it was in spite of Dalton's four interceptions.

The other element to this is the fact that Rivers has been much better than Dalton when facing pressure this year. It's possible that Dalton lays an egg even with good protection, but if the Chargers are able to get to Dalton in this game, the advantage at quarterback will increase significantly.

Bottom Line

The Bengals went 8-0 at home this year, but before that scares you off, consider this stat. Over the last seven years, 10 teams went undefeated at home, but those teams went 5-5 in their opening playoff game.

On paper, Cincy should win this game, but I think it will be closer than the point spread suggests.  The injury situation is worse for the Bengals than it is for the Chargers, and that could close the gap between them on Sunday.

I'll take the Chargers and the points, and I think there's even a chance for a straight up upset here. If I'm ever to become a believer in the Bengals, Dalton is going to have to prove he can elevate his team and get the monkey off his back.

NFL Pick: SD +7.