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NFL Playoff Preview: San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals

Full NFL playoff preview of the Wild Card round battle between the San Diego Chargers and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Bengals Chargers
Bengals Chargers

San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) calls plays at the line during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at Qualcomm Stadium. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati Bengals kicker Mike Nugent was in attendance the only time the Bengals and San Diego Chargers have met in the postseason.

The 31-year-old, who signed with Cincinnati as a free agent in the offseason, was in his mother’s womb two months before his birth when the Bengals hosted the Chargers in the 1981 AFC Championship game – better known as the “Freezer Bowl” game.

The Bengals beat the Chargers 27-7 on a day with a minus-59 degree wind chill before advancing to the Super Bowl. Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49er’s beat the Bengals 26-21 in the Super Bowl.

Nugent’s mother was told by doctors that if she was warm, and the baby was warm, the Bengals season-ticket holder could go and watch the game.

While Nugent won’t be shielded from the weather this time, the extended forecast is calling for rain and a balmy 39-degree day in Cincinnati.

The Chargers-Bengals series started in 1968 with a Chargers win and San Diego has a 19-14 advantage in the all-time series. But the Bengals have won the last three, including a 17-10 victory on December 1 in San Diego that proved to be an NFL playoff preview.

That’s the last time the Chargers lost a game.

It was the worst start for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers this month as he posted a passer rating of 80 after completing 23 of 37 passes for 252 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Rivers bounced back to rally the Chargers with four-straight wins and is fresh off a thrilling 27-24 overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs in which he completed 22 of 33 passes for 229 yards, and three touchdowns versus one interception.

The Chargers became the sixth team in the current playoff format to reach the playoffs after a 5-7 or worse start through their first 12 games. San Diego also made the playoffs with a 4-8 start in 2008 and a 5-7 start in 1995.

“It feels like this season is meant to be special,” Chargers Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle said after Sunday’s win over Kansas City. “Whether it happens or not, we’ll read that story at the end. But we’re in, and no one really thought that could happen.”

But Rivers’ and the Chargers’ momentum coming from the high-powered AFC West Division won’t mean much if they can’t figure out a way to slow down the Bengals balanced attack this time around.

Cincinnati tallied 164 yards rushing and 190 passing in a balanced game that was tied 7-7 at halftime. The Bengals, who forced three turnovers, scored the go-ahead touchdown in true AFC North fashion, pounding out 75 yards on 10 plays that ended with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green. Nugent added a field goal and the Bengals milked the clock with its powerful running game.

The Bengals finished the season as one of the hottest in the AFC, winning five of their last six to win the AFC North. And they are doing it with the AFC’s best defense.

The Bengals have allowed opponents only 12 trips into their red zone at home this season and six times they refused to give up a touchdown. For the season, Cincinnati denied teams 21 touchdowns in 41 attempts.

“That’s our job regardless of where the team gets the ball. It’s to go out and stop them,” Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson told ESPN.com. “We can’t worry about how they got it there. We just got to focus on doing our job as hard as we can and taking care of our business.”

The Bengals finished as the third-best defense in the NFL, allowing an average of 305.5 yards per game. They are the only AFC defense ranked in the top five.

The Bengals are second in the league at stopping third-down conversions at 33 percent and they rank fifth at stopping teams on fourth down at 31 percent.

Chargers fans get to watch this matchup this time around. The December 1 game was blacked out in Southern California because it failed to sell out by the NFL’s deadline to lift the blackout. It was the first blackout in the NFL this season.

Now Bengals fans are in jeopardy of a blackout as 10,000 tickets are still available for the game. While the team finished unbeaten at home this year at 8-0, maybe fans are still in fear of a repeat of the bone-numbing, chilly conditions from the Freezer Bowl.

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