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Wildcard Preview: San Diego at Cincinnati

Every few years, a team like the 2013 Chargers makes the playoffs. This season, San Diego’s offense ranked 3rd in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, while the defense ranked 3rd to last in the same metric. And these teams, without exception, have flamed out in the playoffs. The Chargers also ranked 2nd in NY/A and 2nd to last in NY/A allowed, but I’m going to focus on ANY/A for the rest of this post.

The worst pass defense to win the Super Bowl was the 1976 Raiders. That year, Oakland’s pass defense produced the 10th worst ANY/A allowed average in the league. The only other Super Bowl champion that ranked in the bottom half of the league in ANY/A allowed was the 2011 Giants, who just barely qualify (New York ranked 17th in ANY/A allowed, or 16th from the bottom).

The table below shows each team since 1970 that ranked in the top five in ANY/A and in the bottom five in ANY/A allowed. Because of the different numbers of teams throughout the league’s history, I ranked teams from worst to best when calculating the ANY/A allowed ranks. The most recent team prior to the ’13 Chargers to make the playoffs while meeting those thresholds was the 2005 Patriots. That team, quarterbacked by Tom Brady and coached by Bill Belichick, ranked 5th in ANY/A and 4th from the bottom in ANY/A allowed. New England went 10-6 that year, and then 1-1 in the playoffs. As you can see, the postseason results for this group have been pretty uninspiring. And, as Chargers fans will notice, it includes a pair of Air Coryell teams:

The Bengals are easy to underrate because well, they’re the Bengals, the only NFL team that has not won a playoff game since 1991. If the Bengals lose, Marvin Lewis will join Jim Mora as the only coaches to ever make it 11 years as the head coach of one team without winning a playoff game. Cincinnati lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, and when Geno Atkins and Leon Hall went down in October, it was easy to mentally pencil in the Bengals for a nondescript 10-win season and a early playoff exit. Nobody believes in Andy Dalton, who will need to win playoff games against Philip Rivers, Brady, and then either Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck to get to the Super Bowl.

But Cincinnati’s pass defense remained outstanding despite losing some stars: the Bengals rank 2nd in passer rating allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, adjusted net yards per attempt allowed, and yards per completion allowed (in all cases behind only Seattle). Just last week, the defense held Joe Flacco to an embarrassingly low 152 passing yards on 50 pass attempts.  Earlier in the year, the unit shut down Brady (18/38, 197, 0/1) and caused Aaron Rodgers to have the rare game with more interceptions than touchdowns. Cincinnati can limit even the best passing games, and has been even stronger at home this year.

And while Dalton is not a great quarterback, he averaged 7.8 yards per attempt and threw 20 touchdowns in 8 home games this year. More importantly, he has A.J. Green, one of the game’s best receivers, and an excellent 2-3 punch with Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert are both questionable, but the assumption is they’ll play. And the big x-factor in the backfield is Giovani Bernard. Dalton averaged 6.3 ANY/A this year, exactly what Flacco did during the 2012 regular season. And in addition to an excellent set of skill position players, according to Pro Football Focus, Cincinnati has the best pass-blocking offensive line in the league.

But even if you hate Dalton, this is his dream matchup. The Chargers don’t do anything well on defense, but the cornerbacks might be the team’s biggest weakness. Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall are the starters, with Marshall inserted into the lineup after Derek Cox was benched. Johnny Patrick was the fourth corner but he’s now on injured reserve; as a result, in nickel packages the Chargers have begun using safety Jahleel Addae as the fifth defensive back in place of Cox or Patrick. You have probably never heard of any of the five Chargers in this paragraph, which is why San Diego ranks in the bottom three in ANY/A allowed.

The Chargers have a couple of star talents, namely safety Eric Weddle, who presumably can relate to the struggles Brady has had with his supporting cast in 2013. Melvin Ingram and Manti Te’o were drafted to bolster the defense, but Ingram missed most of the season following knee surgery (although he’s back now), while Te’o has been nearly invisible this year.

For San Diego to win, I suspect the story will either be a monster performance by Keenan Allen/Ryan Mathews/Danny Woodhead, or an Dalton implosion. I’m not going to bet on either of those.

Prediction: Cincinnati 34, San Diego 24

  1. Co-coach with Joe Vitt. []
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  • Charger Fan January 6, 2014, 10:23 pm

    This was very insightful, you my friend should be on TV as an analyst. Good job Chase, keep counting the Chargers out, because that is when they play their best football…

    Reply
    • Michael January 8, 2014, 6:59 pm

      I’m a Charger fan too, and your second comment is ridiculous. Why would the Chargers care if someone uses historical stats to demonstrate they probably won’t win the Super Bowl? Turns out they got the Dalton flameout, but I’m not too optimistic that the defense will hold up. Before the playoffs in another forum, I said their offense gives them a puncher’s chance in any one game (note that all the teams in the chart above that made the playoffs went 1-1 in the postseason) but asking the defense to hold up for three straight weeks on the road against tough teams is probably too much. I hope they beat Denver, but I certainly wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

      Reply