San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
The Chargers kind of tripped backwards into the playoffs. That sounds weird to say about a team that had to win 4 straight games, including one in Denver, just to get to this point, but they could have easily lost to Kansas City’s backups week 17. The Chiefs were up 24-14 late. A penalty that would have given Kansas City’s a 36 yard field goal attempt to win it wasn’t called. And in overtime the Chargers very nearly fumbled a fake punt deep in their own territory.
That being said, they aren’t undeserving of being in the playoffs. Every year, there seems to be at least one playoff team that clearly doesn’t belong, but there are no teams in this year’s bunch where you can definitely make an argument that they aren’t a top-12 team. San Diego is probably the worst of this year’s bunch, but they definitely can be dangerous. We’ve already seen them win 5 games against other playoff teams, something no other playoff team can say. Sure, one of the wins was against Kansas City’s backups and another was against the Michael Vick led Eagles, but they still legitimately beat Denver, Indianapolis, and Kansas City (the first time around).
They have an amazing offense that can play keep away from anyone in the NFL (as they did to perfection against Indianapolis and Denver) and that can also win a shootout (as they did in the first Kansas City matchup. They move the chains at a 78.26% rate, which is 2nd best in the NFL behind only Denver. They have a terrible defense, probably the worst in the playoffs, which allows opponents to move the chains at a 75.36% rate. That allows their opponents to play keep away and win shootouts, part of why they’ve also lost to Washington, Houston, and Oakland. However, their 2.90% rate of moving the chains differential is 10th in the NFL, well in that top-12.
Unfortunately, they have a very tough matchup here. Cincinnati is quietly one of the most complete, if not the most complete team in the post-season. Andy Dalton has flopped in his first 2 playoff games, but he was also 1-11 against eventual playoff teams in his first 2 years in the NFL. This year, he’s 4-0, in part because he’s playing better, but also in part because of how well his supporting cast is playing on both sides of the ball. They move the chains at a 73.49% rate, as opposed to 65.68% for their opponents, which is the lowest rate against in the NFL. That’s a differential of 7.81%, which ranks 3rd in the NFL. That suggests this line should be around 8, instead of 7.
That’s not a ton of line value, but that’s before we even get into Cincinnati’s home dominance. They are the only team in the NFL that has not only won, but covered in all 8 of their home games this season. Not only that, their margin of victory in those 8 games is 17.62 points per game. That includes wins over New England, Indianapolis, and the Aaron Rodgers led Packers. Only one of their home games was within a touchdown (Green Bay).
They’re not nearly the same team on the road, where they are 3-5 with no wins by more than a touchdown, which will hold them back. They could maybe win in New England, but their chances of going into Denver and winning given their track record on the road is pretty low. However, they have a very good chance to get a blowout victory here. The one road win the Bengals have by a touchdown this season was in San Diego, where they won 17-10 a few weeks ago. If they can win by a touchdown in San Diego, I like their chances of winning at home against the Chargers by more than a touchdown a lot, especially since the Chargers will be a West Coast team playing in the Eastern Time Zone at 1 PM ET.
Cincinnati Bengals 31 San Diego Chargers 17
Pick against spread: Cincinnati -7