The Chargers only won two more games in 2013 than they did in 2012. But the turnaround has been much more dramatic than that, especially in the play of quarterback Philip Rivers. Safety Eric Weddle, a fellow Pro Bowler, summed it up thusly.
"Philip's playing outstanding, has all season. We go as Philip goes."
The last couple of years, that was not necessarily the case. In 2011 and 2012 Rivers averaged 23 turnovers. This season, he only gave it away 13 times, and a few of those picks were not his fault. The improvement can be traced to the new coaching staff. You know about head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, but quarterbacks coach Frank Reich has had an awfully big hand in it, too.
"Frank's done an outstanding job with him," said Chargers head coach Mike McCoy. "I think Philip will tell you the same thing."
"That transition's been smooth," said Rivers. "You never know how that's gonna go when you're working with a guy for the first time and you've had a game day routine for nine seasons. It's been really smooth."
It's also been really successful. Rivers threw for 872 more yards this season than last season. He also had the 2nd-lowest interception total of his career, and the 2nd-highest touchdown total of his career. Reich absolutely had an influence with all that.
Reich played 13 years in the NFL, mostly with Buffalo backing up Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly. During that time he earned the reputation as one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Reich obviously knows how to prepare for a football game, and he's shared the knowledge.
"The attention to details, the way he prepares, being a former quarterback, you know, the fundamentals, the basics of playing the game, the progressions, all the little details of doing it right every snap," said McCoy. "He deserves a lot of credit for the way Philip's played."
Rivers is ALWAYS a player to watch. Here are three more Sunday in Cincinnati:
Antonio Gates, TE:
Yes, I know Gates is always a player to watch, too. But he has a bone to pick with the Bengals. In their last meeting, that 17-10 Cincinnati win at Qualcomm Stadium, Gates lost a fumble (just the fourth one he's lost in 11 NFL seasons) and had a ball taken right out of his hands for an interception that he almost never lets get away, and both of them happened when the Chargers had already driven in to field goal range. It's a scar on the resume of the future Hall of Famer, and he would like very much to have it removed. The Bengals defense doesn't have many weak spots, but attacking down the middle of the field has been effective. That's what Gates does extremely well. Plus, big players make big plays in big games. There aren't many bigger players than Antonio Gates, and their aren't many bigger games than Wild Card weekend.
Ryan Mathews, RB:
Again, DUH! Mathews has suddenly become the monster the Chargers were hoping they would get when they traded up to get him in 2010. He led the NFL in rushing yards in the month of December, and the Chargers have not lost a game in which he has carried the ball at least 20 times this season. The weather is going to be truly awful, with wind and rain turning in to wind and snow. In the Midwest they call that "football weather." The best way to handle it is pound the other team in to submission. Mathews has shown the durability (he was active for all 16 games for the first time in his career) to be able to be a workhorse running back. Plus, he has not lost a fumble since Week 2 in Philadelphia. Mathews will get a whole lot of work at Paul Brown Stadium, and deservedly so.
Marcus Gilchrist, S:
Here's the wild card in this Wild Card game for the Chargers defense. Gilchrist has been in the nickel and at safety. His coverage has been better when playing the nickel but at safety he has been sent on an awful lot of blitzes. Last week against Kansas City a pair of instances stand out, one where Marcus over-ran Chase Daniel and missed the sack, the other where he broke down too soon to avoid the over pursuit and allowed Daniel to complete a pass. Both times, he had a clean shot at the QB sack. If Gilchrist is able to find the proper timing he will have chances to either drop Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, or force him in to a bad throw. Dalton was one of the worst passers in the league this season when being blitzed. He had the 5th-worst interception percentage of starters who played all 16 games. He will give the ball away if you force him to. Gilchrist on the blitz will have that opportunity.
The Chargers are 7-point underdogs for this game, the largest spread of Wild Card weekend. The Chargers were given 40-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, the longest shots of anyone in the playoffs. The Bengals have not lost a game at home this season. And, Cincinnati already beat the Bolts once, in San Diego.
HOWEVER ... King Dunlap, Jarret Johnson and Eddie Royal were all inactive for that game. Three starters at important positions, and they all are back (although Royal is questionable I find it highly unlikely he'll sit this one out). Antonio Gates will not lose the ball twice like he did last time. The Chargers defense will find a way to fluster Dalton, who has appeared in two playoff games, throwing no touchdowns and four interceptions.
Dalton will have some success, and although pretty much every stat and trend says the opposite, crazy things happen on the first weekend of the NFL playoffs. So I say the Chargers will win in a shootout.
Final Score: Chargers 45, Bengals 41
See you next week in Denver.