Game Primer: Chargers vs. Bengals

The Chargers return to the playoffs after a three-year absence, while the Bengals are back for the third year in a row. Will San Diego extend its magical late-season run, or will Cincinnati finally get the first playoff win of the Marvin Lewis era? We break it all down with a look at each phase of Sunday's game.

What to Watch on Offense

The key for the offense is to stay true to the identity it built over the course of the season: move the chains and protect the football. Moving the chains was a problem last week against the Chiefs; after going three-and-out just 10 times in the first 15 games of the season, San Diego went three-and-out on its first three possessions of the second half against Kansas City.

A big part of the ball-control game plan is relying on Ryan Mathews, who missed practice earlier this week with an ankle injury but is expected to play. Mathews carried the ball at least 24 times in each of San Diego's final four games, all wins. For the season, San Diego is 7-1 in games where Mathews carries the ball at least 19 times.

Protecting the football is also a point of emphasis after the Chargers turned it over three times in their last meeting with Cincy. Philip Rivers has done well protecting the football, finishing with nearly three times as many touchdowns as interceptions (32-to-11), but his career playoff resume shows more INTs than TDs (nine-to-eight).

The Bengals forced 31 takeaways this season (20 interceptions, 11 fumbles). Corners Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick lead the way with three picks apiece, so Rivers may look to lean on his inside passing game with Antonio Gates, Ladarius Green and Danny Woodhead.

What to Watch on Defense

The mission on defense is twofold: stop the run and force turnovers.

The Bengals ran for 164 yards in the first meeting, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis (4.6 ypc) and Giovani Bernard (4.1 ypc) both running at will. The Chargers have improved against the run since then -- thanks in part to installing Sean Lissemore as the starting nose tackle in place of Cam Thomas -- and will need to be much better in the playoff rematch. This will be a cold weather game in potentially sloppy conditions, so the Bengals would love to control the contest on the ground and take the air out of the ball.

The second key is to force turnovers. Cincinnati turned the ball over 30 times this season, with Andy Dalton having a hand in 23 of those. Dalton is coming off a four-interception game and the Bolts must pressure him into some more bad decisions. Eric Weddle has authored huge plays in each of the last two games and would love to make it three in a row. Thomas Keiser, who was arrested earlier this week, would love nothing more than a redemptive performance.

What to Watch: X Factors

The Bolts would love a big play on special teams, but unless it comes via another fake punt by Weddle, it probably is not going to happen. Ronnie Brown is the least explosive kickoff returner in the game, and Keenan Allen has not shown the same big-play ability returning punts as he has catching passes.

On the plus side, Nick Novak is the best kicker in the tournament and is coming off the most accurate season in Chargers history (34 of 37). And his partner in crime, Mike Scifres, has been known to decide a playoff game with his leg.

The coaching matchup will be interesting, as well. Mike McCoy makes his playoff debut as a head coach, while Marvin Lewis enters the game with an 0-4 career postseason mark. If Lewis' team goes one-and-done for the third consecutive season, the home fans will be furious. Of course, Bolts backers have been on the other side of that coin in the past.

What do you think of the Bolts-Bengals matchup? Discuss in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 16 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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