American Football: San Diego Chargers gather pace at right time for title tilt

Momentum, if not logic, favour Mike McCoy's men in Super Bowl race

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The Independent Online

If you believe in omens, the San Diego Chargers can win this season's Super Bowl. For the past four seasons, the first team to play away to the Philadelphia Eagles have gone on to become Super Bowl champions. This season it was the Chargers, who beat the Eagles 33-30.

Should you favour logic, the Bolts' chances of even getting past the first play-off hurdle today, away to the Cincinnati Bengals, do not look good. They have the most inexperienced squad of any team in the post-season, while the head coach, Mike McCoy, and general manager, Tom Telesco, are in the first year of their roles.

Thirty-seven of their 53 players have no play-off pedigree, while only seven Chargers remain from the 2009 season, when they won the AFC West division with a 13-3 record, only to lose at home to the New York Jets in the second play-off round.

Six weeks ago, they had won only four of their 10 games, and seven teams were better placed to claim the final wild-card berth. The victory that kept their season alive last weekend, their fourth in succession, came in overtime against a Kansas City Chiefs team already in the play-offs and resting their stars.

The Chargers finished third in their division and needed help from elsewhere – including the Bengals – to become the last team to make the play-offs. "Our big thing was, just get in," McCoy said. "That's the most important thing. Get in and anything can happen once you get into the tournament."

On the plus side, the knowledge that they could not afford to lose another game means that, in effect, they were playing knockout football for most of December.

"We have been in that play-off mentality of win to stay alive or lose and go home," Philip Rivers, their Pro Bowl quarterback, said. "We have to have the same mindset we have had all month."

Rivers and his offense are more likely to deliver victory than a defense regarded as a work in progress. He has had an excellent season, passing for over 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns, and will have left-tackle King Dunlap fit again to protect him from Michael Johnson, the Bengals' defensive end.

Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals won all eight of their regular-season games, will be freezing and inhospitable, but their fans have not had a play-off win to cheer for 24 years, and booed their own quarterback, Andy Dalton, earlier this season, prompting Johnson to tell them to "leave" rather than jeer.

The Bengals have failed at this stage in three of the past four seasons, and the doubts have resurfaced to judge by the thousands of tickets unsold on Friday. Yet they won their division, and their defeat of the Baltimore Ravens, the defending Super Bowl champions, last weekend was one of the results that the Chargers needed to advance.

Dalton has better passing and touchdown numbers than Rivers, but also threw 20 interceptions in the regular season. Yet he believes the home fans will be cheering, not jeering. "We're playing with a lot of confidence right now," he said. "It'll be a great environment."

Today's second game also features a team who only just made the play-offs. However, the Green Bay Packers' prospects have been transformed by the return last weekend of quarterback Aaron Rodgers after two months out with a broken collarbone.

He threw a late touchdown pass that snatched the NFC North division title from the Pack's great rivals, the Chicago Bears, and the combination of Rodgers and temperatures of -20C at kick-off could make it an uncomfortable evening for the visiting San Francisco 49ers.

Bengals v Chargers, kick-off 6.05pm, 49ers v Packers, kick-off 9.40pm, both on Sky Sports 3