CINCINNATI -- It turns out those guys from sunny Southern California who practice in pristine conditions and occasionally wear powder blue are a bunch of fighters.
The San Diego Chargers have been up against the ropes for five weeks. They're still standing.
The team that wasn't supposed to be in the playoffs at all is headed for the second round and another matchup with the Denver Broncos. Or as quarterback Philip Rivers might put it, the sixth round.
"We've been in playoff mode for five weeks," Rivers said Sunday after the sixth-seeded Chargers' surprisingly lopsided, 27-10 wild-card victory over the favored Cincinnati Bengals. "We knew if we lost one more, we'd be done."
Myriad factors had to come together for the Chargers to make the playoffs. They all did, but just getting in wasn't good enough for this group.
"We knew for a fact we had a dang-good chance to go out and win this game," defensive end Corey Liuget said. "We had to prove the world wrong. We did it the past four weeks, and we're just going to keep trying to do it."
The Chargers head to Denver next weekend with a mile-high air of confidence, knowing they're the only team to have beaten the top-seeded Broncos on their home field. But Rivers cautioned against putting too much merit in that result.
"We will be confident, but we have to be careful not to be overconfident," Rivers said. "Just because we won there a few weeks ago doesn't mean anything. Cincinnati came to our place and won, too."
The Bengals beat the Chargers in Week 13, 17-10, and entered Sunday favored by that same margin. Cincinnati had won and covered every home game during the regular season. In their previous five games at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals averaged 41.6 points.
But a closer examination of those gaudy numbers reveals a critical fact: Cincinnati benefited greatly from turnovers in most of those games. In some of them, the Bengals padded their point totals with defensive touchdowns.
So the Chargers went retro Sunday with an old-fashioned dose of "Martyball." Their former coach, Marty Schottenheimer, believed the formula for success in football revolved around running the ball and winning the turnover battle. The Chargers rushed 40 times for a season-high 196 yards. Their turnover margin was plus-4.
Classic Martyball, right, Philip?
"It's Charger ball. It's playoff ball," said Rivers, who attempted only 16 passes, completing 12 of them. "Playoff games aren't meant to be pretty. You just find a way to win, and we did."
The trait that stands out most in these Chargers is that they never quit. They never gave up on themselves, and they never give up on a play.
San Diego was in danger of falling behind, 14-7, late in the second quarter, when Cincinnati running back Giovani Bernard slipped past linebacker Donald Butler for a reception inside the 5-yard line. But Butler stuck with the play, swatting the ball from Bernard's grasp. Cornerback Richard Marshall -- who had allowed a 49-yard reception on the previous play -- scooped up the fumble in the end zone.
"That's an effort play," Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. "You've going to make some mistakes in games. But you can control your effort."
San Diego surrendered a field goal as time expired in the first half, but there's a big difference between trailing 10-7 and 14-7. On the second possession of the second half, Rivers directed an 80-yard drive, completing 6 of 6 pass attempts, including a 4-yard touchdown to Ladarius Green. The Chargers took the lead and never let it go.
"That's the type of game it was -- two big drives, don't turn the ball over, mix in some field goals, and you win the game," Rivers said.
The larger the lead grew, the greater the pressure became on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who clearly couldn't handle it. Dalton accounted for three of Cincinnati's four giveaways, all three coming on successive possessions after Rivers' touchdown pass to Green. This was not an uncommon occurrence for the streaky Dalton, who threw 20 regular-season interceptions, fifth most in the league.
"He threw four picks last week," said cornerback Shareece Wright, who had one of two Chargers interceptions Sunday. "We figured if we could get to him and get in his face, he'd throw the ball away."
After his team got pushed around in the first meeting, McCoy challenged the Chargers to win those up-front battles the second time around. The defensive front responded with three sacks and six total quarterback hits.
"We showed how tough we are," said linebacker Jarret Johnson, who had one of the three sacks. "We've showed people that we're a team that can fight. Those are the teams that do well in the playoffs. It's not always the most talented. It's the teams that can stand strong in the face of adversity and keep making plays. We've done that for five weeks now."
Going on six.
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