Welcome to the playoffs, everyone.
After a rather quick 17 weeks, we made it through yet another NFL regular season. For each of the teams that are waking up this Monday morning knowing they still have at least one game to play, this was a year filled with ups and downs. Naturally, the highlights outlasted the low lights for those teams, allowing their respective playoff appearances to take shape.
For the Cincinnati Bengals, this is the third consecutive post-Week 17 Monday in which they could call themselves a postseason-bound team. This time around, they are hoping they can keep waking up feeling like winners for four more Mondays. If they are able to do that by the fourth Monday, they won't just be feeling like winners. They'll be feeling like champions; Super Bowl champions, that is.
Of course, a month is a long time and anything can happen within it. And as anyone who has followed this franchise for the past 23 years knows, a one-and-done postseason experience isn't out of the realm of possibility for the Bengals, either. Since making the playoffs in 1990, the Bengals have been 0-4 in playoff games. Since they've been to the playoffs four times in that span, that means they haven't gotten out of the first round. That's a trend they're hoping to halt this weekend when the red-hot San Diego Chargers come to Paul Brown Stadium.
After losing at home to Cincinnati on Dec. 1, San Diego rattled off four straight wins, including Sunday's 27-24 overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs to advance to the postseason. Even if they were mostly playing backups this weekend, the Chargers still have built confidence and momentum entering the postseason. That can be a bad combination for the teams that have to face them.
Another bad combination for the Chargers and possibly one other team? The fact that the Bengals appear to be unstoppable at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati was 8-0 at home this year and is 11-1 in its last 12 meetings there. If the Bengals get past the Chargers, they'll have to travel to New England the following week. If they win that game, they could be back home a week later for the AFC Championship Game.
So, which will give? San Diego's momentum or Cincinnati's home dominance? In six days, we'll find out ...
Here's your first playoff edition of the Morning Stripes:
The Bengals enter the postseason on their own tear of sorts. They are winners of five of their last six, including the win in the first meeting with the Chargers. Among those wins are ones over quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck. On Sunday, the Bengals added another, Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson points out: defending Super Bowl champ Joe Flacco.
Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had a big day for the Bengals, intercepting a pair of Flacco passes, including one that was returned for a touchdown. That pick-six effectively iced the 34-17 win over the Ravens with minutes remaining. Like the Cincinnati Enquirer's C. Trent Rosecrans writes, Kirkpatrick's performance was foretold by his preacher father.
Cincinnati was ugly offensively most of Sunday as quarterback Andy Dalton threw a career-high four interceptions. But with strong defense and timely big plays on offense, the Bengals were in sync when it mattered most, says Fox Sports Ohio's Kevin Goheen. He believes that second half was the epitome of their season.
According to the Cincinnati Enquirer there were two medical incidents involving fans at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. One of them, a heart attack, resulted in a man's death.
Finally, moving over to the Chargers side of things. The San Diego Union-Tribune's Matt Calkins poses an interesting question: Did the Chargers learn from their loss to the Bengals? Like we mentioned before, since that game, San Diego hasn't lost. That winning streak helped the Chargers tip-toe into the postseason.