Bolts bob and weave, suffocate Bengals

The Chargers' defense stifled the Cincinnati offense by forcing four turnovers. AP Photo/Tom Uhlman

CINCINNATI -- According to Mike McCoy, the San Diego Chargers executed the rope-a-dope Muhammad Ali made famous on the Cincinnati Bengals.

"A lot of times teams lose the game rather than win it," the San Diego coach said of the Chargers' 27-10 victory. "When you make some mistakes and turn the football over and do certain things, it hurts your football team."

The team McCoy not-so-subtly referred to is the unlucky Bengals. San Diego advanced to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs by expertly sidestepping Cincinnati's initial barrage, ultimately allowing the Bengals to beat themselves by turning the ball over four times and falling for the fifth straight time in the postseason.

Cincinnati entered the contest as a seven-point favorite, but the Chargers performed more like the experienced playoff team from the onset.

It started with the Chargers' unflappable quarterback, Philip Rivers, who didn't try to do too much in his first postseason appearance since 2009.

"Playoff games aren't meant to be pretty," said Rivers, who sported his trademark bolo tie. This one made from elk horn was sent to him by a fan. "You just find a way to win, and we did that in all three phases today."

Rivers was efficient, finishing 12-of-16 for 128 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Ladarius Green. Rivers threw a career-low six times in the first half.

"Rivers played a smart game," Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said. "He didn't force anything. He took what was there."

San Diego's complete effort was punctuated by a surprisingly suffocating defense that limited Cincinnati's potent offense to a season-low 10 points at home. The last time these two teams met, the Bengals bowled over the Chargers for 164 rushing yards in a 17-10 win. But San Diego was ready this time.

"We were talking all week -- if we stopped the run, they weren't going to beat us," Chargers linebacker Reggie Walker said. "We just knew if we made it a passing game, they weren't going to beat us."

The Chargers held Cincinnati to 113 rushing yards, grabbed a 14-10 lead at halftime and extended it to 20-10 with just more than 14 minutes left in the game.

The Chargers forced Andy Dalton to beat them with his arm, and he couldn't do it. Dalton wilted under the steady pressure of San Diego's defensive front. He finished 29-of-51 for 334 yards but also threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Dalton was sacked three times and was hit six other times. He finished with a 67 passer rating.

The Bengals had not lost at home this season, averaging 34 points per contest.

"I know we were all glad, and itching to play them again," Walker said. "Thank God we got seeded to play them again. Because of all the teams we wanted to play, we wanted to play them again. We had to get our toughness back, because that was ridiculous.

"We have a great blitz package. So we knew if we could get them in third-and-long, they were not going to beat us."

Need proof that the Chargers have reached the big time? Golfer and San Diego native Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, attended the game on Sunday, and have plans to make it to the Chargers' AFC divisional-round game at Denver next week.

The Chargers could use star power facing Peyton Manning for a third time this season. No doubt, Manning and the Broncos will be ready after losing 27-20 in Denver on Dec. 12, the last time these two teams met.

But the San Diego defense plans on bringing its A-game, too. Aside from holding Denver to a season-low 20 points, this defense has allowed an average of just 16 points a game in the team's past five contests.

"They're going to be ready, but we're going to be ready, too," Walker said. "So we're just going to go in there and put our hard hats on and see what happens. We're not just happy to be playing. We've got a goal, and we're going to go get that."

Added middle linebacker Donald Butler, who finished with a team-high 12 tackles: "All the pressure is on them. We're loose. We're just going to go play and try and win another game."