It was due to happen eventually. Instead of finding another way to cough up a big game, the San Diego Chargers ran into an opponent, specifically a quarterback, who was better at choking. No need to perform the Heimlich maneuver on Philip Rivers this time.
Rivers has run hot most of the season. On Sunday, he was not bad, and that was good enough.
A lukewarm Rivers was enough because Andy Dalton was as awful as a cold shower. The Cincinnati Bengals were bounced from the playoffs again because the “Red Rifle” backfired.
“I thought the Bengals would play a much better game,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said. “Really, it came down to Dalton, who just made way too many mistakes. Dalton played a very poor game, and that made the difference.”
It’s important to point out Esposito is not a negative guy. He’s not like many in the media — and most fans — who look to pin the blame on the donkey and criticize the losing quarterback and coach. But this one was obvious. Dalton choked under pressure, coughing up three second-half turnovers.
Rivers avoided mistakes this time, and a defense that preyed on Dalton carried the Chargers to a 27-10 wild-card victory in Cincinnati, where the talk-radio callers on WLW and WKRP this morning will be justifiably crushing the red-headed quarterback.
It’s also fair to blame running back Giovani Bernard for fumbling at the 3-yard line before halftime, fair to blame A.J. Green for dropping a pass near the goal line, fair to blame coach Marvin Lewis for being 0-5 in the playoffs.
But it was Dalton, 0-3 in the playoffs himself, who threw two interceptions and lost a fumble after the Bengals went to the half with a 10-7 lead. He also passed for 334 yards, but stats are for losers.
There was sharp money on the Chargers as 6½-point underdogs. But the public backed the Bengals, who were 8-0 straight up and against the spread at home in the regular season, and got burned.
A month or so ago, Esposito called Cincinnati a “sleeper team” capable of sneaking up on the AFC’s elite in the postseason. He was mostly correct. The Bengals had everything it took, everything but an elite quarterback. So, turn out the lights.
The Chargers advanced on a day when Rivers attempted only six passes in the first half and finished with a meager 128 yards through the air. That’s a positive sign as they head to Denver, where Rivers upstaged Peyton Manning on Dec. 12.
Colin Kaepernick did not choke Sunday. He made plays with his arm (227 yards passing) and legs (98 yards rushing) and cut through the bitter cold to make enough crucial third-down conversions to beat Green Bay, which was decimated by defensive injuries, 23-20.
Almost everyone sided with San Francisco, a 2½-point favorite most of the week. The line closed at 3, so no smart bettors should have lost unless they played the Packers on the money line.
“We lost on the second game as the sharps and public supported the 49ers,” said LVH sports book director Jay Kornegay, who called Sunday a “good overall winner” for the books.
The entire NFL weekend was a winner. It was all-around entertaining, beginning with Indianapolis’ stunning comeback against Kansas City on Saturday, followed by New Orleans winning at the gun in Philadelphia. The margins of victory were 1, 2, 3 and 17 points. Road teams won three of four games.
“It’s unbelievable the way three games came right down to the end,” Esposito said. “The crowds and the handle were tremendous. It was great to see the crowds like this, with the roars back and forth and games that kept people on the edge of their seats.”
Andrew Luck didn’t choke, either. Down 38-10 in the third quarter, he led the Colts past the Chiefs, who did choke, 45-44. That was the only game that went over the total. In an expected NFC shootout, the Saints slowly squeaked by the Eagles, 26-24.
“You figured there would be a lot more offense,” Esposito said. “Three of the last four games staying under was good for the books.”
And here’s what’s good for the books and bettors: the matchups in the next round and some potential matchups the rest of the way.
Luck and the Colts are 7½-point underdogs against Tom Brady in New England. Drew Brees and the Saints are 9-point ’dogs in a revenge game at Seattle. Kaepernick and Cam Newton butt heads with the 49ers favored by 2 at Carolina. Manning is a 10-point favorite against Rivers and the Chargers, who are riding a hot roll and playing with house money.
With a Brady-Manning showdown possible, Esposito said, “If Denver wins ... wow, what an AFC Championship Game. It’s going to be a monster.”
This past weekend was a monster, too, and the pressure of it ate up Andy Dalton and spit out the Bengals.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.