(Reuters) - It has been 24 years since the Cincinnati Bengals won an NFL playoff game and skeptical fans appear unconvinced the drought will end on Sunday when the AFC North champions host the San Diego Chargers in a wild-card clash.
With the Bengals (11-5) a perfect 8-0 at Paul Brown Stadium this season fans would seem to have little reason to doubt their team yet thousands of tickets were still available on Friday for Cincinnati’s first home playoff date since 2009.
While Cincinnati’s regular season results are nothing to grumble about, for a generation of Bengals supporters the post-season has brought only disappointment.
Under head coach Marvin Lewis the Bengals have had two losing seasons in 11 years.
But three times in the last four years Cincinnati has appeared in a wild card contest and fallen flat, losing twice to the Houston Texans (2012, 2011) and New York Jets (2009).
The Bengals postseason history may not inspire confidence but with five wins in their final six regular season games, including clutch victories over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers and defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati will carry considerable momentum into Sunday’s showdown.
”We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now,“ said Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. ”For us to have a home playoff game, it’ll be a great environment.
“We’re ready for the playoffs to start.”
But so are the battle-tested Chargers (9-7) who are riding a four-game winning streak, including an overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs that secured the AFC’s final playoff berth on the last day of the regular season.
“Well our big thing was, just get in,” said Chargers head coach Mike McCoy. “That’s the most important thing. Get in and anything can happen once you get into the tournament.”
San Diego is led by Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers, who enjoyed one of the finest campaigns since making his NFL debut in 2004. Rivers completed a career high 69.5 percent of his passes while tossing 32 touchdowns and throwing for over 4,000-yards for the fifth time in six seasons.
Rivers will have no shortage of weapons with which to attack the Bengals’ third-ranked defense.
Ryan Mathews finished the season as the AFC’s second leading rusher while diminutive Danny Woodhead was second in receptions and receiving yards for running backs.
Wide receiver Keenan Allen was Rivers’ favorite target and led all rookies in catches and yards while tight end Antonio Gates and wide out Eddie Royal provide reliable hands.
”We have been in that playoff mentality of win to stay alive or lose and go home,“ said Rivers. ”If anything, hopefully that can help us not make this game anything more than what it is.
“We obviously know what is at stake, but we have to have the same mindset we have had all month.”
Much of the Bengals postseason shortcomings have been laid at Dalton’s feet.
The Bengals quarterback threw for 4,296 yards and 33 touchdowns in the regular season but undid much of his good work with 20 interceptions.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue