Leading by 10 and facing a 4th-and-inches from the Cincinnati 41 in the fourth quarter Sunday, the Chargers opted for the ultra-conservative route. They took a delay of game, then punted it away.
The message from San Diego head coach Mike McCoy was clear as day: He trusted his defense to hold down the fort more than he feared Andy Dalton or the Bengals offense.
Despite securing a third straight playoff berth (this time complete with a division title and home game), the Bengals entered Sunday's game with the same questions about their quarterback play -- not to mention their coach's ability to win in the postseason -- hovering like gnats on a summer day.
In a 27-10 loss, Dalton only further fueled the notion that this Cincinnati team has maxed out what it can accomplish with him at the helm, even though his coach disagrees.
"I don't have any questions about Andy's role," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis declared after the game.
Lewis -- who likely will have to fight back the wolves himself after dropping to 0-5 in the postseason -- may be the lone voice in Cincinnati taking that stance.
Dalton entered wild-card weekend with two playoff appearances under his belt, both ugly losses to the Texans. The 26-year-old QB completed just 46.7 percent of his passes in last year's season-ending defeat, and he needed until Sunday's matchup with the Chargers to throw his first career postseason TD.
That scoring strike, a four-yarder to Jermaine Gresham, came during a second quarter in which Dalton appeared primed to change his critics' minds. During that stanza, he threw for 128 yards as the Bengals took a 10-7 lead to the locker room.
It was Philip Rivers, though, who took charge of the game after halftime. Rivers, himself no stranger to wearing the "choker" label, completed all six of his passes on San Diego's opening drive of the third quarter. He capped off the drive with a TD pass of his own, to Ladarius Green.
The Chargers would not trail again.
"I think we're just playing better together in all three phases," said Rivers of his team, which last suffered a loss in Week 13, against this same Cincinnati team. "We didn't turn it over, which was key. It always is during playoff games."
His coach agreed: "That's the key thing," McCoy said of preventing turnovers. "It's really about in big games teams lose the game rather than win it. And when you make mistakes, it hurts your football team."
A pain Dalton knows all too well.
The 14-10 edge given the Chargers by that Rivers-to-Green touchdown held up (and grew) mainly because Dalton crumbled. As his offensive line failed repeatedly to keep an attacking San Diego defense at bay, Dalton responded with mistake after mistake.
He fumbled while attempting to scramble for a first down, producing a costly unforced error. He tossed a brutal interception, and then another. And when he finally did compose himself, the pieces around him missed their cues. Worst of the bunch was A.J. Green, who dropped a deep ball that may have swung momentum back in the Bengals' favor with time to spare.
"I can't sit here right now and analyze Andy's play throughout," Lewis said, "but I think it's unfortunate we had the turnovers today."
The Bengals were unbeatable at home during the regular season, posting an 8-0 mark in Paul Brown Stadium. The offense was a borderline juggernaut along the way -- it averaged 41.2 points over its final five home games.
None of that success carried over to Sunday.
As is often the case when teams lose, in the playoffs or otherwise, the issues were not limited to the quarterback. The Bengals' improved run game did not produce a gain of longer than 12 yards all afternoon; Green was limited to three catches for 34 yards, thanks to that drop.
The Bengals also had a difficult time holding up in the trenches. When Dalton wasn't scrambling for his life on offense, his fifth-ranked run defense was allowing 196 yards on the ground, including a 58-yard scoring run late by Ronnie Brown.
"I don't think you question everything you do, you just don't get to ... go back and rectify it tomorrow," Lewis said. "That's the hurt of it, the pain of it."
Rivers and the rest of the Chargers, on the other hand, will have at least another week of life this season. McCoy heaped much of the praise for that reality on the rest of his staff, including offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who is believed to be on at least a couple of short lists for head coaching jobs around the league.
Whisenhunt kept the wraps on Rivers in the first half; Rivers threw just six passes over quarters one and two combined, matching his lowest pre-halftime total since his first career start back in 2006.
When Whisenhunt did, finally, turn Rivers loose, the game shifted in San Diego's favor. Dalton's string of miscues cemented the outcome.
"We said from Day 1 that the best coverage is a good pass rush," McCoy explained of the Chargers' defensive strategy, "and they got after [Dalton]."
San Diego needed a bevy of things to break its way over the season's final few weeks just to get to the postseason, not the least of which being Ryan Succop's botched field-goal attempt late in Week 17. Perhaps because of that unusual path to the postseason, the Chargers came into Sunday's wild-card game feeling a bit like they were playing with house money.
"We talked all week about this being the fifth round," said Rivers of his team facing four straight must-wins to close the regular season, "so the sixth round will be next Sunday in Denver."
Cincinnati, meanwhile, had to fight its demons -- a history bereft of a playoff win since 1990, with Lewis sporting an 0-5 record in the postseason after Sunday's game.
The second half was what you'd expect of a team with the reputation of underachieving when it counts. Cincinnati shot itself in the foot over and over again on offense, and failed to come up with any meaningful stops on defense. Dalton's reputation will take a major hit as a result, with most of that backlash deserved after Sunday's performance.