CINCINNATI – The crowd, the intensity, the feeling that everything was riding on every play. Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict was overwhelmed by all of it at the start of his first NFL playoff game.
The Bengals lost in Houston 19-13 last season, when Burfict was a rookie and Cincinnati didn’t do a very good job of handling the high-stakes atmosphere.
“There’s a different speed to the game,” Burfict said. “It was kind of shocking to me being in the playoffs my first year. Man, everything was going fast for me. I had to adapt to it. The first time I went out there on the field in the playoffs, I thought, ‘Man, is everybody going faster, or am I just moving slow?’
“I understand that now. We’ve got a lot of guys who understand how the playoffs work and hopefully that will get us ready for Sunday.”
The Bengals (11-5) and the San Diego Chargers (9-7) will have a lot of young players in the playoff spotlight at Paul Brown Stadium.
Rookie running back Giovani Bernard gave the Bengals a new dimension, piling up 1,209 yards on runs and catches, the second-most by a rookie in team history. Rookie tight end Tyler Eifert was sixth on the team in receiving with 39 catches for 445 yards. Burfict, a second-year player, led the team in tackles. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who missed most of his rookie season in 2012 because of injury, moved into a starting role late in the season because of injuries.
Kirkpatrick had a pair of interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, during a 34-17 win over the Ravens last Sunday.
“It was a big game,” said Kirkpatrick, who has been burned in coverage several times this season. “I really needed it. I haven’t made plays like that in so long. It was a burden off my back.”
San Francisco at Green Bay: Josh Boyd isn’t into making a fashion statement, and he doesn’t think he needs to go sleeveless to show off his toughness.
All the Packers defensive lineman wants is to stay warm in the subzero weather when Green Bay hosts the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC wild-card showdown that could be one of the coldest playoff games in NFL history.
So many intriguing story lines between these two NFC powers, and yet the arctic cold may trump them all.
“Yeah, I’m definitely going sleeves,” said Boyd, a rookie from Mississippi. “I mean, I don’t see it as a tough guy thing. I just see it as being comfortable.”
The National Weather Service forecast called for a high temperature in Green Bay on Sunday of 2 degrees, with north-northwest winds making it feel more like minus-15 to minus-20.
The coldest NFL game on record is the 1967 championship game, known as the “Ice Bowl” won by the Packers 21-17 over the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field on New Year’s Eve. The temperature dipped to minus-13, and the wind chill that day was minus-48.
This might be little consolation to Boyd, for whom cold games in college meant playing in 30- or 40-degree weather.
“I’m from Mississippi, so this is a whole other animal,” Boyd said. “I’ve never seen negatives until I got here.”
Linemen are renowned for toughing out inclement weather without sleeves under jerseys. Don’t want to give the opponent even the slightest idea that you’re soft, the line of thinking goes.
Well, 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith is as tough as they come, and even he might wear sleeves for what he estimates would be just the second or third time in his 13-year career.
“You’re not going to have an advantage having no sleeves. You’re not going to scare the opponent,” said Smith, who has 6½ sacks.