Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Youth steps into spotlight in Cinci

Young Bengals, Chargers will play major roles today

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CINCINNATI, Ohio -- 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."

Receiver Marvin Jones, a fifth-round pick from California in 2012, missed time during his rookie season because of a knee injury and developed into Cincinnati's No. 2 receiver this year, complementing A.J. Green. Green finished with 11 touchdown catches and Jones had 10, giving the Bengals their first pair of receivers with double-digit TD receptions.

Jones will be reunited with Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, who was a close friend at California. Allen was picked in the third round this season and led NFL rookies with 1,046 yards receiving, 72 catches and eight touchdowns. When the Bengals beat the Chargers in San Diego 17-10 on Dec. 1, Allen had game highs with eight catches for 106 yards.

Jones calls Allen his little brother. The two of them did things together off the field in college and have stayed in close touch in the pros.

"He hosted me on my visit and was my mentor the whole time there," Allen said.

Both of them like music, and they would get together at the team hotel and entertain before games.

"He plays the piano," Jones said. "Sometimes before games he'd go on the piano and I'd sing. I'm telling you, everything we do is essentially the same."

Jones had three catches for only 34 yards during Cincinnati's playoff loss last season. He and Allen will have big roles in this one.

"We have had a lot of time to talk about everything," Jones said. "'When we are on the big stage, maybe we'll be on the same team? What if we play against each other?' Stuff like that. It's happened in his first year in the league. It's pretty cool to see that happen."

The Chargers also have a rookie right tackle with D.J. Fluker and youth on defence with end Kendall Reyes and linebackers Melvin Ingram and Manti Te'o. And Mike McCoy is the fifth coach to lead the Chargers to the playoffs in his first full season. All of them will get to know what it's like to be in the playoffs.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2014 B7

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