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 playoff game.
The Bengals lost in Houston 19-13 last season, when Burfict was a rookie.
"There's a different speed to the game," Burfict said. "It was kind of shocking to me being in the playoffs my first year. 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."
The Bengals will have a lot of young players in the playoff spotlight today.
Rookie running back Giovani Bernard gave the Bengals a new dimension, piling up 1,209 yards on runs and catches. Rookie tight end Tyler Eifert was sixth on the team in receiving with 39 catches for 445 yards. Burfict 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.
He had a pair of interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, during a 34-17 win over the Ravens last week.
"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."
Marvin Jones, a fifth-round pick from California in 2012, missed time during his rookie season because of a knee injury but developed into a complement for star receiver A.J. Green.
Jones had three catches for only 34 yards during Cincinnati's playoff loss last season. He and Charger rookie receiver Keenen Allen (also a star at Cal) will have big roles today.
"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 young players in big roles.
Their starting right tackle, D.J. Fluker, is a rookie. On defense, end Kendall Reyes and linebacker Melvin Ingram are in their second seasons while linebacker Manti Te'o is a rookie.
San Diego's Mike McCoy, himself in his first season as coach, has already warned the young players they "have no idea the speed of the game."
"Each round, the stakes go up," said McCoy, previously an assistant with the Broncos.
"Everyone's (playing) survival of the fittest week in and week out now."