Friends, former college teammates face off in playoffs Sunday in Cincinnati

San Diego Chargers receiver Keenan Allen (13) celebrates after a win against the Oakland Raiders at Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers won 26-13.

Christopher Hanewinckel/Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

CINCINNATI — When Keenan Allen went for a college visit to the University of California he made a friend in Marvin Jones. The two will renew their friendship Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium when Allen’s San Diego Chargers play Jones and the Bengals in an AFC Wild Card game.

Jones, in his second season, has become a top receiving threat for the Bengals behind Pro Bowler A.J. Green, while Allen is a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year after catching 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns for the Chargers.

"That’s my little brother," said Jones, who hosted Allen on his recruiting visit. "We spent a lot of time together. He’s a great player. From Day 1 he’s been explosive since I’ve known him. He’s explosive. He’s a game-changer."

Allen had one of the most productive games by any receiver against the Bengals this season when the teams played a month ago in San Diego. The Bengals won 17-10 but Allen caught eight passes from quarterback Phillip Rivers for 106 yards. It was one five 100-yard games he had this season. There were 208 100-yard receiving games in the NFL this season but the Bengals only allowed five of them.

Allen had just two catches on Dec. 12 at Denver but both were for touchdowns as the Chargers beat the AFC’s top team 27-20. That’s one of four straight wins the Chargers have put together since the Bengals beat them.

That’s my little brother

-Marvin Jones

"I thought he’s played very well," said Bengals cornerback Terence Newman, who played in the first game but has missed the last three games with a sprained knee. Newman hasn’t practiced this week and could miss Sunday’s game.

"(Allen)’s a little bit different. He is not a guy that is just going to run nine (deep) routes all day and just blow by people. He is crafty. He kind of seems like he has been playing for four or five years because he knows how to get open. He’s not the fastest guy but he runs good routes and understands how to get separation with his body and get good releases."

Newman sees Jones every day in practice. He sees the similarities between the two players.

"When Marvin got here from Day 1 I was like, hey, this dude can play. Quarterbacks were throwing balls up and he was going and getting them," said Newman. "We started playing San Diego and I was watching Keenan, they had played Kansas City the week before, it was the same thing. Balls go up and he’s going up to get them. He’s not the fastest receiver but he’s smart. He knows how to get open. I don’t know what they do in Cal but they are doing it well."

Jones has 51 catches for 714 yards and 10 touchdowns this season; he’s third on the team in receptions behind Green’s 98 and running back Giovani Bernard’s 56, and second behind Green in yards and touchdowns. He’s not an absolute No. 2 receiver because the Bengals have a multitude of options (six players with 39 or more catches and at least 455 receiving yards) but his average of 14.0 yards per catch gives quarterback Andy Dalton another deep threat along with Green.

Jones averaged 14.6 yards per catch in his college career at Cal, catching 156 passes for 2,270 yards and 13 touchdowns in four seasons. Allen caught 205 passes in his three seasons with the Golden Bears, including 98 in 2011, for 2,570 and 17 touchdowns. The Bengals drafted Marvin Jones in the fifth round in 2012, selecting him with a pick they received as part of the trade that sent Chad Johnson to New England.

The Chargers selected Allen in the third round last April. A knee injury had cut short his junior season at Cal but he decided to enter his name in the draft anyway. He didn’t expect to fall as late in the draft as he did, but neither did Jones. Allen didn’t play a single snap in San Diego’s opener against Houston but got his shot at playing in Week 2 when Malcom Floyd went down with a neck injury.

Jones said he never expected to fall to the fifth round last year but all of that is in the past. He and Allen became quick friends. They each are musically inclined — Jones said the two would sometimes perform in impromptu hotel lobby shows the nights before games at Cal — and they used to talk about playing on the same team or against one another in the NFL.

"We have had a lot of time to talk about everything," said Jones. "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."