The Bengals invade Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego on Sunday at 4:05 EST in a clash of two of the AFC’s title contenders.
What’s at stake
The winner will instantly become the champion of their respective division, securing a playoff spot. Whichever team wins will also lay a preliminary claim to the #2 seed in the conference with two games to go. The #2 seed would guarantee the winner a first round bye and home game in the playoffs.
San Diego is coming off an impressive 20-17 road victory over Dallas, while the Bengals were thoroughly handled by the Vikings in Minnesota, 30-10.
Records & Rankings
- Offense: 20th overall (6th rushing, 23rd passing)
- Defense: 5th overall (3rd rushing, 12th passing)
- Offense: 14th overall (31st rushing, 5th passing)
- Defense: 12th overall (21st rushing, 10th passing)
Bengals: Starting S Chris Crocker (ankle) and DT Domata Peko (knee) are both out. KR/RB Bernard Scott should be back after missing the last two weeks.
Chargers: Starting LB Shawne Merriman (foot) did not practice early this week and may be limited. C Nick Hardwick is out.
At first glance, the Chargers have to like their chances. In addition to playing at home in front of a sold-out crowd, they are also riding a white hot 8 game winning streak, and have won 16 consecutive regular season games in the month of December. QB Philip Rivers is in the MVP candidate conversation, WR Vincent Jackson is having a pro-bowl-type season, and TE Antonio Gates continues to present mismatches for opposing defenses. Darren Sproles is as explosive a return man as you’ll find in the game, and LaDainian Tomlinson seems to be coming on strong. Nate Kaeding is a solid kicker, and the defense is a respectable 12th overall with a plus-8 turnover differential.
The Bengals on the other hand are limping into the biggest game of their season with abundant questions. In addition to being manhandled by the Vikings last Sunday, they must travel to the west coast and are dealing with the news of the untimely death of WR Chris Henry on Thursday. Their pass offense has been anemic, and their defense was uncharacteristically porous last week. Penalties are becoming a constant drive-killing problem and the red zone offense has slipped dramatically over the last several weeks.
Working for the Bengals is the fact that their strengths play to the Chargers weaknesses. San Diego is not particularly good against the run (21st ), so the Bengals should be able to pound away with Cedric Benson and Larry Johnson. Despite having LT in the backfield, the Chargers are ranked 31st in rushing offense and the Bengals remain one of the league leaders in rushing defense. Look for the Chargers to go to the pass early and often.
The Chargers will attempt to get up on the Bengals quickly using their air attack, putting pressure on the Bengals methodical, grinding offense. TE J.P. Foschi, 3rd down back Brian Leonard and slot WR Andre Caldwell will have to make big catches to move the chains and keep drives alive. As always, limiting penalties and controlling field position will be critical. WR Jerome Simpson may be active for the first time this week. The Bengals may use him to stretch the field with “9” routes and post patterns to loosen up Chargers secondary. It’s truly time for the second year player to earn his pay.
If Karma is worth anything, this game should go to the Bengals. They will be emotionally motivated to win for Chris Henry. They should have a greater sense of urgency this week, play well on the road (4-2) and have not lost two games in a row this season. Besides, aren’t the Chargers due for a bad game at this point? Give this one to the Bengals, 23-17.