CARSON, Calif. - An inspired defensive effort that blunted the last three third-down attempts by Chargers quarterback Philips Rivers was doused by Michael Badgley's 59-yard field goal at the half-time gun that capped an unbelievable final 10 seconds of a first half the Chargers took a bizarre 17-12 lead.
When it rains it pours. A false start cost the Bengals a potential touchdown at the Chargers 1 after what appeared to be certain TD was overturned by replay before the stunning turn of events at the end of the half.
Rivers got the ball back with just 10 seconds left at his own 32, threw a pair of 11-yard darts to wide receivers Keenan Allen and Travis Benjamin and when end Jordan Willis' offsides' penalty wiped out a sack by linemen Sam Hubbard and Carlos Dunlap, Badgley got his shot.
It was too bad. The Bengals had just cut the lead to 14-12 when quarterback Jeff Driskel hit wide-open wide receiver John Ross for his sixth touchdown of the season on his 18th catch (from six yards out) to make it 14-12. The bid to tie it on a two-point conversion got blown up when Chargers rookie safety Derwin James had a clean shot at running back Giovani Bernard on the perimeter.
But, remember, the depleted Bengals were two-touchdown underdogs and they made it a game with some grit that had been missing in the four-game losing streak. It was typified on that short-field touchdown drive of 35 yards set up by a third-down sack by nose tackle Andrew Billings.
And the Bengals smashed-mouth running back Joe Mixon with 63 yards on 12 carries in the half and even though they got the ball back with 1:35, they handed it to Mixon three straight times for 22, the last 13 coming on a breaking-tackle-third-and-one.
Photos from the Bengals at Chargers matchup in week 14.
With the Bengals trying to control the clock and keep it away from the red-hot Rivers, for the first time all year in the half they ran it (17 for 96 yards) more than they passed it, with Driskel seven of 11 for 55 yards. The Chargers still out-gained them in the half, 179-141, and Rivers was 12 of 17 for 135 yards, but they weathered the storm of the first two drives that went for touchdowns.
Rivers hit his first seven passes until Dunlap deflected the eighth at the end of the second drive. But the damage was done.
The killers here were the two snaps on second-and-long. After Billings and tackle Christian Ringo split a sack, Rivers stepped up on second-and-17 in the pocket and hit a wide-open Allen in the middle of a zone for 16 yards to set up an easy third-down conversion.
Then the snap after a hold, Rivers caught the Bengals with just two players on the side of the field he ran a screen. Left guard Dan Feeney took out one of them, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, on the way to running back Austin Ekeler's 21-yard pickup. When Ekeler walked in from five yards out, it was 14-3 near the end of the first quarter.
When the Bengals got the ball back, they kept going to Mixon with 41 yards on his first seven carries, but they couldn't overcome a two-yard loss on a stretch run to the right. On a third-and-six early in the second quarter, Driskel tried to hit wide receiver Boyd for the first time on the day but overthrew double coverage.
But after an inspired defensive series (a Ringo stop and cornerback Will Jackson's tackle at the line of scrimmage to set up a third-and-long incompletion) Driskel made sure Boyd got his only reception on the next series on a huge 19-yard catch on third-and-long over the middle. Then a reverse to the right side to wide receiver Alex Erickson for 14 yards (cutting inside some nice blocks) set up the controversial play on third down from the Chargers 1.
Driskel went play-action on a boot-leg right and ran out of left end Joey Bosa's tackle in the backfield. He used the entire field and then froze linebacker Hayes Pullard to the outside, cut inside and appeared reach the ball to the goal line for a touchdown before his knee hit the ground. But the refs overturned the replay and when head coach Marvin Lewis went for it on fourth with a jumbo package that had guard Trey Hopkins and defensive end Sam Hubbard report as eligible receivers, right guard Alex Redmond false started. They took a field goal to make it 14-6 with 5:01 left in the half.
Hopkins had come out of the game and was replaced by Christian Westerman in what appeared to be a coach's decision.
The Chargers made it look so stunningly easy on the first drive lasting a little bit more than three minutes. The Bengals again deferred the opening kickoff and the opponent again swept down the field 75 yards unencumbered to go up 7-0.
The shortest of the six plays was Rivers' five-yard scramble on the first snap. Ekeler simply went up the middle three times for 37 yards and then Rivers played pitch and catch with his wide receivers. Mike Williams was wide open for 19 yards in a zone then Allen got behind Dennard on a corner route for a 14-yard touchdown.
Driskel went to Mixon right away, running it four times for 25 yards and catching two, one a nifty grab behind the line for 10 yards helped along by a block from tight end C.J. Uzomah. His jump cut when he got the handoff at the line on their first snap resulted in an 18-yard gash. A Driskel nine-yard scramble also converted a third-and-four and Ross' screen for five yards on third down set up Randy Bullock's 47-yard field goal to make it 7-3 with 6:23 left in the first quarter.