Andy Dalton dives in for the game-winning score.
SAN DIEGO — The Bengals couldn't get the handle on the elements that formed the three-game winning streak they brought to Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday until quarterback Andy Dalton scrambled for a touchdown from six yards out to give the Bengals a 17-13 lead with 4:11 left as the Bengals went on to win their fourth straight, 20-13, and stay tied with the Steelers for the final wild card spot.
Then the Bengals defense, brilliant all day in keeping the Chargers out of the end zone, got a huge play from its as-advertised pass rush with the game on the line when left end Carlos Dunlap knocked the ball out of quarterback Philip Rivers's hand for his second sack and strip of the day and then chased down the fumble at the San Diego 13.
The Bengals played it safe with runs on first and second down and then got a 24-yard field goal from Mike Nugent that made it 20-13 with 2:47 left as Dalton secured his fifth career fourth quarter win and first in more than a year.
The Bengals blitzed safety Reggie Nelson on third-and-10 on the last play before the two-minute warning, but Rivers hit wide receiver Danario Alexander for a 17-yard gain at midfield and the Chargers got to the 17 when wide receiver Malcom Floyd caught a 16-yard pass in front of cornerback Terence Newman.
But the Bengals got four straight stops for the win, the last Nelson's end-zone pick with 55 seconds left. The defense harassed Rivers into a 62.8 rating (26-of-48 for 280 yards with no TDs and that pick) while it held San Diego to 46 yards rushing.
Also highlighting the victory was running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis's third straight 100-yard game, the first by a Bengal since Corey Dillon in 1999. Green-Ellis picked up 118 yards on 25 carries.
It was a gut check win all the way because except for touchdowns drives to open and close the game, the offense kept San Diego in the game. Dalton's gritty play at the end canceled out his passer rating of 65.2 on 25-of-39 passing for 211 yards.
The Bengals offense hadn't committed a turnover in the winning streak, but gave up three in Sunday's first 37 minutes that included a pick-six for a touchdown.
Trailing 13-10, the Bengals defense pitched a brilliant third quarter to prevent San Diego from getting points off the turnovers, or off anything else for that matter.
But the offense couldn't take advantage and didn't score in the third quarter despite starting drives at its own 40-, 37- and 44-yard lines.
Rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones, making his first NFL start, was wide open down the middle at about the San Diego 15, all set to convert a third-and-10 on Cincinnati's first seres of the second half. It was a perfectly thrown ball, but it bounced off Jones's hands into the arms of former Bengals safety Corey Lynch.
For a time in the third quarter it looked like a gallery of former Bengals turned Bengals-killers. On the next possession, after taking a pass at the Chargers 40, tight end Jermaine Gresham lost the ball when Takeo Spikes and fellow linebacker Demorrio Williams converged on him and forced a fumble.
Then on the next possession on third-and-two from the Chargers 48, Lynch came in unblocked and dumped Green-Ellis for a one-yard loss.
And there were other problems. Early in the fourth quarter Dalton had wide receiver A.J. Green running open down the right side clearly beating cornerback Quentin Jammer for what looked like a touchdown bomb. But the ball was thrown out of bounds.
Plus, a block in the back on Bengals outside linebacker Manny Lawson wiped out a big-time punt return by cornerback Adam Jones that would have put the ball on the Chargers 32.
With Dalton connecting with five different receivers on five completions on the opening touchdown drive and Rivers responding by hitting his first 10 passes, the Bengals found themselves in a tussle with a Chargers team desperately trying to end a six-out-of-seven game slide. San Diego took a 13-10 halftime lead when Rivers went 85 yards in the last 1:45 to get Nick Novak's 19-yard field goal at the gun.
The vaunted Bengals pass rush working against the banged up San Diego offensive line never got to Rivers in that two-minute drill, particularly on third-and-13 from the San Diego 44 after two false starts. Rivers had enough time to find Floyd working freely in a zone with Nelson getting there to push him out-of-bounds at the Bengals 32 for a 24-yard gain.
Rivers then also had time to find Alexander wide open underneath for 12 yards and he lumbered himself for 11 more after having just 12 rushing yards all season. And it took clutch tackles from Newman and WILL backer Vontaze Burfict to stop running back Ronnie Brown at the 1 with one second left to force the field goal.
Dalton's problem was his sixth receiver of the day, which turned out to be Demorrio Williams and it went for a 31-yard interception return that gave the Chargers a 10-7 lead with 14:09 left in the first half.
On second-and-10 from his own 23, Dalton dropped back and apparently didn't see Williams dropping into underneath coverage as the Chargers bracketed Green in double coverage.
It was Dalton's first interception in 106 passes, dating back to the fourth quarter of the Nov. 4 game vs. Denver and was his fourth pick-six of the season.
Rivers, operating behind an already banged up offensive line, lost right tackle Jeromey Clary on the second Chargers snap. The Chargers got Rivers out of the pocket with rollouts and hurt the Bengals in his first drive with screens, as well as a 19-yard pass to tight end Antonio Gates down the middle that put the Chargers in the red zone.
But Dunlap forced Rivers to fumble as he was throwing on first down, resulting in a seven-yard loss, and the Bengals held to give up only Novak's 19-yard field goal to cut the Bengals lead to 7-3.
The Bengals parlayed a holding call on fourth-and-nine into Dalton's 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham to cap a 16-play opening drive that gave Cincinnati a 7-0 lead with 7:39 left in the first quarter.
A week after giving up a fourth-and-29 that led to their overtime loss to the Ravens, the Chargers opened the game with more fourth-down misfortune. With the Bengals facing a fourth-and-nine from the Chargers 35, San Diego cornerback Shareece Wright was called for holding slot receiver Andrew Hawkins. A few snaps later, the Chargers double-covered Green and Gresham beat Williams to the first pylon in the right corner. Williams, playing for the injured Donald Butler, let Gresham go and he was wide open for his fifth touchdown of the season.
The Chargers came out blitzing and Dalton was forced to get out of the pocket on most of his throws. On the lone Bengals third-down conversion in the drive, Dalton threw a rope to Hawkins on third-and-eight from the Bengals 47 just before he took a shot from outside linebacker Antwan Barnes for a 17-yard gain.
The Bengals missed a great chance to go up 14-10 after Green-Ellis ripped off his third long run in six quarters with a 41-yarder and Gresham converted a third-and-three from the Chargers 12 on a seven-yard catch.
On the next snap, Green ran a great route against Jammer and was wide open running along the goal line to the right, but the ball sailed on Dalton for an overthrow. On third down from the 1, Dalton went play-action, but Green was well covered in the right corner and the Bengals needed Nugent's 19-yard field goal to tie it at 10 with 9:38 left in the half.
Rivers had the edge at the half, thanks to that two-minute drill. His rating was 94.3 on 16-of-23 for 189 yards while Dalton was at 78.0 on 14-of-22 for 141 yards. He went to Green nine times for six catches and 54 yards, but the longest catch went for 16 yards. Green-Ellis went to the half with 77 yards on 11 carries.
PREGAME NOTES: With Mohamed Sanu sidelined for the season with a foot stress fracture, fellow rookie Marvin Jones drew his first NFL start Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium and became the fourth different starter to line up opposite A.J. Green.
Playing two hours from his hometown of Fontana, Calif., Jones went into the game with three catches for 26 yards after returning to the lineup last week. He had no catches on two targets against the Raiders but showed no ill effects of the sprained knee that cost him four games. A fifth-rounder out of California, Jones needs his legs because his No. 1 attribute is the speed that brought him attention immediately in this past training camp when he seemed to run past a cornerback every other day for a long play, and he translated it into the preseason.
Wide receiver Armon Binns, who started five of the first six games, was inactive for the third time in four games. Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, who missed the past two games with a knee injury, practiced full go Friday and was listed as probable so he'll most likely take Sanu's snaps in the slot. Ryan Whalen, active for the fourth straight game, can also play the slot.
Beyond Sanu, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis kept intact the inactive list he's pretty much had during the three-winning streak. Joining Binns and Sanu were cornerback Jason Allen, rookie safety George Iloka, rookie defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, and tight end Richard Quinn.
Chargers inside linebacker Takeo Spikes isn't the only former Bengal that Cincinnati has to deal with when they're on offense. Safety Corey Lynch, a sixth-round pick of the Bengals in 2008, makes his first start of the season in place of the player regarded as San Diego's best defender in Atari Bigby.
Lynch has played the most snaps of anyone on special teams with 224, according to San Diego's Union-Tribune, so that unit gets a double whammy. An injury has also taken out special teams captain Darrell Stuckey, as well another prominent special-teamer, backup tight end Dante Rosario.
The Chargers had to counter with new players to fill special teams. Rookie safety Brandon Taylor was active for the first time in his career and linebacker Bront Bird, just signed was also active.
With San Diego's best front seven player out, Demorrio Williams was expected to make his first start of the season for inside linebacker Donald Butler. And the Chargers took another hit when outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, one of their top players, was inactive after he was expected to play.
The Bengals, wearing all white, sent out their two captains - quarterback Andy Dalton and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga - for the coin toss, as well as wide receiver A.J. Green, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, and cornerback Adam Jones.
The game got off to a tough start with Brandon Tate dropping the kickoff and he could return it barely beyond his own 10.