SAN DIEGO — It was supposed to be an AFC West shootout Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, so naturally an AFC North bar-room brawl broke out in a game that teetered on defense, special teams, and turnovers and the Bengals survived when they turned to their running game to squeeze the last 4:43 out of the clock with a 17-10 victory.
After quarterback Andy Dalton started that last drive with a 28-yard pass down the right sideline to wide receiver A.J. Green to the Chargers 38, the Bengals ran it eight straight times with running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis leading the way to atone for a late fumble before Dalton took a knee on the 5 to end it with Green-Ellis churning out 92 of the team's 164 rushing yards.
The Bengals had a 17-7 lead with less than seven minutes left in the game and had just forced their third turnover of the game when safety George Iloka poked the ball from wide receiver Keenan Allen at the Chargers 30 and linebacker Vinny Rey recovered.
Green-Ellis gave it right back. He converted a third-and-one as the Bengals headed into the red zone, but BJGE fumbled on the play for the second time this season and fourth time as a Bengal to keep the Chargers in it.
San Diego could only go 22 yards after a 21-yard fumble return, but it was enough to get a 48-yard Nick Novak field goal with 4:43 left that cut the lead to 17-10.
The Bengals used their running game to shove to a 14-7 lead with 1:42 left in the third quarter.
A 50-yard run-and-catch by wide receiver Andrew Hawkins out of a bunch formation on third-and-two set up Mike Nugent's 46-yard field goal that made it 17-10 with 9:16 left.
After rookie running back Giovani Bernard raced 19 yards up the middle to put the Bengals over the 100-yard rushing mark, Dalton hit a wide-open Green in the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown pass when it looked like the Chargers jumped tight end Jermaine Gresham crossing Green.
The Bengals finished with 164 yards rushing and 190 passing in a nice balanced effort.
As it did all day, as it has all year, the defense breathed life back into the Bengals in the third quarter with the Chargers threatening on a third-and-six from the Cincinnati 30. That's where the Bengals forced their second turnover of the game and again the victim was Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates.
At the Bengals 25 cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick got his first NFL interception when he basically ripped the ball from Gates after made the catch and was falling.
That set up the go-ahead touchdown to Green, a 10-play, 75-yard drive where the Bengals got 34 yards on six carries with Bernard and Green-Ellis each banging for first downs on third-and short.
The beleaguered Bengals offense suffered another interception by Dalton in a miserable first half of 41 passing yards Sunday, but as usual the defense and special teams kept the Bengals in it for a 7-7 halftime tie.
With 3:48 left in the half and the Bengals at their own 35 after a 17-yard screen to Green, Dalton went play-action and tried to go deep down the middle to Green. It was badly overthrown and into double coverage, straight into the arms of safety Eric Weddle at about the Chargers 25. It was Dalton's 16th interception, one more than last season, ninth in the last four games, and appeared to be as much a product of miscommunication as it was a bad throw.
Despite working against one of the NFL's worst secondaries that came into the game allowing 49 passes of at least 20 yards, that screen was Cincinnati's longest pass of the half and Dalton was saddled with a 21.2 passer rating on 5-of-10 passing for those 41 yards.
Green, who took a shot early in the game over the middle and had to be checked out on the sidelines, had two catches for 25 yards in the half.
The Bengals turned to the running game to take a 7-0 lead on a drive highlighted by a pair of 13-yard runs by Green-Ellis and Bernard and capped by Green-Ellis's four-yard touchdown run four seconds into the second quarter.
On the 10-play, 67-yard drive, the backs carried six times for 47 and Green-Ellis walked in over the right side with the help of defensive tackle Domata Peko playing fullback.
The Bengals did it behind a retooled offensive line when left guard Clint Boling went down early in the game with what head coach Marvin Lewis indicated was a season-ending knee injury. In what appeared to be a coach's decision, Anthony Collins started the game in place of Andre Smith at right tackle but Smith was back on the field when left tackle Andrew Whitworth replaced Boling at left guard and Collins moved to left tackle.
The Chargers took just three minutes to tie it through some uncharacteristic holes in the Bengals pass coverage. Running back Ryan Mathews was wide open on a swing pass for 17 yards and tight end Ladarius Green was wide open at the linebacker level down the seam for a 30-yard touchdown that made it 7-7.
Earlier in the drive it appeared that cornerback Adam Jones was in perfect position to pick off Rivers's back-shoulder throw, but it went through his hands on the sidelines for a 16-yard gain to wide receiver Vincent Brown.
The Bengals defense and special teams showed up early.
The defense got the first turnover of the game on the first series when safety Reggie Nelson forced Gates to fumble after he caught a 10-yard pass for a first down at the Bengals 18, where it was recovered by Iloka.
Then Kevin Huber lofted one to the Chargers 4, tying the team record with Kyle Larson for the longest Bengals punt at 75 yards. Moments later defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry came up the middle to end the second Chargers series with a sack that gave him 6.5 for the season and pulled him within a half of Carlos Dunlap's team lead.
Rivers's new short passing game gave him a 109.7 rating in the half (12-of-8 for 145 yards), but the Bengals forced a punt from their own 49 with 52 seconds left. Even though they've allowed 23 turnovers, the Bengals defense has allowed just three touchdowns after one of those miscues. This time it was because of good pressure that forced an incompletion to Woodhead on third down and a false start on Mathews on first down didn't help.
Bengals WILL backer Vontaze Burfict, who turned his ankle in Friday morning's practice and was questionable, started and had eight tackles in the half.
PREGAME NOTES: Burfict, who wore a boot on Friday's plane ride to the Coast after turning his ankle during that morning's practice, took it off in time to get into Sunday's starting lineup against the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.
Burfict, the NFL's leading tackler, apparently suffered a non-contact injury Friday but kept his streak alive of not missing a game in his two seasons despite racking up close to 300 tackles. He looked a little gimpy as he warmed up, so Michael Boley and Vinny Rey are in the bullpen. If Burfict can't give the Bengals the mobility they need in pass coverage against targets like running back Danny Woodhead and tight end Antonio Gates, Boley and Rey would have to. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who doesn't normally play nickel, may have to play some if if Burfict can't.
Despite playing 20 snaps in the victory over Cleveland, wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher was inactive, as was one of the heroes of that win, safety Tony Dye. For the second straight week, Mike Pollak started at right guard for the inactive Kevin Zeitler (foot). Also sitting out for the Bengals were running back Rex Burkhead, offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson, wide receiver Ryan Whalen and defensive tackle Chris Bilukidi.
The deactivation of two wide receivers with all four tight ends dressed could indicate the Bengals want to establish the run against the Chargers defense that is ranked the fourth worst in the league. It also pointed to more snaps for slot receiver Andrew Hawkins.
With nickel back Chris Crocker now healthy, Dye was inactive. With tackle Devon Still active for the first time since he injured his elbow in Detroit Oct. 20, the newly signed Bilukidi was out.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is trying to avoid the first three-game road losing streak of his career. In his rookie year the Bengals lost back-to-back games in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and earlier this year they bookended two wins at Paul Brown Stadium with losses in Chicago and Cleveland.
San Diego kept its latest offensive line intact from last week's Kansas City win with D.J. Fluker at left tackle, Jeromey Clary moving from right guard to right tackle, and Chad Rinehart playing right guard.
Chargers outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (hand) and wide receiver Eddie Royal (toe, chest) were out and cornerback Derek Cox was benched in favor of Richard Marshall.