SAN DIEGO — Riding a three-game winning streak that has put them back in the playoff picture, the Bengals hope to catch the last plane from the Coast Sunday night with a one-game lead over the Steelers if both Cincinnati and Baltimore take care of business.
The Bengals.com media roundtable thinks the Bengals are going to hold up their end of the bargain here Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Chanel 12) in a split decision.
The beat man for the Union-Tribune in San Diego, Michael Gehlken, doesn't see the Chargers spinning completely out of the picture after last week's blown fourth-and-29 led to their overtime loss to the Ravens. He thinks the Chargers are just desperate enough and good enough to get to 5-7 and stop the six-out-of-the-last-seven slide.
But no one agrees. Lee Hamilton, the former Chargers radio play-by-play man an now host of "Sportswatch" on XX-1090 Sportsradio, says the club is in so much disarray that it has little chance in protecting beleaguered quarterback Philip Rivers on Sunday against the Bengals as the Norv Turner deathbed vigil continues.
Jim Trotter, the best beat man in the business for the Trib when he covered the Chargers in the '90s and '00s until he went to Sports lllustrated to cover the NFL, says the Bengals don't have to worry about running it on the Chargers because quarterback Andy Dalton can throw it and wide receiver A.J. Green catch it against them.
Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst, says the Bengals win another trench war that showcases their blossoming defensive line that is becoming one of the NFL's elite. He says it should trump the battered Chargers front.
Let's go around the table.
The Bengals have to hit these guys in the mouth right away. Play with the lead. Get off to a quick start. Last week they basically played the Ravens in an AFC North-style game. Neither team turned it over. Overtime. Low-scoring game. That fourth-and-29 can go either way. They're vulnerable, but if the Bengals don't control it they could get mad and they'll be dangerous out there if they hang around.
It's another game for the big boys. The Chargers are going to have some issues up front, for sure and you'd expect the Bengals defensive line is going to have a big day. They've got 30 of the 35 sacks. You can't let Rivers flow freely. You have to make him feel uncomfortable. He's in a rough patch. He threw 20 interceptions last year and lost five fumbles. It's 14 and four this year. Put some pressure on him and he's going to make some mistakes for sure.
That's unfortunate about rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (foot stress fracture, out for year.) I don't know if Andrew Hawkins is ready yet. Someone is going to have to step up and fill the void. Marvin Jones has to make some plays. You can tell he was getting extremely confident with Sanu, and Andy felt really comfortable throwing to him. You could see that. There was some serious chemistry building quickly there.
I think they've got enough to overcome it, but he and running back Cedric Peerman were the two additional guys in this little run that had their roles expanded and they both responded. Losing him is difficult. He gives you things in the slot that other guys don't give you. Size, smarts, big hands, soft hands. I was just waiting for Hawkins to come back so you could have Sanu and Hawkins both in the slot at the same time and go two-by-two, but they can't get them on the field at the same time.
The Chargers are going to challenge the running game. They take pride in stopping the run and the Bengals have been beating up on people by being balanced offensively, being able to do a little of both. But they haven't played run defenses as good as this. If you're one-dimensional, particularly on the road, it's tougher to pass block, the crowd becomes a factor.
Aubrayo Franklin, the nose tackle, is a big issue. He's a good player and signing him has really helped them. He does a good job keeping them off linebacker Takeo Spikes, they let him flow by keeping him clean. They've got to knock Franklin back.
It's a big challenge for Trevor Robinson, the Bengals rookie center. That's an interesting matchup with three young guys in the middle of the line for the Bengals going against guys like Franklin and Spikes. Getting movement in the middle on Franklin is going to be a factor. What's hurting the Chargers is they don't have inside backer Donald Butler, their best player in the front seven.
THE EDGE: Bengals. I don't like predicting a score, but I give them the edge out there. It's a desperation game for the Chargers. It's a bigger game for the Bengals. They have to go in there and dispel the West Coast myth. I think they're more than capable if they take care of the football.
The fact is, for the last year and a half Philip's decision-making has been circumspect. There's no question he's had a lot of pressure on him, but there have been times he hasn't had any pressure and there have been problems. I think it's unfair to totally put it on the offensive line. I mean, he's had 43 turnovers in the last year and a half.
I think he's put everything on his shoulders and the personnel has been depleted year by year when you lose LaDanian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, Vincent Jackson, and Antonio Gates has been hurt this year. I've seen it a few times this year where Gates has been wide open and Philip doesn't even look at him and that used to be his security blanket.
The Chargers defense may be ranked fifth against the run, but in my mind you can throw it on them. They don't generate a lot of pass rush. They've got ability on the pass rush, but they're inconsistent. Their corners aren't very good. The only ball hawk in the secondary is safety Eric Weddle, which means in order to play the ball he has to compromise the run. The other safety, Atari Bigby, is out so I think teams are looking at them from an aerial point of view and they can do what Drew Brees (370 yards) and Peyton Manning (309) did against them.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-17. The Bengals hit a lull and it looked like the season was going to be lost for a minute, there. I don't know what turned it around; if it's when Marvin called out Rey Maualuga and Andy Dalton, but that's one of the things I want to find out. But the fact is A.J. Green continues to make plays and it looks like they've found their rhythm.
I hate to say it, but the Chargers are one of those teams better than their 4-7 record. It's hard to say why they can't finish games, but you can certainly say when they have a lead on a quality opponent, it doesn't mean much. They were up 10 points on the Saints in the third quarter and up 24-0 on Denver at the half at home and lost both.
They're as banged up as they've ever been on defense and special teams this season. Atari Bigby, the strong safety and who may be their best defensive player, is out for the year. Inside linebacker Donald Butler, their best player on the front seven, is out for this game. And their special teams captain, Darrell Stuckey, a very good cover player, is out for this game as well.
I'm not ready to blame the Chargers offensive line for everything. Running back Ryan Matthews has had a tough year. He had a great preseason and training camp, but he missed a couple of days in camp after a car accident and then on his first carry of preseason broke his collarbone and missed the next six weeks, the first two of the regular season. They're in the middle of the pack in rushing (14th), but they like the way he's cut down on his fumbles and is running the ball. He could play better, but the offensive line could block better, too.
Mike Harris, the rookie free agent from UCLA, has really improved at left tackle and he's been there in there at the beginning of training camp with the problems of Jared Gaither. The coaches are very pleased with his progress and it's a great story, but it would be a better story if it wasn't written where he had to be thrown into the fire to protect Philip Rivers's blindside. He's just not where an NFL left tackle has to be. The right tackle, Jeromey Clary, has struggled against top pass rushers. The line has had a tough year. ProFootballFocus.com has a stat where Rivers has been pressured 40 percent of the time when he drops back. That's around the top of the league. I know they judge a quarterback on wins and losses as well as turnovers and those are areas where Rivers isn't doing well, but he's a fighter and competitor and there are stretches he's played at a high level. The pieces they've put in place around him haven't been what the Chargers hoped.
Tight end Antonio Gates has a career-low yards after catch and free agent wide receiver Robert Meachem just hasn't clicked with Rivers. But wide receiver Malcom Floyd has had a solid year and should have his first 1,000-yard season and Danario Alexander has come off the street and been their best receiver with a great November. He's been a big, physical target.
On defense they've been up and down with the pass rush. Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips (seven sacks) is their best pass rusher. The other outside backer, Jarret Johnson, the free agent from Baltimore, has been exactly what the Ravens said he would be. He's very strong against the run, really sets the edge, and has been a big-time contributor for them on first and second down. It's going to be interesting to see what they do on sub packages without Butler on passing downs. Takeo Spikes has been solid on running downs, but they may have to play him more than they want on passing downs with Butler out. Spikes has been a great guy for the locker room, really takes care of his body and has been a leader for them.
At cornerback, Quentin Jammer has had a good, bounceback season. He and Antoine Cason are different kind of cornerbacks. Jammer is physical at the line of scrimmage. I imagine they'll want to get physical with A.J. Green. There have been times this season their secondary has been exposed and they've given up big plays. They don't usually have one cornerback shadow a receiver and stay pretty true to keeping Jammer on the left and Cason on the tight.
THE EDGE: Chargers, 27-24. I look at the Bengals pass rush and it's scary. A. J. Green is scary. Dalton is playing good football. The Bengals are a good football team. But I have a hard time seeing the Chargers losing their seventh game out of eight when it's so clearly a must win. I'm going with this score even though they're 0-4 in games decided by less than seven points.
The Chargers franchise is really under the fire in the community and I don't see it getting any better this week.
They are really banged up. There were 13 Chargers on the injury list much of week, their highest total of the season and they're likely going to be forced to play inexperienced players in some key spots on defense, such as Melvin Ingram and Jonas Mouton at linebacker and Brandon Taylor and Corey Lynch at safety. Eric Weddle is going to try and go at free safety, but he's coming off a concussion on that brutal hit by Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin last week.
In the last 27 games dating back to the 2011 opener, Rivers has been responsible for 43 turnovers as the team has fallen apart around them. They've let the personnel deteriorate and now it's come to this where they can't protect Rivers. He's been as hit as much as he's ever been hit and they spent all this money on guys and they're not getting anything out of it.
Gaither signed a big deal and is on injured reserve. Meachem was a big signing from New Orleans and hasn't got it going and they gave wide receiver Eddie Royal $8 million and he's been hurt.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-17. I think the injuries to Bigby and Butler are going to make it tough for the defense against an offense that is playing well. And they are going to have a hard time protecting Rivers against a top defensive line.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It's another paper game. On paper, the Bengals should win. The stat sheet, the injury report, and the standings say it. But intangibles chased them down in two paper games in October (Miami, Cleveland) and they are still paying the price.
The big intangible this week is the road. No matter who the head coach has been, the Bengals have struggled on the West Coast. No matter if the stadium is named after a sportswriter (Jack Murphy) or a global giant (Qualcomm), they've won only once in San Diego in the last 20 years.
But the Bengals have never come out here with such a dominant defensive line or as dominating a wide receiver as A.J. Green has been the past month. With Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers getting pummeled at every turn (San Diego is in the league's bottom 10 allowing sacks per pass) and turning it over at breakneck speed, the Bengals pass rush that has generated the second-most sacks in the NFL should tee off.
The combination of special teams and defense usually carries the day on the road, and the Chargers are dinged up badly on their special teams units. Their best cover player and special teams captain, Darrell Stuckey, is out and it will be recalled that last year in two road games against West teams, Brandon Tate punt returns in Seattle and St. Louis secured late victories.
The tight end is always the big concern and while Bengals rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict grew up an hour away from perennial Pro Bowler Antonio Gates's exploits, he preferred AFC West rival Denver. But he'll have to follow Gates on Sunday along with the other backers. Rivers and Gates aren't having great years and the Bengals have guarded the middle better since Peyton Manning carved them a month ago. But the two have made huge plays over the years and the Bengals have been their victims on a few occasions.
One thing going for the Bengals in that matchup is they've shut down the big play on the ground while rising to No. 9 during the three-game winning streak. The Bengals are tied for sixth in the NFL when it comes to allowing 20-yard rushes (five) and they haven't allowed any longer than the 32-yard touchdown run by Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson in the second game. And the Chargers have yet to produce a 100-yard rusher this season.
The one big downer for the Bengals is the loss of rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu with a foot stress fracture. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had him lining up everywhere in his first three starts the last three weeks and he turned out to be a huge weapon on third down and in the red zone. But before Sanu became a factor, tight end Jermaine Gresham and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins already were and had a big hand in getting the Bengals to 3-1.
Despite the Sanu loss, the Bengals have the edge in this one. They are hoping this time that the stats, injuries and standings are worth the paper they're printed on.