Updated: 9 p.m.
The Chargers haven't lost in December since 2005, a stretch of 16 games they put on the line Sunday against the Bengals in San Diego. In seven seasons under Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have had some good Decembers and some bad Decembers since '05, when they are 7-7 in December and 1-5 on the road as they look to clinch their first AFC North title since beating Detroit on the road Dec. 18, 2005.
Games don't get any bigger than this one.
On Monday quarterback Carson Palmer called it "a big-time game" and "a must win for both teams." At stake are the second seed in the AFC and a playoff bye, a chase that the 9-4 Bengals trail by a game but could win in a head-to-head tiebreaker if they finish with the same record as the 10-3 Chargers.
Palmer says the key to winning in December is "execution," which the Bengals didn't do in 2003 when they came into the month with a 7-5 record and a playoff shot but missed out by a game with a 1-3 December. In '06, same thing. The Bengals came into December 7-5 but missed the playoffs by a game with a 1-3 month. In '05 they finished off their divisional run with a 3-1 December. They are currently 1-1 this month and finishing 3-1 before the Jan. 3 finale in The Meadowlands against the Jets would mean everything.
"When you get to December, it comes down to how guys are taking care of themselves, how coaches are taking care of them as far as practice," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "And it's a mindset of you've given so much time and effort in this journey you have to give the same kind of effort at the end. That's got to be our focus. We've got to be focused like it's March 30 and the start of the offseason program."
In the past, certain players (former receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh for one) criticized Lewis for working the team too hard during the season and said it was a reason why the Bengals have been so-so in December playoff runs. But Lewis has drawn praise this season from his captains for easing them off at certain points, and he likes where they are at this stage after those first set of squats March 30 started it all.
"I think we would have taken this in March. I know you would have, I don't know if I would have. You (media) would have," Lewis said. "As for San Diego, they're a good football team playing really well right now. To win eight games in a row, we know how difficult that is. We've played some other teams already this year when they've been hot, and that's the case this Sunday. As for our guys, we got unnerved last week. We did things a little more out of character, from guys we count on to be our guys.
"I think that's both a negative and a positive all in one. We don't have to look very far from the ends of our noses to correct things. That's the good part of it. We need to have a very good, concentrated-focus week this week. We had a great week last week, and I was worried we were too amped up, and maybe we were. We didn't go out and play very well because we were so excited."
So the Bengals have to tone it down. They are a mess with penalties, particularly on offense. But Whitworth says they don't need anything drastic like a players-only meeting.
"We've played too hard and played too physical not to play like that in these (last) games," Whitworth said. "This team has responded real well every time it's had some adversity.
"I don't think there's a problem with guys' attitudes. I think sometimes when you have one those players-only meetings, that kind of lets you know there are some issues going on with guys. I don't think that's the issue here. Guys are playing hard, guys are playing physical, guys are overachieving. We had a game where we underachieved. We've achieved a lot for a team this young and this put together all of a sudden. But we want to achieve more and we have the talent to achieve more."
With the sky falling on his passing game, Palmer is also talking about keeping an even strain.
"We're a team that throws the ball about 20 times and runs the ball about 30," Palmer said. "That's who we are and that's what we're going to continue to be. Hopefully we'll continue to get more and more out of the passing game. Because of one loss we're not going to go back to the drawing board and change our identity and freak out like everybody else outside this locker room."
The Bengals are on a terrible run of penalties. Eleven on Sunday (second most of the season), 30 in the last three games, 38 in the last four and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco has had at least one false start in all of them.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski notes it is inexcusable for a receiver to commit such an infraction, but he also says it is out of aggressiveness and points to the Minnesota game as an example. The Ocho and all the other receivers were getting pressed and bumped at the line and running into linebackers underneath, so he knew he had to get off the line quickly or he was doomed.
Bratkowski, Palmer and Lewis all talked about focus and concentration Monday.
"It's no secret what wins in December," Palmer said. "Execution. The teams that execute best get to the playoffs and get the byes and win the games."
"I don't know what we've done in December before," said left end Robert Geathers. "All I know is that we have to beat San Diego to get to where we want to be. Point blank. We want to get that bye week. That's what we're playing for. That's our goal."
CROCKER OUT: Bengals safety Chris Crocker won't play Sunday in San Diego, but head coach Marvin Lewis said Monday that running back and kick returner Bernard Scott should be available for the first time since he injured his toe Nov. 22 in Oakland but Lewis wouldn't make Scott a definite. The only guys out for sure are Crocker and defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee). After leaving Sunday's game in Minnesota in the first quarter, Crocker said after the game that he reaggravated the ankle injury he suffered the week before against Detroit.
PLAYOFF RUN:Here are the NFL's playoff scenarios for the Bengals:
They clinch the AFC North division title with a win, or a tie together with a Baltimore loss, or a Baltimore loss. They clinch a playoff spot with a tie plus losses by the Jets, Dolphins and Jaguars.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Asked point blank if there is anything wrong with Carson Palmer's elbow, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said Monday he doesn't see anything like that.
»We know the Bengals started out struggling Sunday right from the get-go, but even before the kickoff? Defensive lineman Frostee Rucker was called for a hold on the kickoff and right tackle Dennis Roland false-started on the first play and there were two more penalties in that drive. On Monday, Lewis hinted he wanted to defer if the Bengals won the toss. They did, but chose to receive.
"Last week was a good week (of practice). I was worried we were too amped up and maybe we were," Lewis said. "We didn't go out and play very well because we were so excited to play. We flinched. We did things out of character. We didn't get the coin toss right. It wasn't a very good start."
But he wouldn't elaborate.
Believe it or not, four teams have more penalties than the Bengals this season with their 92: Green Bay (102), Philadelphia (96), Baltimore (95) and Dallas (94). But the Bengals far exceed the NFL average of 77.9.
» Since running back Cedric Benson came back from his hip injury last week, Larry Johnson has carried the ball five times since he had 107 yards in the win over Cleveland on Nov. 29. Johnson carried three times for four yards in Minnesota when he played in the last series of the first quarter and first series of the second quarter, and Lewis conferred with Bratkowski with Monday as a reminder to get Johnson more carries.
"Tie a rubber band to my ankle or my wrist to remind us to make sure we get him more opportunities," Lewis said. "To keep Ced fresh. It's good for Larry. It gives us a good balance and good opportunity to keep (Johnson) expanding and understand (the offense).
» This is what Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been preaching for the last couple of weeks since his unit scaled to the top of the rankings: There is still a quarter of the season to be played.
But even though the defense didn't get much help in Sunday's loss to the Vikings and gave up their most points of the season, the Bengals still hung in there among the stat leaders. But after the Vikings converted eight of 14 third downs they are now seventh and no longer lead the NFL in scoring defense. Yet they only fell into a tie for second behind the Jets. Despite giving up their second highest rushing total of the season (142), the Bengals only fell to third in rush defense and fifth in total defense.
» The Bengals allowed the league-leading Vikes one sack in what amounted to a three-man rotation at right tackle. On passing downs Anthony Collins worked on left end Ray Edwards while rookie Andre Smith and Dennis Roland played on first and second down. Smith got his first NFL start, but with Roland lined up as an eligible receiver.
» How bad is the passing game? The Bengals rushed the ball well enough to keep their No. 6 standing in the NFL and they actually moved up in converting third downs to 13th. But they fell three spots in scoring and are now 19th at 20.3 per game.