Rey Maualuga heads upfield on his 47-yard interception return.
It was the most complete performance yet by a Bengals defense that on Sunday overcame its penchant for giving up big plays by holding down quarterback Philip Rivers and the big-play Chargers offense.
They may have been playing in un-San Diego conditions and the Chargers may have been without injured tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Malcom Floyd, but to hold one of the NFL leaders in 20-plus-yard passes to none in the 34-20 win at Paul Brown Stadium was sheer superb.
"We wanted to go after the run game and make Philip Rivers check it down," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "I was happy we could hold them to under 100 (64) rushing."
Safety Reggie Nelson was big early in the running game when he gave Chargers running back Mike Tolbert a shot that forced a fumble and drove him from the game with a sprained neck. But Nelson thought it was the defense's work on running back Darren Sproles in the passing game that was key.
The speedster Sproles led the Chargers with eight catches for 55 yards, but none was longer than 13 yards.
"He's their leading receiver and he can make a lot of things happen with his speed," Nelson said. "We mixed it up on him. Sometimes I was on him, sometimes a linebacker was on him."
But the game's defining moment came on the goal-line stand late in the first half.
With rookie linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy helping out linebackers Keith Rivers and Dhani Jones on first and second down, respectively, second-year right end Michael Johnson made the third-down stop when he fought off a block and dragged down Matthews for a one-yard loss to force Nate Kaeding's 20-yard field goal with 1:15 left in the half, and that's how the NFL's third-leading offense came up with just a field goal in the first half.
"Pat Sims told me to read my keys and stay low," Johnson said of the tackle next to him. "There's not much more I can say. Work hard."
"Three stops on the 1 and make them kick a field goal," said cornerback Johnathan Joseph. "To me, that's winning football."
For the second straight week the Bengals made a goal-line stop to force a field goal.
"(Mike) Zimmer tells us every freaking week in practice when we do goal line, 'All I want to see are (butts) and elbows,' " Peko said. "That's all it is. Penetrate and create a new line of scrimmage."
Joseph and fellow corner Leon Hall combined to hold wide receiver Vincent Jackson to four catches for 54 yards a week after he scored three touchdowns and had a 100-yard day. But it was SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga's coverage on tight end Randy McMichael down the middle and ensuing 47-yad return on the last play of the third quarter that turned the game for good.
"It was Cover 2, a vertical carry for me," Maualuga said. "If he cuts out, I sink and settle. If he doesn't, I say, 'OK, he's running a seam (and run with him down the field).' I turned around and God gave me a Christmas present."
But it was the return that tilted the game, putting the ball on the Chargers 21 as Maualuga zig-zaggd his way.
"It took me back to my high school days," he said. "I went to my right, then I went to my left when I saw two of my guys. I just wanted to use my athleticism and make something happen. I thought it was like only a 25-yard return when the bear got me. I had no juice left in my legs."
The Bengals had plenty of juice in bending but not breaking. It's only the second time in eight games the Chargers scored 20 points or less.