Welcome to Sunday's Enigma Bowl (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in sunny San Diego when the 7-4 Bengals look to get their hot-and-cold offense back on the rails against a 5-6 Chargers team that is in the AFC Wild Card race by offsetting losses to cellar-dwellers Oakland and Washington with wins over the playoff-bound Chiefs and Colts.
If you don't know what to expect from these two teams, leave it to the Bengals.com Media Roundtable to have a grasp on what has turned into a mega game in the AFC. The majority of The Table picks the Bengals to win a shootout that would give them a two-game lead over Baltimore and a three-game lead over Pittsburgh in the stubborn AFC North.
As heady as a victory would be for Cincinnati to start the December stretch, a loss against one of the NFL's leading offenses would require a gut check since it would close the division to a game and strap the Bengals in the AFC tiebreakers with the Colts looming at Paul Brown Stadium next week.
But The Table, anchored by Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, thinks the bye week has helped the offense clear its head and he saw the Bengals win a similar script in Detroit when the offense kept pace with an explosive Lions offense.
Jim Trotter, the former Chargers beat man for The Union-Tribune now covering the NFL for Sports Illustrated, is mystified by Cincinnati's inconsistencies but picks the Bengals on Sunday because he says they've simply got more talent than San Diego.
Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton, the former longtime Voice of the Chargers who now calls the morning drive for the Mighty 1090 all-sports station, says Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and his offense gets well against San Diego's porous secondary.
Michael Gehlken, the current U-T beat man, is the lone hand on The Table raised for the hosts. He cites the Chargers momentum from last week's last-minute win in Kansas City, the red-hot hand of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, and the major injuries for the Bengals on defense.
Let's go around The Table:
The Chargers offense is a lot different than last year. Head coach Mike McCoy is coming right from Peyton Manning in Denver and Rivers is getting the ball out quickly like Peyton. Norv Turner's influence is still there a little bit, I'm sure, with some of the things he does with the tight end. But the biggest difference to me is getting the ball out. The only guy who was sacked more than Rivers last year was Aaron Rodgers and now he's been sacked only 20, one of the fewest in the league.
He's checking it down to running back Danny Woodhead. He's getting the ball to tight end Antonio Gates. Both of them lead the team with 59 catches. Norv was big with the vertical game and they've kind of morphed into something a little different, but they're racking up numbers. They're top five in everything but running the ball.
But it's the best running game the Bengals have seen in a while. It will be interesting to see how rookie left tackle D.J. Fluker comes off a knee injury last week because he's a drive-blocking fool. Running back Ryan Mathews is staying healthy. Offensively they're a snootful.
Their receivers are pretty good. Rookie Keenan Allen is putting up some good numbers. Is this the biggest test for the Bengals since they lost cornerback Leon Hall and some linebackers? Is this the first big test for their nickel and dime packages against a team that can spread the field and chuck it a little bit? It probably is the first major test since some of those guys have gone down. Certainly since Detroit and the offense stepped up and matched it and that's what is going to have to happen in San Diego.
But defensively the Chargers are really struggling. They're toward the bottom in just about everything. Dead last in yards allowed on first down. Dead last in yards allowed per play. Next to last against the run, 4.9 yards per play. Next to last against the pass. I mean, they're giving up 8.4 yards per pass. This should be a game where the offense gets healthy.
It's the first game in a while where you don't have a big man in the middle like a Phil Taylor or a Haloti Ngata, a big man Mountain Dean in there. Hopefully they'll be able to move them off the ball. They're almost giving up five yards a rush. Run it and let Andy Dalton get some passing lanes to take advantage of.
It's far from the best defense they're going to face down the stretch, that's for sure. The Bengals are minus-seven on the road and plus-five at home in turnovers and in 2013 if the home team is plus-one or better, they win 91 percent of their games.
I think it's been a combination of things why the Bengals have struggled offensively recently. I don't think the offensive line has played as well, I don't think the receivers are winning their battles as well. I think it's everything.
Look around. People say, 'How can Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford throw four interceptions at home against Tampa Bay?' Quarterback is the most dependent position in sports. They have to have other guys playing well around them. It can't be that big of a swing in what he's doing. To me, if you're not getting as clean a pocket, if you're not winning as convincingly or as quickly … and the quarterback is looking at the field and there's nowhere to go and the pocket is in your face, it's a lot different.
I think Andy is kind of a microcosm of a lot of things on this team. On the positive side, resiliency. On the other side, inconsistency. I think his inconsistency will flow to the inconsistency of everyone around him.
To me the key word for the last five games offensively is "precision." The precision just hasn't been there. Too sporadic. I'd love to see them try to run that football. To me at this stage of the season you need something to say, 'This is our bread and butter.' I'm not sure what their bread and butter is right now. I think they have to establish some things that, no matter what, we can do this. And right now I think they're still trying to identify that.
The Chargers have a losing record but they've beaten four teams over .500 right now. Their wins have been against quality competition highlighted by Kansas City last week. They're the only losing team in the NFL that's outscored their competition.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-24. That was the score when they beat Detroit and I can see something like that. Something like 30-27.
But there's the intangible. If I'm playing offense, I need the bye to regroup. If I'm playing defense, I want to continue playing with that edge. Now you've got the bye, a short week with Thanksgiving, a four-hour flight, a time change. To me one of the biggest problems the Bengals have had is getting off to a slow start. All that time off with holiday festivities, they're going to have to fight being lethargic in the early stages of the game. They're going to have to come out fast.
The defense was playing with such an edge, hopefully they come out with that same edge. I have all the confidence in the world that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will manufacture an edge if they don't have one. But the offense has to come out with an edge, too, and do something early and quit falling behind by double-digits on the road. So I think a good start is a big deal.
I think they know it's going to be a close one. They know there aren't going to be any 40-point blowouts like they had against the Jets. They just have to take care of the ball and win a close game out there.
San Diego is Jekyll and Hyde. You never know what you're going to get. They seem to play to the level of the competition. When they have the opportunity to beat good teams they seem to play well against those teams. When they have a game everyone expects to win, they either lose or struggle badly. Make of that what you will.
I think clearly the Bengals are a good team. It just seems to me from afar that they haven't been the same offensively or defensively since defensive tackle Geno Atkins went out. Something is missing and I don't know quite what it is.
One of the things they have to do is find that consistent complement to A.J. Green. Dalton has to take care of the ball. When I see them struggling, it's usually because they don't protect the ball. This team is too good to be this inconsistent. There's too much talent. In recent years we've been saying the Bengals have been building and building and building and now all of a sudden with the division the way it is, you would think they would have run away with it and there's no sense of consistency unless it's inconsistency.
Maybe in essence these teams are mirrors of each other because you never know what you're going to get from one week to the next.
Ball security is going to be critical. I've got Cincinnati's defense on my fantasy team and I see what they do. They have the ability to take the ball away and they have the ability to score and the one thing San Diego has been preaching this year is ball security. If Philip cannot throw interceptions, if Ryan Mathews can hold on to the ball, I think they can put up some points.
Everything with Philip this year has been about timing. Get the ball out. Three steps. Five steps. They've basically eliminated the seven-step drop. That was Norv's big baby. One thing McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt didn't want is Philip to hold on to the ball with a line that has been struggling with injuries to create opportunities for sacks and turnovers.
Their whole thing has been about getting the ball out and they've schemed it up really well. The other thing they've done well is develop Keenan Allen. Without him, I'm not sure where they'd be. He's become a downfield threat, a third-down threat, even more so than Gates. The Bengals will have to deal with him.
For the first time since running back Darren Sproles left, Philip has that all-purpose back in Woodhead that he can dump it to or hand it to who creates uncertainty in the defense. He missed Sproles tremendously and you can look at his numbers when Darren was there and after he left. The Bengals have to account for Woodhead.
While Cincinnati has been inconsistent on offense, San Diego has been inconsistent on defense. Before the game against Kansas City defensive coordinator John Pagano basically called them out and said it's not about scheme, it's not about execution, it's about want to. They were just missing tackles and not showing great effort, so I had a feeling they would play well against Kansas City and it may sound stupid because they gave up 38 but for them they did.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 31-27. Cincinnati has more talent. Period. I think their defense has played well enough through the year to keep the Bengals in games. San Diego has had trouble against the pass. Kansas City is not known as a big pass threat and yet they put up 38 on these guys in a week they were focused on rebounding from the previous week. San Diego at times appears to get more relaxed at home. They don't always play well at home. The last two years I've seen them blow three-TD leads in the second half twice, against Denver and Houston. Until I see them consistently put together games, I can't buy into it that they've turned that corner.
Rivers has a lot more help this year. They do a lot of things with Woodhead to present some mismatches and that's been a huge part of what Philip has been able to do. Plus the offensive line, a healthy Ryan Mathews, and the balance of the run game. And the scheme of McCoy, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, quarterbacks coach Frank Reich is just quicker with the pace. It varies how much the Chargers use no-huddle from week to week based on the opponent and you can't predict. It's very much by situation because they can slow teams down or hurry it up and it doesn't show until the game.
It's more of a quick-fire offense with receivers Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal dragging underneath and over the middle. Gates is healthy and playing the way you'd expect. They've got a young tight end in Ladarius Green who had a 60-yard TD in Kansas City last week for his first career TD. They miss wide receiver Malcom Floyd, but guys have stepped in and Philip is playing at such an excellent level.
First-round pick D.J. Fluker has been a huge addition at tackle. He's flipped to the left side the last two games because of the injury to King Dunlap. He's an excellent run blocker and it's a more physical group, which has helped the run game and Philip is taking the heat off the line by getting it out. It's helped stabilize the line. There are just two players who played against the Bengals last season and center Nick Hardwick is the only one in the same spot.
It's funny because after the draft people were looking at the Chargers defense because the offense was coming off such a bad year, the worst in organization history, and the defense had all this young talent and it was seen as a strength.
But their four top outside linebackers have had surgery and three of them are out for the year, and last week Jarret Johnson had hand surgery. It's been a challenge getting to the quarterback and throw in a secondary that was put together this offseason and they've struggled.
Cornerback Derek Cox, their biggest free-agent signing, has been benched a couple of times and may be again Sunday. He just hasn't panned out. It's probably time someone else gets a shot. They've got guys like Richard Marshall. Johnny Patrick is more of a slot guy but he can play on the outside. Crezdon Butler is more of a special-teamer, but he can play on the outside. The Chargers had to sort that out this week to see who is going to play opposite the other corner, Shareece Wright.
So that makes an interesting aspect of this game what the Bengals passing offense can do. Wide receiver A.J. Green is obviously a game-wrecker. If Dalton gets him going, which he probably will, and if Dalton can get on track and exploit the secondary, we should be looking at a shootout.
THE EDGE: Chargers, 27-24. With the losses the Bengals have had on defense and the way the Chargers put up 41 points on the Chiefs last week, that has to favor the Chargers. Granted the Chiefs were without their best pass rushers most of the game and I appreciate those losses, but that Chargers win and what Philip has done has got them on a roll. With four home games out of the last five to end the season, they know what these games mean. They're one of the teams going for that last Wild Card spot. There's a lot on the line and I like how this game sets up for the Chargers from a mental standpoint to build on the momentum from Kansas City. Right now, they can score points on anyone and factor in the injuries the Bengals are navigating.
For every great performance like the win over Kansas City, the Chargers have had a God-awful performance, like losses to Washington or Oakland. Nobody has been able to figure this thing out. Philip Rivers may be an MVP candidate had it not been for the team's record. He's carrying them lock, stock and barrel. McCoy has come in here and changed the entire offense. Ball control. Almost like a Peyton Manning passing attack. Occasionally down the field, but not very consistently because they don't have a lot of breakaway speed.
But they tear you apart. They put together 80-, 90-yard drives that take 10, 15, 18 plays. One of the unique intangibles is they make you cover sideline to sideline. They throw a lot in the flat to Woodhead. Ryan Mathews has learned what it takes to be a pro running back. He's become a tough North-South runner rather than a guy that dances, or gets hurt, or fumbles.
McCoy has had a huge impact on all aspects of offensive strategy. They've uncovered some gems. It's like a light bulb went on with Keenan Allen in midseason. He catches everything. Runs precise routes. He and Rivers just seem to have the linkage. They do stuff on crossing patterns no one has done here in a while. And they've uncovered a huge tight end, Ladarius Green, that's averaging 22 yards per catch. They don't use him often because he's got bad blocking skills, but he's a monster tight end. When they put him on the field with Gates, they say, 'Pick your poison.' They present a lot of problems offensively.
On the flip side, they don't play a lick of defense. They are horrific. They're on track to give up 6,300 yards, which would be the worst in San Diego history and just a shade behind historically what happened to New Orleans a year ago.
The secondary is deplorable. They've given up a monster number of big chunk plays. Eric Weddle is standing naked by himself at safety with no help on the corners. Both corners have been benched, but there's no one else that can play. So they have to put Derek Cox and Shareece Wright back on the field.
The big problem is the injuries at linebacker. They don't have a lot of depth there and they only play three on their defensive front and they get tired and run out of gas. From front to the back it's just not a good situation with injuries and some of the mistakes they've made with the roster.
I think Andy Dalton is going to move the ball on these guys. If I'm Cincinnati, I'm throwing on this secondary until they can stop them and they can't stop them. Two weeks ago they had 12 missed tackles, 92 bonus yards against Miami.
The Chargers beat Kansas City only because the Chiefs lost both outside linebackers in the second quarter with injuries. Otherwise that might have turned out to be a loss because they were pressuring Rivers significantly. But when those guys left, Rivers just cut their heart out.
Fluker has played well for them. He takes a right-handed stance playing left tackle, but he's a real firebrand and you have to pay a toll to get around him. Hardwick is rock solid at center. He made Kansas City's Dontari Poe disappear last week. A 350-pound nose tackle. It might have been as good a game as Hardwick has played. Despite all their problems on the line, they've got enough to hang in there and help Rivers. He gets it out fast and they've kept him clean. They've got him holding the ball closer to his body and he's not fumbling like he has in previous seasons.
And his receivers find ways to flood the zone and get open. There are challenges for the Bengals linebackers and cornerbacks in nickel. Allen has an extra step. He won't blow by you. He won't run 4.28, but he gets open in single coverage. He's wiry. He takes hits. They're playing as efficiently on offense as they have since the (LaDainian) Tomlinson era.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 35-31. Despite the fact Dalton has struggled, I like the Bengals' firepower and I do think Cincinnati's defense is much grittier than anybody really realizes. I think Dalton comes out of whatever coma he's in against no secondary at all.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The numbers say it's time for the fog that has enveloped this offense since Halloween night in Miami to lift on Thanksgiving Weekend.
The defense is going to need every yard Dalton and Co., can generate. This is not a good game for WLB Vontaze Burfict to be limping with an ankle injury because the Chargers spread defenses out in nickel and it has to be all hands on deck with a running back like Danny Woodhead and tight end Antonio Gates.
Plus, this is Burfict's kind of game because the Chargers have the best running game the Bengals have seen in a few weeks with Mathews racking up 4.4 yards per carry.
The beauty of Burfict is he never comes off the field, but if he's not there and the Chargers think they can catch the Bengals in the wrong personnel group in nickel, they can take off in a crisp no-huddle.
The best answer to beating Rivers is how the Bengals beat three elite QBs at home earlier this season in Cincinnati. Rivers is having even better years than Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, so keep him off the field. The Chargers are killing teams with ball control in Rivers's new possession game. They've got 25 10-play drives and are third in time of possession with 32:23.
The Bengals have to get back to that. In their first nine games they had 14 drives of at least 10 plays. In the last two games they've had just two 10-play drives for three points. They have a solid average time of possession of 31:08, but the difference between them and the Chargers offense is turnovers. The Bengals have 22, San Diego has just 13.
If the Bengals passing game can't get untracked against these guys, can it? The only pass of at least 25 yards to a wide receiver not a Hail Mary in the last three games was Green's leaping tip to himself for 42 yards against Baltimore.
But the Chargers have allowed 49 passes of at least 20 yards and 26 of at least 30 yards and opposing passers have rung them for a 102.7 passer rating on 18 TDs to just six interceptions.
The Chargers are a much different team, but the formula that beat them last year isn't. The Bengals kept Rivers out of the end zone 364 days ago by keeping the ball more than 33 minutes.
That would be a welcome relief for a defense that has done the bulk of the heavy lifting since Halloween.