From the days future Bengals NFL MVP Ken Anderson faced off against aging Chargers Hall-of-Famer Johnny Unitas, Bengals-Chargers has always meant the best in quarterbacking and a new edition gets published Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when Joe Burrow's 7-4 Bengals meet Justin Herbert's 6-5 Chargers in the throes of the AFC playoff chase.
There was no Bengals.com or maybe even round tables when Unitas threw 10 touchdowns of at least 30 yards in the first 11 games of the 1957 season. But the Bengals.com Media Roundtable has watched Burrow match Unitas and join him as the youngest players to pull off such a stat and is giving him the edge in Sunday's matchup of the two of the 2020 NFL draft's top six picks.
The Cincinnati contingent of Bengals team reporter Marisa Contipelli and Bengals radio game day host Wayne Box Miller believes Burrow and his weapons are operating at an optimum enough level to outscore Herbert's eighth-ranked offense.
Jeff Miller, who covers the Chargers for The Los Angeles Times, isn't sure the Los Angeles defense is up to the task of getting the ball enough times for Herbert. Jarrett Bell, USA Today's estimable veteran NFL columnist, has charted the Bengals' rise in the number of times he's looked up at updated scores in in press boxes around the league and been impressed from the numbers against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. But he thinks they're still growing into the role of contender.
Let's go around The Table. As always, ladies, visitors and the alphabet first.
There are no shortage of storylines as we are finally getting Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert head-to-head, something a lot of us have been waiting to see. The biggest thing I look at is two offenses that have really been clicking, especially as of late. L.A. has one of the top offenses in the league and so similar to Cincinnati with just how many weapons they have for Justin Herbert to orchestrate. Especially after last week's very uncharacteristic loss to Denver, I expect the Chargers to kind of come out firing looking to rebound.
On the flip side of that the Cincinnati offense has put up 30 points in five of the last six games and it doesn't look like they can be slowed down, especially when it comes to Joe Mixon and the running game with 288 yards over the last two weeks. You look at the Chargers and they've given up 170 rushing yards five times this season. They are dead last in the NFL when it comes to run defense and I expect that to continue. I think the Bengals are going to do what they've done the last two weeks and pound the football and get back to that running game.
We hadn't seen that earlier in the season, but it's nice to see the offensive line coming together and running the football in that AFC North tough, physical style that we've been accustomed to seeing the last two weeks. And when you look at the Cincinnati defense that has been stout the last two weeks, it's going to be a big challenge for them going up against Herbert and how efficient he's been. I don't expect them to hold the Chargers under 14 points like they were able to do against the Raiders and Steelers, but I think the defense prevails.
THE EDGE: Joe Burrow gets the victory in the first head-to-head matchup with Justin Herbert. The way the defense has been so solid and complete, they may not stop the Chargers all day, but there's going to be a point where they get a stop or two when they're going to need it most. BENGALS, 31-24
The Bengals lost the opener to the Chargers last year and I think that's a neat little sub plot for the Bengals when they think about where they are now. And not that the Chargers are the Patriots, but it is significant that Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow are here and when you think about potential great quarterback rivalries, this has to be up there. You've got Lamar, Mahomes and Josh Allen, but these two guys could be across from each other for many years.
Even more significant is the here and now with the Bengals being relevant in December for the first time in six years. It's pretty inspiring because they built it with the overall No. 1 quarterback and put these other pieces together supporting him. Beating Baltimore and sweeping the Steelers the way they did really speaks to their legitimacy.
Now they're playing a team that has a lot of going for it and a lot to play for in the Chargers. This is a great test for the Bengals defense. Herbert has a lot of weapons. He's got a phenomenal running back in Austin Ekeler. As good and as important as the Cincinnati defense has been, it doesn't have a lot of big names and this is another chance to prove they are a more than a defense on the rise.
THE EDGE: This is one of those games I kept going back and forth on. The Chargers are the more desperate team and while the Bengals are a team on the come, they still have a need to prove it week after week. CHARGERS, 28-27
The Chargers have really had a hard time stopping the run. They've been inconsistent, all over the place, especially stopping the run and I think everybody here is anticipating a field day for Joe Mixon. That's any Chargers fan's biggest fear. We've seen it happen a few times with those teams where they can't stop the run, then they can't get the ball back. They can't stop teams on third down. Second worst in the league in third down defense, so they can't get the ball back for their big weapon, Herbert. That's the fear everybody has here is that the Bengals are just going to dominate the ball, control the game and win that way.
The rain could have an impact on the Chargers' passing game. They just haven't been on the field enough to score enough. Linval Joseph, their big run stopper in the middle, is out again on the COVID list. He hasn't practiced all week. That's a big loss. They need all the help they can get up there.
THE EDGE: The Bengals are just playing better now. I could see the Chargers having a hard time getting enough possessions if they can't stop the run and can't get off the field, which have been their big issues. BENGALS, 35-28
This game is going to very tough for the Chargers. They aren't playing well and I think the Bengals remember what happened after the Baltimore game with a convincing win. How they may have lost just a little bit of that edge. I think they're out to prove they are still locked in and the Chargers are still trying to find themselves. The Bengals have a few key injuries, obviously, but I think the way this team is playing right now and remembering they can't let up, it's going to be tough for the Chargers on the road.
The Bengals have a couple of things in their favor. This offense is clicking from the standpoint that Joe Burrow has to be one of the best leveraging what the defense gives you, as evidenced by Tee Higgins' performance last week. It could be Tyler Boyd this week. It could be C.J. Uzomah. The running game is right where it needs to be. Joe Mixon is pounding the rock as effectively as I've seen. Because of that play-action in the hands of Joe Burrow, it puts the defense in a decided disadvantage. The Chargers' biggest problem is stopping an offense that doesn't give you the same thing every week.
THE EDGE: The Chargers can put some points on the board, but I think this Bengals offense with Joe Mixon will really stymie them. BENGALS, 31-17
THE BOTTOM LINE
This could go a couple of different ways, couldn't it?
We could have the smoke clearing for Sunday's final play after Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert have racked up something like a 38-36 scoreboard in their first meeting.
No doubt the Chargers would love to draw the Bengals into that kind of seven-on-seven track meet to protect their last-in-the-league run defense and to make sure they get Herbert on the field more than their average time of possession of 28:59.
And they can tempt the Bengals by loading the box against the run in front of a secondary that includes backup second-year cornerback Tevaughn Campbell playing in place of the injured Asante Samuel. When foes throw in Campbell's direction, Pro Football Focus has them for a 107 passer rating, although he has yet to allow a touchdown.
But the numbers would suggest the Bengals have a chance to replicate what they did the last two weeks when they made sure they exploited a suspect run defense and allowed opposing offenses on the field for an average of just 23:40 in winning by a combined 50 points.
That is certainly how teams are attacking Herbert. By keeping him on the bench. Last week, the Broncos rushed for 147 yards and Herbert had the ball barely half the game in the loss that dropped them to 6-5. The week before that, the Steelers ran for just 55 yards, allowing Herbert to win by putting up 41 points in nearly 33 minutes of possession.
The Patriots held him to 24 points and got a 27-24 win when they rushed for 163 yards and kept the ball more than 35 minutes. You know what the Ravens did holding the Chargers to a touchdown in just 22 minutes of possession in a 34-6 win spiced by 187 rush yards.
You have to do that to the Chargers because Herbert is unconscious. He tortured the Steelers not only with his prolific passing, but 90 yards rushing. Cleveland rushed for 230 yards, but he still beat them by putting up 47 points in just 23:32.
Just how fluid the Bengals offense is going to be remains to be seen. Their moves on Saturday indicated they'll have a new look offensive line because of ankle injuries to right tackle Riley Reiff and center Trey Hopkins. They promoted tackle Keaton Sutherland from the practice squad, which may be a harbinger of a matchup between old Ohio State teammates. If Reiff can't go, Isaiah Prince would face off against elite pass rusher Joey Bosa and his 7.5 sacks.
The Chargers have weapons, too. Flanked by elite receivers in in the crafty veteran Keenan Allen and the explosive big body of Mike Williams and a slippery runner in Austin Ekeler and his dangerous seven touchdowns each rushing and receiving, Herbert has steered the Chargers to a No. 8 ranking in offense.
In their two appearances against top ten offenses this season (the Ravens and Raiders), the Bengals defense has responded by holding them to a combined three touchdowns. They're coming off a particularly stingy stretch, allowing just two touchdowns in the last two games, both in the fourth quarter.
A Sunday game for a West Coast team in Cincinnati has given the Bengals a slight edge in this century at PBS. But not against the Chargers.
They're 10-8 overall in those games, but 2-4 against San Diego/Los Angeles at home, including last year's 16-13 loss in the opener that passed the torch to the Burrow. The Philip Rivers Chargers came east to catch the favored Bengals napping in a 2013 Wild Card Game, a game in which the rookie Keenan Allen just had just three targets.
That's because Rivers threw just 16 passes all day in racking up 27 points. Now the two teams face another Wild Card Game of sorts at PBS in another early Sunday game in an unpredictable season of head scratchers.
And no one knows if this one is going to be a shootout or grind job. But one thing is for sure. Herbert is going to throw more than 16 passes. Just how many good ones is up to the Bengals.