Rivers, Chargers continue playoff march, slumping Cincy braces for impact
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If there is an antithesis to the Los Angeles Chargers and their turnaround season, a contradiction to a team that started slow and has come on like gangbusters, it is a Cincinnati Bengals team that will limp into Southern California this week looking lost and bewildered.
While the Chargers opened with a 1-2 record and had belief in themselves tested, the Bengals opened the year 4-1 and were overflowing with optimism. The Charges are 9-3; the Bengals have slipped to 5-7.
When the teams meet Sunday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., it will be the Chargers who will not only be a heavy favorite, they will have a chance to send another message to the top teams in the NFL that a playoff menace awaits.
A Bengals team that has lost six of its last seven games will be guided by a backup quarterback in Jeff Driskel, who has taken over for an injured Andy Dalton, with a gameplan being drawn up by a coach in Marvin Lewis who could be wrapping up his tenure in Cincinnati.
"The least of my worries," Lewis said about job security this week. "... My job is to coach the football team."
The Chargers can expect a Bengals team this weekend that will play with nothing to lose, especially with Cincinnati coming off four double-digit defeats in its last six games. The most recent came Sunday at home in an uninspired 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos. In addition to the result, the Bengals took another hit with the loss of wide receiver A.J. Green. He's on injured reserve awaiting season-ending toe surgery.
The Bengals committed 12 penalties Sunday, eight in the first half (two others were declined in the opening two quarters). Going back another week, the Bengals have committed 25 penalties in consecutive games.
"(The Chargers) have good players and it starts with those two guys off the edge (Melvin) Ingram and (Joey) Bosa," said Driskel, as he prepares for his second career start. "They're not a very complicated defense but they are good at what they do. We have some stuff to attack what they do, but you have to take what the defense gives you and they are kind of a bend-don't-break defense."
Coincidentally enough, it was a defeat to the Broncos that seems to have resurrected a sense of urgency in the Chargers.
When the Broncos pulled off a 23-22 victory in Los Angeles on Nov. 18 with a field goal as time expired, it ended the Chargers' six-game winning streak. The Chargers not only rebounded to beat a heavy underdog Arizona Cardinals team 45-10, they won at Pittsburgh 33-30 last weekend while overcoming a 17-point deficit.
Sunday's game against the Bengals will be the Chargers' final tuneup before a Dec. 13 clash with the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs on national television.
Sunday also figures to be the second consecutive game the Chargers will play without running back Melvin Gordon, who came away with a sprained knee ligament in the defeat to the Cardinals. Gordon has not officially been ruled out for Sunday, but his return is expected for the showdown with the Chiefs.
In falling behind 23-7 at halftime to the Steelers, the Chargers had just two yards rushing on nine attempts without Gordon.
"When you don't have a run game that's the kind of game you get yourself into," Chargers center Mike Pouncey said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "You can't win many games like that. It wasn't anything with the play-calling. It was us up front."
Don't expect the Chargers to have the same issues again, not against a Bengals run defense that is dead last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game at 153.3. Only one team has given up more rushing touchdowns than the Bengals' 16.
Outside of Gordon, who did not practice Wednesday, the Chargers looked relatively healthy. Tight end Sean Cuklin (back) also did not practice. Those limited at practice included cornerback Trevor Williams (knee) and nose tackle Brandon Mebane (not injury related). Full participants included running back Austin Ekeler (ankle) and center Pouncey (ankle).
Bengals players who did not participate in practice Wednesday included linebacker Vontaze Burfict (concussion), offensive tackle Cordy Glenn (back), cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (ankle) and cornerback Tony McRae (concussion). Limited in practice were defensive end Carlos Dunlap (hip), defensive end Michael Johnson (pectoral), wide receiver Josh Malone (hamstring) and running back Joe Mixon (foot).