SAN DIEGO -- All week, the Cincinnati Bengals harped on the importance of winning out the remaining five games on their schedule.
They have a chance to do just that beginning Sunday when they make their only West Coast trip of the season, facing the Chargers in San Diego.
If they end up beating the Chargers and igniting a victorious five-game run to close out the regular season, not only will they experience a December truly worth remembering, but the Bengals also likely will have earned home-field advantage in the playoffs and a first-round bye.
With one or both in their possession, a long postseason run could be in the Bengals’ favor.
Before they can really begin thinking of playoff scenarios, though, the AFC North leaders have to take care of business against a club that knows what it takes to beat a division’s top team. Last weekend at Kansas City, the Chargers rallied in the closing minutes to earn a key division win.
When the teams take to Qualcomm Stadium, here are four things you’ll want to watch for:
1 .Third-and-long tendencies. Cincinnati has developed an uncanny knack in recent weeks for not only getting into, but failing to convert third-and-long scenarios. Generally speaking, third downs have been problematic for them since the 49-9 win over the Jets on Oct. 27. In the three games since going 6-for-11 on all third down, the Bengals are 16-for-53 (30.2 percent) on them. That includes a 10-for-20 showing against the Dolphins and a 1-for-14 effort against the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago. Thirty-seven of Cincinnati’s 53 third-down plays in the past three games came at times when the Bengals needed to 5 or more yards to convert a first down. They were 14-for-37 on those long conversions, but also 2-for-16 on third-down conversions of 4 yards or less. Even though they ultimately beat the Browns given their 1-for-14 rating, the Bengals know they won’t normally win with such shoddy third-down play.
2. Bernard vs. Woodhead. The Bengals’ Giovani Bernard and the Chargers’ Danny Woodhead are two players who have drawn comparisons coming into this weekend. Both are shifty, smaller-statured running backs who have played key roles in both teams’ passing games. Part of quarterback Philip Rivers’ resurgence for San Diego this season has been a byproduct of Woodhead’s steady play in the short passing game. His 59 receptions led all running backs entering play this weekend. Bernard’s seven total touchdowns are the most for all rookie running backs. Three of those scores have come off screen passes that his elusive play turned into longer touchdown receptions. Expect both players to have impact in space for their respective offenses.
3. Shifting secondaries. Be on the lookout for the ways the Bengals and Chargers adjust their secondary lineups. Late in the week, San Diego coaches hinted at possible changes coming to their defensive backfield after a somewhat uninspiring performance against Kansas City’s passing offense last week. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was within 6 yards of passing for 300, and he had three passing touchdowns. Kansas City also had three different receivers who caught passes of 20 yards or more. While San Diego will be looking to control the big plays downfield, the Bengals’ adjustments may come at linebacker. On Friday, Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict sprained an ankle and is questionable ahead of this game. If he ends up missing the game or having his playing time diminished due to the injury, the Bengals will have to adjust their linebacker rotation a bit. The timing of an injury is never ideal, but at the very least Cincinnati will be getting Rey Maualuga back from his own knee issue, and Vincent Rey has been playing well of late, too. Now is a better time than before for the Bengals to deal with an injury at linebacker.
4. Another classic battle. Four of the last five Bengals-Chargers games have each been decided by eight points or less. Expect another highly competitive contest when these teams renew what has become a budding rivalry in recent seasons. Offense has been a key component to the series across the last five meetings, in particular. In the 2006 game at Cincinnati, the teams combined for nearly 1,000 yards of total offense. At San Diego last season, BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for more than 100 yards, while Andy Dalton threw for a score and rushed for another. In their five meetings since 2003, the teams have played in Week 10 or later. Once again, they're going against one another with playoff berths still on the line for both. For that reason, expect another classic and close battle.