The Cincinnati Bengals travel to San Diego on the team's longest road trip this season to face a Chargers team that's re-energized after a big win on the road against AFC West rival Kansas City.
The Bengals lead the AFC North at 7-4, but will have to hold off hard-charging division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh down the stretch for the division title.
Cincinnati should be well-rested coming out of a bye week. But the Bengals have struggled under coach Marvin Lewis in those situations, posting a 3-6-1 record during his tenure after bye weeks.
At 5-6, San Diego needs a win to stay in the hunt for the final AFC wild-card berth. The Chargers finish with four of their final five games at Qualcomm Stadium.
ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey break down the matchup:
Williams: Coley, what's going on with Andy Dalton? In the past three games, he's thrown eight picks versus just five touchdowns. He's been sacked 10 times during that stretch, posting a nose-pinching passer rating of 55.7. The Bengals are 1-2 in their past three games. Can Cincinnati make a deep playoff run with this guy?
Harvey: Very good question, Eric. If you pose that question to fans, you'll get a resounding ... well, maybe you don't want to hear their answers. While Dalton has his supporters, the naysayers have all the clout right now and with good reason. His November numbers, particularly when compared to his red-hot October that saw the Bengals win four games before Halloween, have folks here somewhat discouraged when they think about Dalton being behind center when the postseason begins. Dalton has run into a tough combination of awful late-season weather and a slew of blitz-happy teams. Five weeks ago, in arguably his best game of the season, Dalton aired it out for 323 yards and five touchdowns. Receiver and Southern California native Marvin Jones was his favorite target. He faced a Jets defense that primarily rushed with its stout defensive line. Since then, the Dolphins, Ravens and Browns have brought pressure from multiple angles. Combined with windy conditions in the latter two games, Dalton just hasn't played like he did a few weeks earlier.
Bengals fans definitely were watching the conclusion of Sunday's Chargers-Chiefs game, and many came away with one question following Philip Rivers' impressive comeback drive: Who is this guy? It seems that after a comparatively down season last year, Rivers is enjoying a true renaissance. What explains his play this year? I see his sacks are down. Does improved offensive line play have anything to do with it?
Williams: It's really been a combination of things. First, coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt tailored the offense to accentuate the strengths of Rivers' skill set -- accuracy on short-to-medium throws and decision-making. Rivers makes more calls at the line of scrimmage this season, and he's getting the ball out quickly. The result has been a career-high 70.8 completion percentage. As you mentioned, the offensive line has done a much better job of protecting Rivers, allowing just 20 sacks this season (No. 4 in the NFL). Tight end Antonio Gates is healthy and back to playing at a Pro Bowl level. And running back Danny Woodhead, along with receivers Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal, is good at creating explosive plays with his legs after the catch.
The progress of middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict has been interesting to watch from afar. Teams passed on the Arizona State product because of perceived attitude and work ethic issues. But Marvin Lewis took a chance on him as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2011. And Burfict appears to have thrived under Lewis' mentorship. What type of impact has Burfict had on the performance of Cincinnati's defense?
Harvey: My instinct is to say that Burfict is the Cincinnati defense. With a league-leading 118 tackles and on pace for more than 170, Burfict has been the pacesetter in the heart of one of the NFL's best units. He's the true definition of an enforcer and has become a modified James Harrison. He's just as intimidating as Harrison, the Cincinnati strongside linebacker who was signed in the offseason. He's becoming just as feared, too. Asked earlier this week about the league's most feared players, some Bengals wanted to add Burfict to that list. Still, I can't in good conscience say he is the defense because the Bengals have been forced into making a slew of key adjustments throughout the course of the season. Without Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, veterans Leon Hall and Robert Geathers, and the versatile Taylor Mays, the Bengals have still maintained their ranking among the league's top 10 defenses.
San Diego has some impressive wins this season. Obviously one of them came last week against the Chiefs, and another against the Colts last month. The Chargers have had some head-scratching losses, too. Dropping games to the Texans and Redskins probably isn't helping their playoff chances. What do you think explains the inconsistency?
Williams: McCoy is in the process of creating an identity for this team, which has led to some questionable decision-making at times in close games. The most obvious example is San Diego's failure to make what would have been a winning score from a yard out against Washington. After failing to get in on three chances, the Chargers settled for a field goal and lost in overtime. McCoy didn't hand the ball to every-down back Ryan Mathews once during that play sequence. The Chargers have struggled to close out games in McCoy's first year. In four of the team's six losses, San Diego has had the ball on the final drive with a chance to tie or win the game in regulation. The Chargers are playing a lot of young guys on both sides of the ball, which leads to inconsistent play.
How have the Bengals made up for the absence of the team's best defensive player in Atkins, who suffered a season-ending ACL knee injury?
Harvey: In order to absorb the loss of Atkins, the Bengals have moved backup tackle Brandon Thompson into the All-Pro's spot. A second-year lineman out of Clemson, Thompson had already been playing well before he was called upon to fill in for Atkins, but he's been even better since moving into the starting lineup, plugging holes and springing linebackers like Burfict and Vincent Rey for big tackles and sacks. Along with moving Thompson into a bigger role, the Bengals have plugged in some defensive ends such as Wallace Gilberry and rookie Margus Hunt into Atkins' position.
This week, though, the Bengals appear to have a little good news on the injury front. Defensive tackle Devon Still is expected to return from a dislocated elbow that he suffered against Detroit.
The Bengals can get production from a host of playmakers in their multiple-threat offense. The Chargers seem to have a similar combination of receivers and running backs and, of course, Gates. What does San Diego's offensive identity appear to be? Is it safe to consider it a team set on spreading the ball and points around?
Williams: I think that's fair. The Chargers run an up-tempo offense predicated on quick throws and getting the ball into the hands of playmakers like Allen, Royal and Woodhead. Like any NFL offense, San Diego wants to find matchups it can win each week, so the player who ends up with the most catches changes from week to week. While San Diego is a pass-first offense, McCoy also wants to create balance, which means using a power running game to complement what the Chargers do in the pass game. This season, San Diego has done that well with Mathews rushing for 731 yards in 11 games, averaging 4.4 yards a carry. Mathews' effectiveness has helped San Diego keep opposing defenses honest.