NFL Preview - Cincinnati (9-4) at San Diego (10-3)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - One win shy of a division title, the Cincinnati Bengals knew the obstacle they faced this weekend in a San Diego Chargers team that has won eight games in a row was a big one.
However, some off-the-field tragedy might have made securing that victory even tougher.
Cincinnati takes the field this Sunday at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium for the first time since the death of wide receiver Chris Henry, who passed way on Thursday from injuries suffered after falling out of the back of a pickup truck the previous day.
Henry, who was 26, was hurt during a domestic dispute with his fiancee, according to police. It marks the second time tragedy has struck the Bengals this year, as defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife Vikki passed away suddenly on October 8.
Cincinnati picked up a victory for Zimmer three days later over Baltimore, and will try to honor Henry in the same way this weekend.
Henry's death unfortunately ends what had been a successful comeback to football. Although his season ended when he suffered a fractured left forearm in Week 9, the fact that he was even on the Bengals' roster was amazing. Cincinnati decided to give the West Virginia product yet another chance in the offseason despite numerous arrests and suspensions during his previous four seasons with the club, a tenure that had seemed to end for good following his release from the team in April.
And while Henry, a 2005 third-round pick, was attempting to make himself relevant in the NFL again, he was also trying to help the Bengals shake their losing stigma. Cincinnati's next win, or another loss by Baltimore, will give the Bengals their first division title since 2005 and just the team's second in the last 19 seasons.
The Bengals could have won the AFC North last week, but lost in Minnesota by a 30-10 score, while the Ravens didn't do their part by routing the Detroit Lions. The setback was just the Bengals' second in their last seven games and second straight on the road.
Cincinnati (9-4) was flagged 11 times, was held to just 210 yards of offense -- including a season-low 94 passing yards by quarterback Carson Palmer -- and the NFL's previously top-ranked scoring defense yielded a season high in points.
The Bengals' defense will try to recover against a Chargers team that has won 16 straight games in the month of December. San Diego's current eight-game overall winning streak is also the team's longest since a 10-game run to close out the 2006 regular season.
Quarterback Philip Rivers has been under center since the start of this December winning streak, throwing for 3,498 yards and 28 touchdowns with eight interceptions during his personal 16-0 mark as a starter in December. He passed for 272 yards with a touchdown and a pick in last weekend's 20-17 road win versus the Dallas Cowboys.
That victory gave 10-3 San Diego a two-game lead over Denver for first place in the AFC West. That means the Chargers can clinch a playoff spot with a win this Sunday, while a Broncos loss would give San Diego its fourth straight division title despite the outcome of this game.
San Diego can also clinch a first-round bye with a win and a loss or tie by both Denver and New England.
Cincinnati will try to prevent that and give head coach Marvin Lewis a milestone win in the process. Lewis will pass former head coach Paul Brown's 55 career triumphs for second on the team's all-time list with his next victory. Sam Wyche holds the team record with 64 wins as a head coach.
The Chargers lead the all-time regular season series with the Bengals, 18-10, including a 49-41 road victory when the clubs last met, in 2007. Cincinnati won the previous matchup, a 34-27 affair in San Diego in 2003. The road team has won the last three games in the series since a San Diego win over Cincinnati at Qualcomm Stadium in 2003.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams played a memorable playoff contest, with Cincinnati earning a 27-7 home victory in the 1981 AFC Championship. The recorded temperature for that game was nine degrees below zero with a -59 wind chill, making it the second-coldest NFL game on record behind the fabled "Ice Bowl," between the Packers and Cowboys in 1967.
Lewis is 1-1 against the Chargers as a head coach. San Diego's Norv Turner will be meeting the Bengals and Lewis for the first time in his 12-year career as a head coach.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Though Cedric Benson and the Bengals' sixth-ranked rushing attack (132.8 yards per game) largely held their own versus a tough Vikings run defense last weekend, Cincinnati must find a way to get its passing game on track. That may prove difficult with Henry's death lingering, but perhaps the club can draw inspiration from the former wideout. The Bengals are just 23rd in the NFL with an average of 189.8 passing yards per game, and Palmer (2641 passing yards, 17 TD, 10 INT) has failed to top 200 yards passing in three of his last five outings. He did complete a 15-yard touchdown pass last week to Chad Ochocinco (65 receptions, 7 TD), who was held to just three catches for 27 yards. The two have done well versus the Chargers before. Palmer, a California native and USC product, threw for a career-high 440 yards and three touchdowns in his only other meeting with the Chargers, while Ochocinco has 367 receiving yards and five touchdowns in his last two games against San Diego. Fellow wideout Andre Caldwell (43 receptions, 3 TD) had four catches for 25 yards last weekend, while Benson (1065 rushing yards, 6 TD) ended with 96 yards on 16 carries to go over 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career.
San Diego might not be the best option for Cincinnati to ignore the run against. The Chargers yielded 108 yards on the ground versus the Cowboys and overall rank 21st in rushing defense (117.1 ypg) and 10th versus the pass (207.1 ypg). The Chargers are also yielding 19.9 points per game, good for 14th in the league. San Diego managed just one sack a week ago, by linebacker Brandon Siler (55 tackles, 2 sacks), and is tied for 10th in the league with 31 sacks. The Chargers, though, are tied for just 18th with 11 interceptions and did not pick off Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo once. Chargers safety Paul Oliver (38 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) led the way with seven tackles versus Dallas, while fellow safeties Kevin Ellison (42 tackles) and Steve Gregory (55 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) each had six. Another safety, Eric Weddle (70 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT), is expected to return to action in this game after missing the last two contests with a knee injury. This game will also be worth watching for a potential showdown between linebacker Shawne Merriman (33 tackles, 4 sacks) and Ochocinco, as the two have engaged in a twitter feud this year before Ochocinco said on Wednesday that he wants to fight Merriman. However, it is likely that Ochocinco will be a bit more somber this weekend after his teammate's death.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
The Chargers wouldn't mind turning this game into an aerial shootout, as they rank fourth in the league in points scored (27.8 ppg) and fifth in passing yards per game (266.8). Rivers (3583 passing yards, 22 TD, 7 INT) completed 21 of his 32 pass attempts versus the Cowboys, hitting tight end Antonio Gates for a 14-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and ranks fifth in the NFL in passing yards. His 103.7 passer rating is third-best in the league. The 28-year-old has faced the Bengals just once, throwing for 338 yards with three touchdowns, while he has amassed 15 scoring passes to just four picks over San Diego's current win streak. Gates (71 receptions, 5 TD) and wide receiver Vincent Jackson (58 receptions, 7 TD) are his top two targets. Jackson ended with seven catches for 120 yards versus Dallas, while Gates had four catches. Malcom Floyd (29 receptions, 1 TD) added three receptions for 40 yards. While San Diego ranks just 31st in the NFL in rushing offense (87.5 ypg) and top back LaDainian Tomlinson (611 rushing yards, 10 TD) managed only 50 yards on 21 carries versus Dallas. The former league MVP has scored in five straight games, totaling seven touchdowns in that span.
The Bengals will hope to recover versus the Chargers after their defense was pushed around by the Vikings last weekend. Cincinnati, which is allowing 16.7 points per game, is ranked fifth in total defense (295.5 ypg) and third in defending the run (86.4 ypg), but saw the Vikings post 322 yards of offense last Sunday. Of that total, 142 of those came on the ground with big defensive tackle Domata Peko missing his second straight game due to a knee injury. Dynamic Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson ran for 97 yards and added another 40 yards receiving, though the Bengals did hold quarterback Brett Favre to 192 passing yards while sacking him twice and recording an interception. The Bengals' 15 picks rank eighth in the league, and their 31 sacks are tied for 10th along with San Diego. Linebacker Dhani Jones (90 tackles, 3 sacks) had a team-leading 10 tackles last weekend, corner Leon Hall (56 tackles, 5 INT) had seven tackles and an interception, while defensive tackles Tank Johnson (21 tackles, 2 sacks) and Jonathan Fanene (29 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) had a sack each.
Benson owners should be happy that he continued to get all of the carries last weekend despite the emergence of backup Larry Johnson, and Benson should be again in line for most of the work until Cincinnati claims its playoff spot. Palmer and Ochocinco become wild card's due to their recent struggles and the Henry tragedy. Cincinnati doesn't offer many other options on offense, and the defense could be in line for another high-scoring game and should be avoided. Kicker Shayne Graham got only one opportunity last week and has missed five field goal tries this year.
Once a fantasy stalwart, Tomlinson hasn't put up the yardage he used to, but he continues to rack up touchdowns at an awesome pace. And with Peko out again, Tomlinson could very easily find the end zone in this game. Still, all the fantasy money for the Chargers is on Rivers, Jackson and Gates, three must-starts. With what the Bengals are going through this week, the Chargers defense may benefit with a solid fantasy day. Kicker Nate Kaeding has notched 120 points this year and has missed just three field goals, all from greater than 40 yards, and is an elite fantasy kicker.
With the chance at a first-round bye, one would think the Chargers need this game more than the Bengals, who would need to go on an epic collapse while also seeing the Ravens win out to fail on claiming the division crown. Henry's recent death makes this a tough game to judge, but with two more opportunities to win the AFC North on the field after this one, it is tough to imagine the Bengals clicking at 100 percent this weekend. San Diego will feel for its opponents, but not enough to give this one away.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 20, Bengals 13
12/17 19:01:17 ET