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NFL Preview - San Diego (8-6) at Cincinnati (3-11)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - If it all seems somehow familiar, it should.
The San Diego Chargers, left for dead by some after a floundering start to the 2010 season, have caught fire in the second half and are making an all-out push for inclusion when the AFC playoff field is cast in stone come the first few days of January.
Problem is, based on last week at least, they're not getting a lot of help.
After past years in which all the right dominoes seemed to fall into place to guarantee a berth for head coach Norv Turner & Co., the Week 15 schedule instead saw all the teams that San Diego could have used a loss from would up winning, making the Chargers' road to redemption that much more bumpy.
San Diego is a game out of the AFC West lead with two to play, but is buoyed by the fact that it would come out on top in any two-way tie with the division's current front-runners, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Meanwhile, it appears San Diego's Wild Card ship has all but sailed after wins by Baltimore and the New York Jets last week, giving each a two-game bulge on the Chargers with two games remaining.
So while it may mean nothing if the Chiefs, Ravens and Jets continue to handle their own business elsewhere, a San Diego win this Sunday against the woeful Cincinnati Bengals is nonetheless as mandatory as it gets at this time of December.
"We can only worry about ourselves," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "We must get to 10-6 and see if it is enough."
Meanwhile, the Chargers' foes this week are simply in "play out the string and be respectable" mode.
Cincinnati finally ended an inglorious 10-game losing streak last week, getting 150 rushing yards from Cedric Benson in a 19-17 triumph over in-state rival Cleveland that was its first since Sept. 26.
The effort pushed Benson over the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season, making the first time the one-time high draft pick of the Chicago Bears has strung together two straight four-digit campaigns in his career.
Still, the Bengals will be without their most wordy weapon this week after wide receiver Terrell Owens was shelved for the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee suffered in the Cleveland game. Owens ends the year just 17 yards short of his 10th season of 1,000 or more receiving yards.
As for the team's other outspoken wideout, Chad Ochocinco, he was blasted as being "mopey" by head coach Marvin Lewis during a mid-week media conference call.
Johnson is questionable this week with an ankle injury.
"Well, he's being his mopey self," Lewis said. "Hopefully, he can pull himself out of it and move forward. When things don't go Chad's way, that's kinda how it happens. I don't deal with it. We just move on. We'll put a new guy in there. If he's not ready to go Sunday, we'll have somebody in there ready to go and go from there."
The Chargers took a 19-10 lead in their overall regular-season series with Cincinnati following a 27-24 win at Qualcomm Stadium during Week 15 of last season, with kicker Nate Kaeding's 52-yard field goal with three seconds left providing the deciding points. San Diego also registered a wild 49-41 victory in its last stop at Paul Brown Stadium, which occurred in 2007, and has come out on top in each of its three most recent visits to Cincinnati. The road team has prevailed in three of the past four meetings between the teams.
San Diego and Cincinnati also played a memorable playoff contest in 1981, with the Bengals earning a 27-7 win in the 1981 AFC Championship Game at Riverfront Stadium. The recorded temperature for that contest 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.
Last year's matchup was the first against Cincinnati in Turner's 13-year career as a head coach. Lewis is 1-2 lifetime versus the Chargers and 0-1 in head-to- head games with Turner.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
The Chargers have been electrifying in terms of ball movement, ranking in the league's top three in scoring (27.7 ppg, third overall), total yardage (297.8 ypg, second) and passing (284.8 ypg, second). They've struggled only in moving it via the ground, where a 113.0 yards per game average is good for just 14th among 32 teams. The Bengals have shown an equal tendency to have the ball moved well against them, as per-game rates of 25.9 points (26th), 342.9 total yards (18th), 222.8 passing yards (17th) and 120.1 rushing yards (22nd) per game shows.
Rivers (4,141 yards) needs 114 passing yards to surpass his career-best of 4,254 from 2009. He joined Dan Fouts as the only players in club history with 4,000 yards in three straight seasons. Rivers is 10-0 as starter on the road in December with 19 touchdown passes, five interceptions and a 99.3 rating. He is 2-0 lifetime versus Cincinnati and aims for a third straight game against the Bengals with 300-plus passing yards and three scoring passes. Running back Mike Tolbert has a career-high 11 rush touchdowns in 2010 and aims for a third straight game with a rushing score. Tight end Antonio Gates leads all AFC players at his position in receiving yards (782) and is first among NFL tight ends in touchdown catches (10), but is not expected to play due to a lingering foot injury. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson had a career-high three touchdown receptions last week and posted his first 100-yard receiving game of the season (112). He had five catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns in his last game against the Bengals.
For Cincinnati, rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap, a second-round choice in April's draft, has six sacks in his past four games and aims for a fifth consecutive game with at least a half-sack. He is second among NFL rookies with seven sacks. Linebacker Dhani Jones leads the team with 113 tackles.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
True to its won-loss record, Cincinnati resides in the lower tier of offensive categories, including scoring (20.1 ppg, 21st overall), total yards (323.1 ypg, 21st) and rushing yards (95.0 ypg, 27th). Passing the ball has been the team's most efficient means of travel, resulting in 228.1 yards per game and a 13th- place standing among the league's 32 teams. The Chargers have maintained a tendency to deny opposing offenses all season, ranking sixth in the league in points allowed (18.6 ppg) while yielding the fewest total yards (259.8 ypg) and passing yards (170.4 ypg) in the NFL. Also, the 89.4 rushing yards they surrender per week is second-best in the league.
In two career games against San Diego, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has completed 58-of-82 passes (70.7 pct.) for 754 yards with five touchdowns, an interception and a 114.6 passer rating. Palmer needs one scoring pass to join Ken Anderson (197) and Boomer Esiason (187) as the only players in club history to reach 150. He has a 97.2 passer rating in his past two games at home. Running back Benson had a season-best 150 rush yards last week and reached the 1,000 mark in consecutive seasons for the first time in his career. He has three rush touchdowns in his past two games. In his past three matchups against the Chargers, wideout Ochocinco is averaging 148.6 receiving yards per game (446 total) and has six touchdown catches over that span. Fellow wideout Andre Caldwell had a season-high 89 receiving yards last week.
As previously noted, San Diego's defense allows NFL-lows in yards per game and passing yards. The Chargers had six sacks last week and rank first in the NFL in that category with 44. Linebacker Shaun Phillips (11) needs one sack to surpass his career-high of 11 1/2 set in 2006. Cornerback Quentin Jammer had an interception in his last game against Cincinnati.
The Chargers are chock full of options on both sides, with Rivers, Tolbert, Jackson and kicker Kaeding high on all lists, along with the defense. For the Bengals, reach for a number of options with caution, including a less-than- healthy Ochocinco, tight end Jermaine Gresham and kicker Clint Stitser.
One team's pushing for an extended season while the other looks as if it can hardly wait for one to end. Even on the road and even in what might not be typical Southern California weather, it's hard to imagine a scenario where the streaking Chargers don't at least stay viable heading into Week 17.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 30, Bengals 14
12/23 14:31:50 ET