POSTSEASON IMPLICATIONS: With the Bengals cruising towards the postseason, the Baltimore Ravens are inching closer in their rear-view mirror after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night. If Cincinnati loses this weekend in San Diego, the Ravens essentially are tied with the Bengals for the AFC north if the season were to end today -- Baltimore holds the head-to-head tiebreaker, which makes Cincinnati's regular season finale their biggest game of the season at this point.
Cincinnati still has the Indianapolis Colts, Ravens, and Pittsburgh Steelers on their schedule, so that road will be difficult with statement games every weekend. For those of you telling everyone that the "season is early" during losses to the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins, this is what people were talking about.
Ultimately, Cincinnati controls their own destiny. A win this weekend maintains the two-game lead with four to play. And Baltimore is hardly facing a schedule that will enable a season-ending run with games against the Patriots, Lions and the Bengals.
San Diego, on the other hand, has something to play for. They are one of six teams in the AFC that's currently one game out of the second wild card (sixth seed) and despite losing three of their last four, San Diego is building confidence after a last-second touchdown drive to beat the injury-riddled Kansas City Chiefs defense last weekend.
THE PERFECT STORM FOR THE OFFENSE: San Diego's offense is lethal, namely quarterback Philip Rivers holding top-ten rankings in virtually every major passing category. They're ranked sixth, averaging over 400 yards passing but employ a running game viewed as average (ranked 17th), though it's probably the best Cincinnati has seen for some time.
On the other hand, San Diego's defense is the polar opposite of their offense. Whereas the offense ranks sixth in the NFL, their defense is 29th, with a passing defense that's allowing 276 yards per game (27th) and 18 touchdowns (t-16th), and an opposing quarterback rating of 102.7 (second to last).
Heading into the final quarter of the season, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (and the entire offense really) needs a confidence boost after struggling over the past three games -- and by struggling, we're talking about mental errors with penalties, turnovers, poor reads on option routes, dropped passes, and pass protection. They're averaging 393.2 yards per game over their last six, so yardage isn't a problem.
Along with a bye week to clear their collective heads to find solutions to their issues over November, the Bengals offense has an opportunity to set the stage for the rest of the year.
INJURIES COULD CATCH UP WITH THE DEFENSE: And Cincinnati may need their offensive firepower to hit on all cylinders this weekend. Vontaze Burfict is a game-time decision after suffering an ankle sprain during Friday's practice. He was sporting a protective boot following the session and during their trip to San Diego. He's currently listed as questionable heading into Sunday's 4:25 p.m. (ET) kickoff.
Cincinnati has already lost their best defensive tackle in Geno Atkins, their best cornerback in Leon Hall and their role player in Taylor Mays for the season. At some point you have to wonder how much longer Cincinnati can sustain those injuries, especially when their leading tackler could be out this weekend (and who knows for how long). If Burfict is unable to go, figure that Vincent Rey moves to weakside backer with the return of Rey Maualuga in the middle.
And for all we know, the momentary loss of Burfict could be extremely temporary to limit the impact of the injury -- he could even play against the Chargers. However, Rey is having a breakout season, so to speak, and Maualuga was playing the best ball in his career prior to the MCL sprain against the New York Jets. How will come back?