This week the Bengals travel to the football oasis of San Diego in December. There they will see palm trees, beaches and incredible women, but like Odysseus tied to the mast, they must do whatever it takes to stay the course.
The historical trends aren't encouraging when Cincinnati heads to the Pacific timezone. We fans can downplay those kinds of stats all we want, but the Vegas guys take them seriously for good reason. The weekly routine is different—Marvin Lewis flies his team out there on Friday—and teams find comfort in their routine. Any disruption from the norm can have larger negative consequences, especially for a team on a roll like the Bengals. They were able to overcome the West-Coast blues last year in Seattle, and clearly it can be done again, but it's just one more obstacle to overcome.
Last time they were at The Murph, Chris Henry had just died. The Bengals came up short on a valiant effort against a then high-powered Chargers offense. Later, the Jets would run roughshod over both teams, knocking each from the playoffs. It was a bummer all around.
These are much happier times. Every Bengal is playing well right now. Since the bye week, a switch was flipped and the production is cranking along at season high levels. For the first time in the Andy Dalton era, they feel like a playoff team. They are confident, healthy and extremely dangerous all of a sudden. A team that catches fire like this in December has proven to be a fearsome contender in January and beyond. It's exciting for now, but are they really ready to take that next step? Skepticism abounds.
Despite the pessimistic view of a larger, historical context surrounding the Bengals franchise, there are plenty of good football reasons why Cincinnati should win this week.
The Chargers offense is in a major rut. Their receivers struggle mightily getting open and most meaningful third-down conversions or touchdown passes require perfect throws coupled with spectacular catches. Nothing comes easy to this group. Their most dangerous play is probably a screen pass and they often kill their own drives with dumb penalties. The biggest problem facing San Diego this week, though, is their weak pass protection.
The Bengals front four is high-ranking. They stay in the face of pocket passers and knock them to the ground repeatedly. It's made a once lambasted secondary of slow has-beens into a polished group of savvy veterans. Even the linebackers have stepped it up. All the collective success, though, goes to the pass rushing abilities of the defensive line. It's allowed every other defender to do their jobs better. If the Chargers can't keep Philip Rivers upright in the pocket, then they will have to rely on screens and dump-offs to score touchdowns. Good luck with that.
They do work the sidelines pretty well on out routes and back-shoulder comeback routes, and their receivers are larger prototypes, so don't be surprised to see the taller Dre Kirkpatrick used more this week. He and Terence Newman are both bigger corners who tackle well and can match up well in man coverage against this group, but none of that will matter if Rivers is getting hit every time he drops back.
The San Diego defense is a different story, however. They play the run nicely by staying in their gaps and keeping the ball carrier from getting to the outside. The Bengals finally have their ground game up and running thanks to the stability of the offensive line, but against the Chargers, they may not have the success they've enjoyed the previous two weeks.
On passing downs, San Diego plays man on the outside with their corners, they drop the safeties deep and they zone off the middle with linebackers and nickels. They allow short passes underneath and try to make open-field tackles to prevent first downs. They did a very good job of doing just that last week against the Ravens for about 58 game minutes. Then they allowed Ray Rice to convert on 4th-and-29 on a dump off pass that set up the tying field goal. Charger fans will always be a scarred from that play.
The Bengals should be able to pressure the safeties in two-deep coverage with A.J. Green. If one of the safeties shades to his side, it could leave the middle open deep for someone else like Jermaine Gresham or Andrew Hawkins, and if they don't cheat to A.J.'s side, they're nuts. On the other side, Marvin Jones may finally have the chance to go deep on a somewhat slowish secondary. The Bengals clearly want to get him into matchups where he can win deep. They like his straight-line speed and the team could really excel with another deep threat opposite of Green. That leaves Mohamed Sanu as the other viable option; a man who has flourished in his expanded role since the bye week. Sanu looks to be a terrific possession receiver that becomes extremely valuable in the red-zone. His versatility and ability to take handoffs and even throw the ball makes him a wildcard player that crafty offensive coordinators can have a lot of fun with. Jay Gruden has unveiled Sanu in a variety of ways already this season and there should be more to come. Others can dismiss this receiving corps as random and unproven, but when they are playing to their potential like they have of late, they are as effective as any other group in the league.
This marks the fourth week in row where the Bengals opposition is coming off of a loss, and like last week with Oakland, there are questions about the psyche of the Chargers. Norv Turner sits in a boiling witches cauldron of hot water and could be fired at any minute, really. The scene in San Diego has soured over the years and the whole Turner, Rivers, Gates thing feels old and stale. The fans have given up on the team and it seems like only a matter of time before the team gives up on its coach. If the Bengals get an early lead, it may be too much for the Chargers to emotionally deal with and they might just pack it in for the season. Playing for a lame-duck coach can't be a good time for the players and eventually they will begin to ask themselves what the point is. It's a bad scene in San Diego, despite all of it's natural beauty and climate there.
Ultimately, I think the Bengals overcome the jet-lag and all the exotic temptations. I see them handling business over a team that is crumbling at the end of a coaching era. I don't think it will be a blowout, but it won't feel all that close either. The Bengals will continue to win the turnover battle which will keep the spread manageable for Cincinnati throughout. This is team in full momentum, steam-rolling along. A fourth consecutive win would speak volumes to me. Perhaps they're ready even if no one else is. We shall see.
Bengals 24, Chargers 16
Mojokng—with beeswax in my ears.