The football gods expressed forgiveness with a gap-toothed smile as the Bengals got off to a lucky start in the first quarter; the type of forgiveness needed after a Wild Card loss 623 days ago. Cincinnati, heavily favored with a top-10 offense and a third-ranked defense in that January 2014 game, was smacked in the mouth by the Chargers during a 20-0 second half run to win 27-10 during the 2013 Wild Card game.
Not this time.
After a lethargic third-and-out by the offense, Kevin Huber sailed a 44-yard punt with 13:45 remaining in the first quarter. Keenan Allen muffed the catch, which was recovered by Emmanuel Lamur. Two plays later, Andy Dalton found A.J. Green, who sprinted into the end zone from the slot with Brandon Flowers in single coverage. Cincinnati took a 7-0 lead with Green's 16-yard touchdown reception; his first of the season.
San Diego responded with a nine-play drive and a 40-yard field goal, reducing Cincinnati's lead to 7-3. Quarterback Philip Rivers' streak of completed passes was snapped at 22, which ranks third in NFL history.
After Cincinnati and San Diego exchanged fumbles - Jeremy Hill lost the football when his leg was rolled up, and Wallace Gilberry forced a strip sack which was recovered by Chris Carter. The Bengals marched down the field but failed to generate points; Mike Nugent sailed a 36-yard miss with 14:47 remaining in the second. San Diego bit into Cincinnati's lead during their ensuing possession, scoring another three points with a 32-yard Josh Lambo field goal.
Cincinnati added another touchdown drive, highlighted by a 45-yard touchdown throw to Marvin Jones with 6:01 remaining in the first half. Jones sprinted past Brandon Jones in single-coverage, securing his first touchdown since Dec. 29, 2013.
The Bengals would maintain a 14-6 lead until San Diego's well-orchestrated possession to open the third quarter. Generating four first downs during the first seven plays; the Chargers quickly reached Cincinnati's 10-yard line. Philip Rivers easily connected with Stevie Johnson, who navigated around blocks on the wide receiver screen and double-tapped the end zone, reducing Cincinnati's lead to 14-13.
With 7:53 remaining in the third quarter, Cincinnati had already pocketed a first down and reached their own 43-yard line. Andy Dalton pitched the football to Jeremy Hill on a sweep to the right. Unfortunately, Hill juggled the football, gift-wrapping another turnover for the Chargers' defense. Thankfully, with the help of a Carlos Dunlap sack, Cincinnati's defense nullified Hill's turnover and forced a field goal attempt, which sailed wide left.
Mike Nugent added a field goal with 2:44 remaining in the third, expanding Cincinnati's lead 17-13 with the help of a Jake Fisher 31-yard reception. Fisher, who had significant contributions as a sixth-lineman on Sunday, has experience as a former tight end. Unable to punch it in the end zone, Nugent converted the 21-yarder.
Fast-forward to the 11:50 mark in the fourth quarter, where Geno Atkins muscled his way into Philip Rivers' flaky pocket while Carlos Dunlap looped around to sack Rivers on San Diego's two-yard line. After punting the football back to the Bengals, Cincinnati opened their ensuing possession from the Chargers' 38-yard line where Bernard diced through the line of scrimmage for a 26-yard sprint to the Chargers' 12-yard line. A hold, missed throws and a few yards here and there put Cincinnati in a third-and-goal situation from the nine-yard line. Dalton expertly guided the football toward the back right corner where Tyler Eifert secured the football, giving Cincinnati a 24-13 lead with 8:49 remaining in the game.
San Diego made the game interesting with a 40-yard touchdown throw to Malcom Floyd with 4:27 remaining in the the game, reducing Cincinnati's lead to 24-19. Leon Hall stuck Keenan Allen short of the line of scrimmage, preventing the two-point conversion, which was significant because it forced San Diego to score a touchdown to win.
Eventually the Bengals drive stalled and Kevin Huber tried dropping a sand wedge at the five-yard line. It entered the end zone. San Diego had 1:09 remaining without any timeouts, from their own 20-yard line. Following a limited gain by Danny Woodhead, Rivers threw the football over the middle of the field where linebacker Vincent Rey intercepted the football for the win.
Bengals WIN!! Interception by Vinny Rey. https://t.co/I54GvwBuGI— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) September 20, 2015
NEXT WEEK: The Bengals head to Baltimore for an AFC North battle against the Ravens with a scheduled 1 p.m. kickoff time.
INACTIVE: For the second time in as many weeks, wide receivers Greg Little and Mario Alford were listed as inactive. In combination with Marvin Jones and Giovani Bernard, Rex Burkhead was the fifth receiver (in no particular order obviously), while tight end C.J. Uzomah, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson and defensive end Margus Hunt sat for a second time this season. Cornerback Josh Shaw was listed as active, despite being listed as questionable on Friday.