NFL Preview - Cincinnati (7-4) at San Diego (5-6)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The AFC playoff picture figures to get a little clearer on Sunday when the AFC-North leading Cincinnati Bengals visit San Diego in a key intra-conference matchup.
The Bengals are now 1 1/2 games ahead of Baltimore in the North after the Ravens edged Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving Day.
Meanwhile, the Chargers, who are coming off a big 41-38 win at 9-2 Kansas City, are very much in the AFC wild-card race, deadlocked with three other 5-6 teams, one-half game behind the Ravens for the final postseason berth.
The Bengals, who are coming off their bye week, recorded a 41-20 victory over Cleveland in Week 11. In that contest, quarterback Andy Dalton threw three touchdown passes and is now currently third in the AFC with 21 TD throws this season.
"We're in a really good position right now," said Dalton. "For us as a team, we feel like we're in control of everything. And that's where we want to be at this point in the season."
The Bengals used a franchise-record, 31-point second quarter to run away from the Browns. Dalton threw two touchdown passes, Tony Dye returned a blocked punt for a score, Vontaze Burfict returned a fumble for a touchdown and Mike Nugent kicked a field goal in the frame.
Dalton, however, completed just 13-of-27 passes overall for 93 yards and two interceptions for Cincinnati, which improved to 5-0 at home this season.
"This is an urgent month but we have bigger fish to fry," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "We just have to take care of November. This was an important game."
The Chargers, meanwhile, won in KC behind signal caller Philip Rivers, who threw the game- winning 26-yard touchdown pass to Seyi Ajirotutu with 24 seconds remaining.
Rivers finished the day with 392 yards and three touchdowns, his fourth game with at least 390 passing yards in 2013, matching Hall of Famers Dan Marino (1984) and Joe Montana (1990) for the most such games in a single season.
"This is one of those wins you'll never forget," said Rivers. "It was an unbelievable team effort. It's the kind of win that can save a season. Hopefully it can plunge us forward with four of our final five games at home."
Rivers also connected with Ladarius Green on a 60-yard score and Danny Woodhead on an 11-yarder. Ryan Mathews ran for 55 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries before leaving in the third quarter with a hamstring injury and Keenan Allen had nine catches for 124 yards for the Chargers, who snapped a three- game losing streak and kept themselves in contention.
"It's been a tough couple weeks. We've had some difficult losses but the true character of our football team came out today," said Chargers coach Mike McCoy. "The great leadership we have and the perseverance we have as a team, it showed today."
The Chargers lead their all-time series with Cincinnati by a 19-13 margin, but the Bengals have won the last two meetings, 34-20 in Cincinnati in 2010 and 20-13 last year in San Diego.
The series includes one postseason game, a 27-7 Bengals win in the "Freezer Bowl," the 1981 AFC Championship game played in an NFL-record minus-59 degree wind chill at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This shapes up as a battle between Rivers, who is having a Pro-Bowl caliber year, and the talented Bengals defense.
The Cincinnati D, which is seventh in the NFL, allowing 313.1 yards per game, continues to excel despite the absences of three key starters due to injury -- All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, cornerback Leon Hall and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.
Atkins and Hall have been lost for the season, Hall to an Achilles tear on Oct. 20 at Detroit and Atkins to a knee injury (ACL) on Oct. 31 at Miami. Maualuga, meanwhile, has missed the last three games, due to a concussion and knee injury, but is expected to return to action at San Diego.
"The expectation (for the defense) never drops," said LB Vincent Rey, who has replaced Maualuga. "The standard is very high at each position. When you're out there, it's your job to defend your gap and make your plays. The entire defense is counting on you. When I'm out there, the entire defense is counting on me to do my job, so that's what I've got to do."
Corner Adam Jones has stepped in to replace Hall, and second-year pro Brandon Thompson is filling the sizeable gap left by the departure of Atkins.
"He's been strong at the point of the attack," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said of Thompson. "We'll need more of that. He's showed a little more pass rush ability than I anticipated he would. He's a hard worker and keeps pushing the pocket."
Rivers, on the other hand, leads an offense that is sixth overall (407.7 yards per game) and fourth in passing with 296.9 YPG.
The key might be the play in the red zone. With no TDs allowed in three chances against the Browns, the Cincy defense climbed in the NFL's red-zone rankings, moving from 17th to eighth. The Bengals have prevented TDs on half of their opponents' chances, 13-of-26 tries.
Conversely San Diego is seeking significant red-zone improvement, ranking 23rd on offensive TD percentage.
When you flip sides the Chargers are also tied for 23rd on defense inside the 20 while the Bengals rank fourth on offense. As a whole San Diego ranks 27th in the league in defense and is allowing an AFC-worst 389.5 yards per game.
"We've made changes before," McCoy said. "We're going to let the DBs compete this week and we'll find out what we think is the best combination for us. We're going to do what's best moving forward."
On paper this doesn't shape up well for Chargers. The Bengals are back after a restorative bye week while San Diego's woes on the most important part of the field figure to be magnified against an opponent that excels in the same situations.
That said, Dalton has been struggling for a month now and Rivers, who is 26-5 in December games, is having the kind of year where he can will his team to wins on any given Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 23, Bengals 21
11/29 09:37:28 ET