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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (6-5) at San Diego (4-7)
By John McMullen, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - You can bet "4th-and-29" will be prominent when Norv Turner's epitaph is finally written in San Diego.
Norv's Chargers continue to invent new ways to lose as they get ready to host the resurgent Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
The Bengals, who have won three consecutive games and have outscored opponents by a gaudy 21.3 points over that span, currently sit in seventh place on the outside, looking in at the AFC playoff race with just five games to go.
"The anticipation comes down to these last five now and what they mean and how important they are," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. "We're in OK position. We're not in great position, but we're in OK position. And we've got to improve upon it each and every week."
Last week against Baltimore all the Chargers needed to do was stop the aforementioned 4th-and-29 late in the game. San Diego dropped off its entire defense as a preventive measure as Joe Flacco looked on helplessly, almost admitting defeat by checking down to Ray Rice.
The Rutgers product, however, caught it on the right side, and zig-zagged across the field before stretching over the first-down marker, beating half the Chargers defense in the process.
There was a lengthy review to determine whether the spot of the ball was correct, and eventually it was moved back about a half-yard. After resetting the chains to their original position, the spot still left plenty of room for a first down at the San Diego 34.
Rookie kicker Justin Tucker eventually tied the game on the final play of regulation before winning it with 1:07 to play in overtime as Baltimore stole the 16-13 win.
"I guess for you guys (the media), you can say that, and it's easy to say," Turner said when asked if that play defined his team's season. "It's a play we had guys in position to make the play and we didn't handle it very well."
Philip Rivers went 23-for-36 with 228 yards and a touchdown in the loss for the Chargers, who have dropped their past three games. Malcom Floyd caught four passes for 65 yards and a score, while Ryan Mathews had 19 carries for 72 yards in the loss.
"What we're trying to do is find a way to win a game, and that's obviously the frustrating part," Turner said. "We were able to make a couple plays in the first half and we didn't make the same plays in the second half."
San Diego opened the season 3-1 but have since dropped six of seven - with their only win coming against a 1-10 Kansas City team on Nov. 1.
Things are looking much rosier for Cincinnati.
Back on Nov. 10 the Bengals were a floundering 3-5 team in the midst of a disastrous four-game losing streak. A strong performance against the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants ignited things and Cincinnati is now back in the middle of the AFC playoff race as they get ready to visit the reeling Chargers.
Andy Dalton threw three touchdown passes last Sunday and outperformed his predecessor in Cincinnati, Carson Palmer, during the Bengals' 34-10 win over the Oakland Raiders, the third straight win of more than 18 points by the Bengals.
Dalton, who replaced Palmer at quarterback a year ago following the Southern Cal product's ugly split with Cincinnati, threw for 210 yards on 16-of-30 attempts for the Bengals, who are tied with the Steelers for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC but lost to Pittsburgh earlier in the season.
"Andy played very efficiently," Lewis said. "He got us in and out of the right things and handled the line of scrimmage very well."
The red-hot Dalton has nine passing touchdowns with no interceptions during the Bengals' winning streak.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried the ball 19 times for a season-high 129 yards and a score against the Raiders while Cedric Peerman added 61 on eight carries for the Bengals.
"Our ability to run the football really paid dividends," Lewis said.
The Chargers lead their all-time series with the Bengals 19-12, including one postseason game, the famous 1981 AFC Championship Game won by Cincinnati commonly called "The Freezer Bowl."
San Diego has also won five of the past seven, although Cincy took the last encounter, a 34-20 win back on Dec, 26, 2010.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Chargers have actually been quite competitive to this point. They rank just 25th in the NFL in offense, a surprise considering Rivers' previous success, but are a solid 10th in defense.
Though three games under .500 on the season, San Diego has actually outscored its opponents 245-237.
"We have our work cut out for us," Lewis said. "The Chargers are a talented team with an exceptional quarterback (Philip Rivers)."
The Bengals need to continue to combine a solid rushing attack, which garnered 221 yards against Oakland -- the team's most since 253 versus Cleveland in 2004 -- along with stingy third down defense. The Bengals allowed the Raiders to convert only 3-of-12 on football's most important down last Sunday.
"We're starting to find the way we like to play, and that style, that attitude, is key," said Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We've just got to continue to do it"
Cincinnati is a perfect 7-0 when rushing for at least 130 yards since Dalton arrived for the beginning of the 2011 season. The strong running attack enables the second-year signal caller to use play action and get he ball outside the numbers and down the field. Since Week 10 the explosive Bengals offense is averaging 31 points per game, third-best in the NFL.
"We've got to keep this going," Dalton said. "The running game has done a great job the last two weeks. We've got to keep the balance."
The Chargers enter this week's contest banged-up after losing strong safety Atari Bigby to a season-ending groin injury against the Ravens. Bigby's running mate, Pro Bowler Eric Weddle, also suffered a concussion while the team's leading tackler Donald Butler is also expected to miss the game with a groin injury.
"We've lost a lot of guys throughout on offense and on defense, and we have guys that just keep coming in," said Turner. "Obviously, it affects you in certain situations."
Weddle is expected to play, however. A key for a Chargers secondary which will have to deal with Bengals star receiver A.J. Green, who's tied for the NFL lead with 10 TD receptions.
San Diego is an imposing 18-3 in December under Turner so the Bengals need to keep their focus against a team which could be ready to give up under a lame duck coach. The last time Cincy won three straight, however, they followed that up with four consecutive losses.
"I've got to keep pressing and make sure that it's different this time," Lewis said. "We can't have any backslides. What I want to keep seeing is the same resolve I saw in the guys' eyes (against the Raiders). It's going to be December when we get to San Diego, and we want to play our best football in December. We're getting there, and that's what the great teams do."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 21, Chargers 20
11/29 14:38:33 ET