There might be no team in the NFL as hot as Cincinnati is right now. The Bengals have won three straight games by at least 18 points for the first time since 1976 and now control their playoff destiny.
But to paraphrase Earl Weaver, momentum lasts only until the next game. The Bengals travel to San Diego this week to face a reeling—but still very dangerous—Charger squad.
Let’s take a look at the keys to the game for Cincinnati.
The common denominator in all three wins during the streak for the Bengals has been the fact that they have taken control early. There was no need for late-game heroics. These games were over by the fourth quarter.
Cincinnati will need that kind of effort against San Diego. While the Chargers are just 4-7, they still feature one of the more talented rosters in the league. The Bengals need to take them out of the game before halftime.
The San Diego quarterback is in the midst of the worst season of his pro career but that doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous. A team that takes Rivers lightly ends up with a loss.
Rivers has thrown 14 interceptions and fumbled four times thanks to a shaky offensive line and bad decisions. The Bengals’ biggest strength is the defensive line and that unit has made life terrible for Eli Manning, Matt Cassel and Carson Palmer in recent weeks. It needs to do so again to Rivers on Sunday.
Gates is no longer the best tight end in the game but he is still capable dominating an opponent with his combination of speed and size.
Gates will be matched up with linebackers all game and Rivers will look to him as a safety valve against the Bengals’ pass rush. Those linebackers will need to keep Gates in check and not let him break loose.
A.J. Green’s streak of games with a touchdown reception ended last week and even though he had over 100 yards against the Raiders, he caught only three passes.
Green is one of the top weapons in the league and he is a mismatch against any team he faces. The Bengals have been at their best when they have targeted their superstar early and often as they have in recent weeks. They need to do that again on Sunday.
The Bengals have been winning the special teams battle lately and that has led to several game-changing plays. Simply put, quality special teams play leads to wins.
In a game against a desperate team like San Diego, special teams could be the difference. It’s an area Cincinnati needs to win.
Coach Marvin Lewis has called for fake punts and has gone for it in fourth down several times this season, and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has mixed up the playbook with a “gadget” play every now and then.
Not every ploy has worked but it has set a tone for each game that the Bengals have matched. Don’t let up on the accelerator now. Mash down and keep humming along.