To clear up a common misconception this year, the Chargers are not a bad team. San Diego is a team that has fallen victim to several close games going the opposite way. Namely, the Ravens, Broncos (twice), Saints and Browns. Even the Buccaneers match was a close game until Philip Rivers threw the late interception.
If any play could sum up the Chargers season, it happened last week against Baltimore. On a 4th down, and with 29 yards to go, Joe Flacco completed a dump pass to Ray Rice, who promptly sprinted thirty yards downfield.
The Chargers had a chance to close it out, and couldn’t, which holds true for many of their losses. A 24-0 lead against the Broncos fell apart, and they couldn’t find the play to close out the Buccaneers' game.
Their record stands at 4-7, but they could easily be 6-5 right now, and in a very similar position that Cincinnati finds itself in this week.
Of course, records can’t be changed.
There are several things the Bengals need to do in order to avoid a loss in San Diego. The first is to utilize the passing game efficiently. The Chargers are ranked 5th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, but only 19th against the pass.
Cincinnati will want to use the quick pass to open things up, and gradually open the playbook to include more running plays and deep passes. This is a tactic that will effectively stretch the middle of the field, which will compliment more runs in between the tackles by BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the second half.
Another key to a Bengals victory is their pass rush.
San Diego has struggled with the running game all year. Ryan Mathews is a solid back, and has a lot of potential in space. He actually recalls some memories of Darren Sproles’ running form, as he is often used in screens and on half-back runs to the outside gaps.
However, the Chargers’ play-calling has been angled towards the pass attack of Philip Rivers this season. Rivers has been average, but the Chargers rely on his play more than anyone else on the team. If he has a good game, the Bolts can be explosive. Which is why the Bengals need to be able to put effective pressure on him through all four quarters.
Cincinnati’s coverage in the secondary has become steadily better, and finds itself ranked eighth against the pass. This bodes well for the Bengals, as their strong play allows Mike Zimmer to dial up the linebacker blitzes that he likes to use. The cornerbacks have been very convincing in man coverage, as the once injury-plagued position has become one of the Bengals’ clear strengths.
So the rankings actually favor the Bengals in this match-up. Cincinnati’s slightly pass-oriented play-calling should worry the Chargers subpar pass defense, while they use it to open up the running game. And the while the Chargers’ strength is in Rivers' arm, the Bengals’ pass defense has also become its defensive backbone.
The Bengals will win this game because of their defense. It should be a close match-up, but Cincinnati will stay hot on the road to keep the winning streak alive.
Prediction: Bengals 23, Chargers 17