Quarterback Andy Dalton snapped his three-week streak of no interceptions while his offense showed signs of its previous inconsistency, but the Cincinnati Bengals still managed to pull out their fourth straight win and defeat the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, 20-13.
It wasn't perfect, but in the NFL, it rarely ever is. However, the win keeps the Bengals in playoff contention and further serves to highlight what an asset they have in their defense.
The Bengals allowed 13 points to the Chargers in the first half—a pick-six by San Diego linebacker Demorrio Williams and two field goals—but kept them off the board in the second half. Pressure was the key. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is currently the second-most-sacked quarterback in the league, thanks to being protected by a terrible offensive line.
The Bengals, who are near the top of the league in generating sacks themselves, got to Rivers four times on Sunday, with three of those coming in the decisive second half. A quarterback with an offensive line like that stands no chance against the Bengals, especially when the pressure results in turnovers.
Rivers was picked off once—by safety Reggie Nelson in the end zone, sealing the Chargers' fate—and was the victim of a strip-sack by Carlos Dunlap, who also recovered the ball. Those drive-killing takeaways are two reasons why the Chargers couldn't score any points in the second half. Their own offensive ineptitude also played a hand, as well as great downfield coverage by Cincinnati's secondary and the front seven all but killing off the Chargers' ability to run the ball.
Of San Diego's total 297 yards, 205 came in the first half and 280 of them belonged to Rivers. The Chargers had just 46 total yards on 11 rushes, with 29 yards on nine carries for running back Ryan Mathews.
Rivers' most productive target was wide receiver Danario Alexander, with six catches on 10 targets for 102 yards. Malcom Floyd was solid in the first half, catching all three passes thrown to him, for 45 yards, but was held to just one second-half catch despite seeing four additional targets. And most impressively, dangerous Chargers tight end Antonio Gates was a non-factor in this game, as he had to settle for six catches for just 49 yards.
Most of Cincinnati's offense came in the first half, with Dalton's lone passing touchdown coming in those 30 minutes. Fourteen of Dalton's 25 completions were in the first half, as well as 141 of his 211 total passing yards. The Bengals offense struggled in the third quarter, with four straight possessions ending via interception, fumble and two three-and-outs, but their defense bailed them out, not allowing San Diego to creep up while the Bengals briefly floundered.
Scoring came a bit easier for the Bengals near the end of the game, with Dalton scrambling for a six-yard touchdown and Mike Nugent kicking a 24-yard field goal to seal the win. And when the passing game took a hit, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis stepped up, rushing a total of 25 times for 118 yards.
It turns out that this game was somewhat of a must-win for the Bengals, with first the Indianapolis Colts and later the Pittsburgh Steelers pulling out victories of their own. These three teams are the most likely competitors for the two available Wild Card playoff berths in the AFC this season, and the Bengals must keep pace with both of them if they are to reach the postseason for the second straight year.
Though this win wasn't of the dominant sort we've seen out of the Bengals over the previous three weeks, it still managed to showcase how balanced the team is as well as how truly dominant their defense can be. The Bengals didn't entirely look like themselves but still managed to not let the win slip through their fingers; it's a sign that things continue to be on the right track in Cincinnati.