The Cincinnati Bengals currently sit at 7-5, are on the verge of clinching a Wild Card playoff berth and have won four games in a row—everything seems to be going right for the team since they ended their four-game losing streak.
However, something was a bit different about their Week 13 win over the San Diego Chargers—the margin of victory was slimmer, and the offense and defense didn't seem to be playing as well as in their three previous wins.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw two picks—the first Dalton turnovers since the streak began—including one for a Chargers touchdown. He still managed to add two more touchdowns, one passing, one rushing, but the third-quarter offensive slump was reminiscent of the problems he had when the Bengals lost four straight.
The defense still continued to play well, allowing no offensive touchdowns and sacking Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers four times, picking him off once and forcing a sack-fumble which was both created and recovered by Carlos Dunlap. Yet, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said on Monday that the unit as a whole "didn't do things as well" as they did in the three previous games and described the defense as "very undisciplined."
What was most upsetting about the Bengals' defensive performance was not the points they kept the Chargers from scoring, but the yards they allowed the Chargers to put up. Though the Chargers had just 46 rushing yards on the day, quarterback Philip Rivers had 280 passing yards and receiver Danario Alexander had 102 receiving yards on six receptions. Malcom Floyd also added 61 yards on his four catches.
The Bengals secondary has been quite solid this year when playing man coverage, however they struggled against the Chargers' duo of Alexander and Floyd. That may have had something to do with the size of the receivers—they're both listed at 6'5", while Cincinnati's corners Leon Hall and Terence Newman are both under six feet, and a height mismatch like that can burn any defense, no matter how talented.
Though the 13 points the Chargers put up in the first half were all the points the Bengals gave up on the day, the yardage allowed in the passing game wasn't ideal—251 net yards, the most they've given up since their last loss and 31 more than they're giving up on average per game. Luckily the Chargers have been relatively points-challenged this season, and those yards didn't translate into touchdowns; next time the Bengals give up over 100 yards to a receiver, they may not be so lucky, especially if Dalton continues to turn the ball over.
Teams can have good and bad weeks, and considering how bad things can be, Week 13 wasn't all that terrible for the Bengals. They defeated the Chargers, which keeps them in the playoff picture, and extended their win streak to four.
However, the mistakes the Bengals made in that win must not be a harbinger of things to come if they want to remain in the running for a Wild Card berth. Presently, they're behind both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts for one of those two spots, and they must continue winning to keep their hopes alive.
While the Bengals defeated the Chargers, they didn't do it in quite the same manner as their previous three wins. It may have been a hiccup, which is fine, but if they repeat this performance on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, they may not end their day with another win.
It's not a regression, yet—the Bengals are still a talented, balanced and complete team that had somewhat of an off day—but if their play reverts to how it was during the losing streak of Weeks 5 through 9, wins will be harder to come by considering the level of talent of their remaining opponents.
There is very little margin for error for the Bengals now that they sit on the playoff bubble. They must keep Week 13's mistakes in mind and work to correct rather than repeat them.
This was a wake-up call that things aren't always going to go as planned or hoped for the Bengals; how they respond to them this Sunday against Week 14 will do a lot to illustrate how well they can handle the challenges of the final weeks of the season and finish strong rather than take a step backward at this most crucial time.