The San Diego Chargers are coming off their biggest win this year, knocking off division rivals the Kansas City Chiefs in a thumping, shootout win. They snapped a three-game losing streak in the process. Reinvigorated, the Chargers now hope to turn their 5-6 record into a wild-card spot.
Here’s a look at what the Cincinnati Bengals need to do to come away with a win.
Stop Philip Rivers
If you didn’t catch a glimpse of Philip Rivers' victory face at the weekend, do so before continuing to read. It’s been some time since we've seen Rivers as fired up as he was at Arrowhead. The big question is whether last week was a turning point for the Chargers offense or simply a great day for Rivers.
Either way, both scenarios would be a nightmare Sunday afternoon for the Bengals.
Andy Dalton continues to be the most confounding quarterback in the league and has shown few signs of being able to compete in a shootout in recent weeks.
Just look at this graph from ESPN Stats & Info. It makes for harrowing viewing:
It would be too easy to suggest that Dalton has to "ball-out" if Cincy want a win, but in reality, he doesn’t need to. He simply needs to do "enough." He's perfectly capable of that.
The burden will instead fall on the defense. In Week 11, it held the Browns offense to two field goals in the first quarter, and it’s hard to imagine that Cincy would have turned things around had Jason Campbell converted those drives.
Rivers is not Jason Campbell, as this stat from the Chargers' Twitter page can attest:
To stop this game getting away from them, the defense needs to bring consistent pressure. It won’t stop Rivers from passing, but it will fluster him enough to produce some errant throws. The Bengals have shown promise in getting their hands up to block passes, and that could play a pivotal role here.
Don't be afraid to throw the ball
Thanks to some magic from the defense and the special teams, Dalton didn't have to throw the ball around much against the Browns. Instead, Cincy were able to run the ball for much of the second half in a game that was already out of reach. It was more than a let off for Dalton and Jay Gruden.
They’ll fancy their chances against San Diego, whose pass defense ranks 27th in the league.
If Alex Smith was able to have a pass-happy afternoon against the Chargers, Dalton should be able to do the same. With an extra week to refocus, Dalton won’t be given a better opportunity to turn things around than he will this weekend.
Despite the questions about Dalton, this offense is potent.
NFL.com has the Bengals ranked 10th in total offense. Interestingly, they’re 10th in passing while they’re only 20th when running the ball. It wouldn't come as a surprise to see Gruden tone down the passing game in light of Dalton’s recent performances, but now is not the time. He may not be Peyton Manning, but if the Bengals have faith in his arm, he should be able to do enough (with some defensive help) to put the Chargers away.
Save the ground game for the rest of December.
For more on the passing game, check out Sean O’Donnell’s breakdown.
A Rey-Rey relationship
Rey Maualuga is set to return to the starting line-up this week after missing the last three games with a brutal concussion-knee-injury combo. His return would be a great relief were it not for the outstanding play of his replacement, Vincent Rey.
Bengals fans have become enamoured with Rey, as Coley Harvey of ESPN describes:
[Rey] has 30 tackles, three sacks and an interception. At times in recent weeks when it seemed the Bengals' supercharged defense needed an extra jolt, it seemed like Rey was always there coming away with a timely tackle, or contributing on a turnover.
The second string middle linebacker has certainly made an impact, but he won’t be replacing Maualuga. The latter played almost every snap before his injury and was having his best year as a Bengal.
So what happens next? Well, there’s a silver-lining for both players. Rey’s emergence should earn him some extra snaps. We’re not talking 50-50, but more than he’s been getting. Contrastingly, Maualuga will be able to ease back into things, playing fewer snaps as he continues to heal.
It may have felt like a punch in the kidneys at the time, but Maualuga’s injury and the knowledge gained from it has actually made the Bengals stronger.
It will be exciting to see how these two guys are used from here on out. Hopefully, we’ll catch a glimpse in San Diego.