Bengals vs. Chargers: Takeaways from Cincinnati's 17-10 Win over San Diego
Not only did the Bengals show great resiliency in the win, they furthered their playoff ambitions by retaining their stranglehold on the AFC North at 8-4.
It wasn't always pretty. Quarterback Andy Dalton threw another horrible interception, and the usually reliable BenJarvus Green-Ellis coughed the ball up, but the Bengals executed when it mattered most in the second half.
Cincinnati returns home to face Indianapolis in Week 14 in another game with strong playoff implications. Before that happens, here are the biggest things to take away from the win in San Diego.
Andrew Hawkins Will Play a Major Role the Rest of the Way
After missing much of the season, the 5'7" Andrew Hawkins had a major day for Cincinnati against San Diego.
Hawkins brought in three receptions for 65 yards, including a reception over the middle that went for 50 yards and placed the team in field-goal range.
While Hawkins will not have the impact of a guy like A.J. Green, he will put together games such as this. In the confines of the Bengals offense, which has simply become "protect Andy Dalton by any means necessary," Hawkins serves a special purpose on short screens and slants.
Hawkins can take the ball and score from any point on the field. Quick-hitting plays to him not only move the ball down the field, they protect Dalton from having to make decisions while also helping to build his confidence.
Fans are just beginning to see Hawkins' impact this year.
Dre Kirkpatrick Is Turning Things Around
Few players are as maligned in Cincinnati as second-year corner Dre Kirkpatrick.
Rightfully so—Kirkpatrick was a first-round selection out of Alabama, a national powerhouse. He missed a large chunk of his rookie season, which he presumably spent soaking up knowledge from veterans such as Leon Hall and Terence Newman.
Kirkpatrick's contributions have been few and far between, but we have seen an upswing in recent weeks.
This was on display Sunday in San Diego when he came up with a terrific interception. Chargers tight end Antonio Gates caught the ball, and Kirkpatrick was there to wrestle it from him before he was down.
The play goes down as the biggest of Kirkpatrick's young career, as well as his first NFL interception. He'll continue to see playing time as the season wears on, especially if he continues to make a difference in this manner.
Offensive Line Woes Not an Issue
Cincinnati traveled to San Diego with a wobbly offensive line.
Second-year starting right guard Kevin Zeitler was inactive with an injury. To make matters worse, the team lost starting left guard Clint Boling early in the game.
It mattered little.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth kicked inside to left guard, and swing backup tackle Anthony Collins came in at left tackle.
The result was no sacks surrendered and 164 rushing yards on the ground in the win.
It may also be a sign of things to come, as Whitworth is getting up there in age and will soon need to kick inside permanently before he becomes a liability to the quarterback's blindside.
Bengals Remain a Run-First Team
The Cincinnati Bengals are a run-first team.
This has not changed for years, despite the offensive coaching staff's attempts to trend toward an aerial-oriented attack.
Since Andy Dalton's become a liability, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden elected to stick to the ground game and his two complementary backs.
The results were tremendous against San Diego. BenJarvus Green-Ellis bruised his way to 92 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Shifty Giovani Bernard found 57 yards on 14 carries and added nine more on a reception.
With a ground game this effective, it is hard to understand why the Bengals want to pass first. The weapons at receiver are there; the consistency from the quarterback is not.
Cincinnati must stick with what works—AFC North football. Run the ball and rely on a stout defense. Anything else at this point is too gimmicky and jeopardizes the team's playoff hopes.
Playoff Hopes Hinge on Opportunistic Defense
The Cincinnati defense was once again superb.
This time the opponent was San Diego, a team that entered the game with a top-five passing attack led by veteran quarterback Philip Rivers. San Diego entered averaging 296.9 passing yards per game.
Cincinnati held Rivers to 243 net yards with a touchdown and interception. The line, sans Geno Atkins, still managed two sacks and five quarterback hits.
The aforementioned Dre Kirkpatrick interception combined with two fumble recoveries gave the unit a total of three game-changing plays.
Cornerback Adam Jones was consistently picked on by Rivers, but going against a team that put up 41 the week prior, the Bengals did well to hold San Diego to 10 at home.
The Bengals have a defense that can carry them far.
Vontaze Burfict Is Team's MVP
This is going to sound like a retread after previous games this season, but it needs to be stressed again—Vontaze Burfict is the heart and soul of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Burfict sprained his ankle in practice leading up to the game, per Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
He played anyway and led the team in tackles (shocker) with 13 total.
Tackles are a sketchy stat, but ESPN has him at 118 total. Impressive numbers aside, Burfict calls the plays for the defense, is always around the football and continually plays through injury.
Burfict is the epitome of Cincinnati Bengals football.
Andy Dalton Is as Good as His Game Plan
Andy Dalton is as good as the coaching staff in Cincinnati wants him to be.
Case in point—in the first half against San Diego, Dalton was asked to turn it loose and make multiple reads. Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune illustrated the ugly results:
Through first series of second half, Andy Dalton is 8-for-13 for 62 yards, OT, 1 int. (41.2 rating).— UTKevinAcee (@UTKevinAcee) December 1, 2013
The game plan was eventually adjusted in the third quarter. Dalton made few reads, instead locking onto his first target and abandoning the play if it wasn't there. He made a simple pass to Andrew Hawkins over the middle for 50 yards. He was able to lock in and find a wide-open A.J. Green later.
Dalton's final line came to a 14-of-23 effort for 190 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Despite it being his third year, Dalton still makes horrific mistakes that must be prevented through simplistic coaching and strategy.
It will not sink the Bengals entirely, but it is a surefire way to struggle against great teams.
Bengals Remain a Contender
Through the good and the bad this season, one thing has remained abundantly clear—the Cincinnati Bengals are contenders.
Hardly slipping past San Diego is not a great sign, but there is something to be said for going to the West Coast and getting a win. Two overtime losses in Weeks 9 and 10 are concerning, but this team has turned it on in stellar fashion offensively at times.
As the Baltimore Ravens showed last year, it just takes one hot stretch where everything clicks.
Make no mistake—the Bengals have some serious flaws and plenty of work to do. But to write off a team as deep as the Bengals would be erroneous at this point. A smart marriage between quality coaching and player execution is what Cincinnati needs to win a playoff game this year.
The Bengals have four games left to figure it out.