The Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals are heading in two markedly different directions. The Chargers, rising to 9-3, have to be careful not to look ahead to a monstrous matchup against their AFC West rival, Kansas City, on Thursday night. With a win this weekend, that game could be for the division title and even home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Bengals, meanwhile have tumbled into irrelevancy once again. Their 4-1 start has turned into a 5-7 disaster defined by injuries to key offensive and defensive players. Starting quarterback Andy Dalton is finished for the season and his replacement, Jeff Driskel, has been ineffective thus far. But he’ll remain the starter heading into Sunday with Tom Savage, the former Texans starter, backing Driskel up.
Can the Bengals somehow summon the energy for some sort of upset? Or will the Chargers keep rolling?
Cincinnati at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 9 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Chargers -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Melvin Gordon play?
It’s the question most fantasy football owners are asking after Gordon suffered an MCL sprain against Arizona two weeks ago. The chief weapon in the Chargers' offense, Gordon still ranks inside the top five in rushing (802 yards) despite missing two games. He’s the team’s second-leading receiver with 44 catches and 453 yards, ranking only behind Keenan Allen.
But the Chargers did fine without his services last week in a win against the Steelers. Justin Jackson was effective, running for 63 yards in just eight carries and he’d likely share the load again with Austin Ekeler if Gordon sits out. He hasn’t practiced all week and all signs point to “unlikely” with a risk of reinjury and the Thursday night matchup with the Chiefs just four days later. They should handle the Bengals fine without him. Sorry, fantasy owners who will be missing a key star for their first-round playoff matchups!
2. Who on the Bengals is healthy?
It’s really been a devastating turn of events for a Bengals offense that started the season so promising. Tyler Eifert started the rough luck with a devastating, season-ending ankle injury four games in. Since then, it’s been all downhill for this group. Top wide receiver A.J. Green has been hampered by a toe injury and won’t play Sunday. Top running back Joe Mixon, one of the few bright spots, was limited in practice with a foot issue. His status for Sunday is suddenly in question although it seems like he will ultimately suit up.
In all, the Bengals had nine players on this week’s injury report with plenty more starters sitting on injured reserve. Chief among them is Andy Dalton, whose thumb injury against the Browns two weeks ago ended his year and left questions about his future in Cincinnati. Jeff Driskel, a third-round pick by the 49ers in the 2016 NFL Draft, had never played an NFL game before this season. He was on injured reserve in 2017 and remains a highly unproven commodity.
All this uncertainty has the Chargers' defense drooling. The Bengals basically have a healthy Tyler Boyd and, um... who else? That’s great news for a unit ranked inside the top 10 in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game. Driskel now faces Los Angeles' improving (getting Joey Bosa back certainly helps) defense on the road? Without any weapons? Uh-oh.
3. Can Philip Rivers make a case for MVP?
This award seemed destined to be headed Drew Brees’ (or Patrick Mahomes') this season. But Rivers, who’s toiled in relative obscurity most of his career out west, also fits the bill of top-tier quarterback that’s never won this award. Last week's game on the road against the Steelers was perhaps his finest performance on that type of national stage in years, producing 299 yards, two touchdowns and sparking the offense at key times in the 33-30 upset on "Sunday Night Football."
Rivers is on track for a career high in touchdown passes (28 through 12 games) and a career low in interceptions (six). His 115.7 passer rating ranks third in the NFL behind Brees and Mahomes.
But Brees’ poor performance against the Cowboys, also on national television last Thursday, caused his candidacy to take a step back. It provides an opportunity for Rivers to make a case with a one-on-one game versus Mahomes looming. Sunday will be his last opportunity in a tune-up, as Rivers will be a facing a suspect Bengals defense most likely without his top offensive weapon in Gordon and a diminished run game.
Rivers needs to take the lead and ensure his team doesn’t fall in a trap game. He needs to keep Keenan Allen hot (a season-high 14 catches and 148 yards against the Steelers). And he needs to hold onto the football. The Chargers’ 10 giveaways are the second-fewest in the NFL behind only Seattle. That’s a mark which separates him from Mahomes, who has 10 interceptions as a young quarterback still learning when to not force the ball in tough situations.
It’s like a Heisman candidacy-type Sunday for this 36-year-old. Expect him to rise to the challenge.
One could make the argument the Bengals have been the NFL’s most lifeless team over the past month. Injuries have played a large part but the future direction of the franchise remains in question with former head coach Hue Jackson sitting on the sideline next to Marvin Lewis. Could a change be coming soon with the Bengals on the verge of playoff elimination?
Their malaise feels like an easy hurdle for the Chargers to clear. As long as the AFC West contenders don’t look too far ahead, they’ll bulldoze the team directly in front of them.
Prediction: Chargers 31, Bengals 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.