On paper, week 16’s match-up with the 3-11 Cincinnati Bengals should be a walk in the park for a team as hot as the Bolts. Looks can be deceiving however as the Bengals finally shook their 10-game losing streak last week with a victory over the Cleveland Browns and Paul Brown Stadium can be a hostile venue in the bitter cold of December.
Still this Bengals team has been declawed in a sense as they lost one half of their dynamic receiving duo last week when Terrell Owens went down with a season-ending knee injury. Carson Palmer has been erratic under center and its tough to put all of the blame on him as his offensive line hasn’t exactly protected him very well during the 2010 campaign.
Putting the turmoil aside, the Bengals do have some elements that could pose the Bolts some problems on Sunday as they feature a great duo of cover corners in Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph. Those two could be used to bracket the Bolts’ main vertical threat in Vincent Jackson and neutralize the team’s ability to work the ball deep downfield.
San Diego could counter this by maintaining their recent balance offensively and feed the pigskin to both Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews in the ground game. This could where down the Bengals front four and force them to commit more and more bodies down into the box.
Although there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into the showdown with Cincy, a handful of legitimate concerns still remain for the Chargers. The defense may be ranked number one in the league in terms of statistics, but December football is all about stopping the run and the Bengals could test the Bolts in that area. Cedric Benson is coming off of his best game of the season with a 31 carry, 150 yard performance against the Cleveland Browns. Benson’s ability to run between the tackles is an area where the Chargers need to prove their merit by stymieing him this week and making the Bengals one-dimensional.
Protecting the quarterback has also been an issue at times for the Bolts and the Bengals have a formidable young pass rush going this year. Rookie Carlos Dunlap leads all AFC rookies with seven sacks and they have all happened in the last half dozen games. His counter in the Bengals defensive line rotation is Robert Geathers who is no slouch either and both will test the Bolts’ ability to keep Philip Rivers upright on Sunday.
The Chargers need to embrace this challenge of playing outdoors in a cold weather city and show everyone (including themselves) that they are fully capable of traveling and winning when the weather turns sour. San Diego is helped on the cross country flight aspect of this trip by the fact that the game doesn’t begin until 4:05EST. The Bolts should be more than ready to go when game time rolls around and in the same state of mind as every other successful Sunday afternoon this season.
While the peripheral talk surrounding this team has been focused on the Kansas City Chiefs and whether or not the Bolts will get the help they need down the stretch to make the playoffs, scoreboard watching is a big no-no. The only aspect of making the postseason that the Chargers are in control of is their ability to finish the year with victories and watching the scoreboard to see how rivals are faring only hampers that process.
Tight end Antonio Gates has been operating on a week-to-week basis since suffering a toe and foot injury early in the 2010 campaign, but he is likely shutdown for the remainder of the regular season in hopes of playing in January. Many fans thought that this meant if the Bolts made the playoffs their prized tight end would be back in action for sure, but it turns out there are no guarantees. When asked about a timetable for return, Gates was quite candid saying: "Time is the key. There's not magical treatment for an injury like this. Just because I hope to come back if we end up making the postseason, there's no guarantee that I'll be able to go. It gives me a chance."
There’s nothing like some brutal honesty to put a damper on your holiday cheer, but it seems that the Chargers team out on the field this week may be the same one taking the field in the playoffs should the Bolts ultimately get there. Just sit back, enjoy some eggnog, and admire some Bolts football as the team looks to roar into the playoffs with a purpose.
Now let’s hear from you. Are the Bengals still a scary offensive team without Terrell Owens in the lineup? What are the biggest keys to bottling up Cedric Benson and the Cincy running game this week? Will the Chargers have any trouble keeping Rivers clean as the Bengals’ young pass rush zeros in on him? What do you expect from the Chargers in the Eastern Time Zone and bitter cold of Cincinnati? If this team does make the playoffs, do you expect to see Antonio Gates out on the field or do you think his foot ailments will prevent him from playing a significant role in the postseason? Please leave your input in the comments section below!
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