CINCINNATI -- Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals entered December needing help in order to make a postseason run. Everything fell into place as they won four of their final five games.
This season, Cincinnati is in control of its own destiny, with a two-game lead in the AFC North. But the next two weeks should tell a lot about whether or not the Bengals are viable postseason contenders. They are at San Diego on Sunday and host Indianapolis a week later.
Even though the defense is ranked seventh overall and sixth against the pass, this week's game against the Chargers marks their first big test since season-ending injuries to cornerback Leon Hall and defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Hall tore his Achilles in the Oct. 20 game at Detroit and Atkins tore his ACL 11 days later at Miami.
In the four games since he moved into the starting lineup, Adam Jones has been targeted 28 times and has allowed only 13 receptions. In the past two games, Terence Newman's coverage has improved as he has allowed only four receptions in 13 targets.
The Bengals have allowed only one 300-yard passer in the past 25 games, but that came in Week 7 at Detroit, which is the game where Hall got injured. Philip Rivers comes into the game averaging 307 yards.
Said Mike Zimmer about the Chargers' offense: "We've played a lot of good ones. But they're an explosive offense. We'll definitely have our hands full."
The pass rush hasn't waned since Atkins' injury with nine sacks over the past two games. Carlos Dunlap has 7.0 on the season and is having a season that many envisioned after his rookie year when he had 9.5. Dunlap's best month during the first three months of his career has been December, where he has had 12.0 sacks in 13 games. Dunlap had two sacks in last year's game and is facing a San Diego offensive line that has fielded 16 different combinations. Defensive end Michael Johnson has also come up big with 10.5 sacks in 17 December/January games.
In the secondary, one of the players to watch in the stretch run is safety Reggie Nelson. Seven of his 11 interceptions in three-plus seasons with the Bengals have come in either December or January regular-season games.
The defense should also be healthier this week with linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Devon Still being full participation for the first time in over three weeks. Maualuga has missed the past three games due to a knee injury and Still has missed the past four with a dislocated elbow. With the entire defense being in plug-and-play mode for the past month, they are pretty healthy going into the stretch run.
With the bye week allowing a chance for some self-scouting, Zimmer knows there is a little more sense of urgency going into the final five games.
"You've still got to do what you do and you've still got to do what you need to try to stop the opponent," Zimmer said. "Some of it is good to see what guys are playing good or better than what we think they're doing, or vice versa. Or if we're tipping different things."
NOTES: LB Vincent Rey, who has started the past three games, is expected to continue to see significant playing time even if he is reduced to a backup role with Rey Maualuga returning from a knee injury. ... OG Mike Pollak is expected to get his second straight start. In the Week 11 win over Cleveland, he allowed two quarterback hurries. ... P Kevin Huber did not practice on Wednesday due to a left ankle injury. It is not expected to be serious and he is anticipated to play in Sunday's game. ... OG Kevin Zeitler did not practice and is expected to miss his second straight game due to an ankle injury he suffered in the Nov. 10 loss to Baltimore.