The Cincinnati Bengals already proved they can beat the best team in the league.
Beating one of the worst could give them sole possession of first place in the mediocre AFC North.
The improving Bengals, coming off one of the biggest victories in franchise history, look to win three straight for the first time in nearly four years when they visit the San Diego Chargers.
Cincinnati pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent memory Sunday when it handed 9-0 Kansas City its first loss of the season, 24-19.
It was a monumental victory for the Bengals, the NFL’s worst franchise for more than a decade, but now a legitimate contender for a postseason berth for the first time since 1990—the last time the Bengals had a winning record and made the playoffs. The win moved Cincinnati into a tie with Baltimore atop the AFC North, the only division without a winning team.
“Going toe-to-toe with the best in the league gives us a little respect,” linebacker Kevin Hardy said. “But I still don’t think we have everybody’s respect.”
Making the victory even more memorable was that it came after wide receiver Chad Johnson guaranteed earlier in the week that the Bengals would be the first team to beat the Chiefs.
Peter Warrick had two of the game’s biggest plays in the fourth quarter, as he returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown and caught a 77-yard pass for another score. Johnson also did his part in backing up his own guarantee, catching seven passes for 74 yards.
Cincinnati, a franchise-worst 2-14 last season, has actually been one of the league’s better teams for more than a month, winning four of five since a 1-4 start. The Bengals last won three straight from Nov. 28-Dec. 12, 1999.
“We’ve already won two games in November—that’s something I’ve never done before,” cornerback Artell Hawkins said. “Usually we go in the tank about Oct. 3, and you don’t see us until the next season.”
During the 1-4 start, the Bengals were minus-four in turnovers and Kitna threw six of his nine interceptions. In the last five games, Cincinnati is plus-seven in turnovers and Kitna has nine TDs and just three interceptions.
“Jon has learned not to look over his shoulder and that he is the leader of this team,” first-year Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “He’s grown through the early part of the year where, I think, he was trying to score two touchdowns with one play and if we just don’t try to do that, if we just play within ourselves, we have a chance to be OK.”
Johnson didn’t figure to see much playing time this season with Corey Dillion’s standing as one of the NFL’s top running backs. Dillon, however, has struggled with injuries and has fallen out of favor in Cincinnati, leaving the door open for Johnson, who has rushed for 482 yards and four TDs in the past four games.
While the Bengals appear to be showing some improvement after more than a decade of futility, San Diego is headed for an eighth consecutive season without a winning record.
One week after upsetting Minnesota, the Chargers played one of the worst games in team history Sunday in a 37-8 loss to Denver for their 15th loss in 19 games. Through three quarters, they had only one first down and gained only 21 yards. They finished with 96 yards, third-lowest in franchise history.
With the playoffs and a winning season out of the picture, the Chargers have little motivation.
“We play for pride,” running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. “You play not to get laughed at. Not to be called the Cincinnati Bengals of the league.”
Tomlinson quickly attempted to clarify his statement.
“Look what they’re doing now. They 5-5 and beating an undefeated team, the Kansas City Chiefs,” Tomlinson said. “Now there’s a new team that everyone is laughing at and picking on. We could easily become that team.”
Tomlinson, who rushed for a career-low 29 yards Sunday, has been one of the few bright spots in another dismal season in San Diego. He is 29 yards shy of his third straight 1,000-yard season.(ankle).