At this time last season, the San Diego Chargers had already clinched their fourth straight AFC West title.
They’ll need some help if they hope to make it five in a row.
The Chargers will close the regular season with a two-game road trip beginning Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Unlike previous seasons, San Diego (8-6) doesn’t control its own fate in this year’s playoff race. The Chargers are one game behind Kansas City in the division and a wild-card berth is unlikely as they’re two games behind Baltimore and the New York Jets.
It’s a far different situation than going into last season’s matchup against Cincinnati. San Diego had clinched the division title in Week 14 and secured a first-round bye the following week in dramatic fashion. The Chargers squandered an 11-point lead going into the fourth quarter and escaped with a 27-24 win as Nate Kaeding(notes) kicked a 52-yard field goal with three seconds left.
“We’ve got to win. That’s the only thing we can control and that’s the only one we really have to worry about,” quarterback Phillip Rivers told the Chargers’ official website. “Trying to figure out all those scenarios, it doesn’t help you.
“Certainly we know we’ve got to win the next two to have a chance and then we’ll see what happens.”
While the combined record of San Diego’s next two opponents is 6-22, the Chargers will have to win at Cincinnati and Denver. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have to avoid losing in Kansas City against either Tennessee or Oakland, a combined 13-15.
However, playing on the road in December hasn’t fazed Rivers in his career. He’s thrown 19 touchdowns and just five interceptions while leading the Chargers to a 10-0 record.
Jackson, who has played in only three games after being sidelined during a bitter contract dispute, caught five passes for 112 yards - including three touchdowns - in a 34-7 win over San Francisco on Dec. 16.
Jackson had been a non-factor his first two games back. He strained his calf against Indianapolis on Nov. 28 and then had two catches for 29 yards the against the Chiefs on Dec. 12.
Jackson, who led the Chargers with 1,167 yards and nine receiving TDs last season, will be a key factor in the final two games.
“For me, it always starts with the guys that can make plays and he obviously can make plays,” coach Norv Turner said. “He’s proven that over the last two or three years.”
The Chargers will likely be without star tight end Antonio Gates(notes) for the remainder of the regular season to rest his injured right foot in case they make the playoffs. Gates has missed the last two games and four of six with a painful tear in his right plantar fascia.
While San Diego’s offense, which ranks second in overall yards, remains a threat, Carson Palmer(notes) and Cincinnati may be down another star receiver as they prepare to take on the NFL’s top defense.
The Bengals (3-11), who will miss the playoffs after winning the AFC North last year, snapped a 10-game losing streak with a 19-17 win over Cleveland last Sunday. Cedric Benson(notes) ran for a season-high 150 yards and a touchdown and Cincinnati gave up fewer than 22 points for the first time in 11 games.
If he plays, Ochocinco is expected to have a reduced role in the final two games because of the injury, which he says will require offseason surgery. Coach Marvin Lewis described the enigmatic receiver as “mopey” because of the news - a term Ochocinco was irritated with. He fired back on Twitter, saying he deserves more respect.
“This is how they treat you when you hurt, the things you don’t get to see as fans,” wrote Ochocinco, who is second behind Owens with 831 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
With Ochocinco ailing, Benson figures to take on a prominent role after topping 1,000 rushing yards for the second straight season. Last year, though, he finished with 1,251 in 13 games.
Benson may find it tougher to run against San Diego, which has given up seven points in its last two contests and is giving up only 89.4 rushing yards per game.
Although Cincinnati could play spoiler San Diego, Lewis said there should be no shortage of reasons for the team to play well.
“Motivation is you have to do your job,” he said. “You have to play football and play it right, and this is a good opportunity for our guys to keep pushing forward and put some good stuff on tape.”
The Bengals have lost their last two games against the Chargers and the last three meetings in Cincinnati, including a 49-41 decision in 2006 when Ochocinco caught 11 passes for 260 yards.
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