The Cincinnati Bengals are back from a late-season bye week and ready to begin a five-game stretch to close out the AFC North.
A road win Sunday over the San Diego Chargers would go a long way to further staking their claim on the division.
The Bengals (7-4) are tied with Dallas for the worst road record in the NFL among teams with a record of .500 or better. They’re 5-0 at home but 2-4 away from Paul Brown Stadium with consecutive overtime defeats in Miami and Baltimore. A third straight road loss Sunday would allow Baltimore to creep within a game of the division lead.
A victory would leave Cincinnati in a much more comfortable position, up two games with four to play and the only road game in that span coming at Pittsburgh.
“We have five games to really make a run and put our name out there,” wide receiver Marvin Jones said. “The bye week was a big help. I’ve never had a late bye week like that. We’re ready to make this last push and go for it all.”
That push begins with a healthy middle linebacker. Rey Maualuga missed the last three games with a concussion and an injured left knee, but he has been practicing this week and is expected to play.
The Bengals entered the bye in high spirits after their 41-20 home win over Cleveland on Nov. 17. Their 31-point second quarter set a franchise record, and all three phases contributed to the scoring - two touchdowns on offense, one on a fumble recovery by the defense, one off a blocked punt return and a field goal.
The offense, however, has been on a disturbing trend, held below 270 total yards in three straight games.
Andy Dalton has thrown eight interceptions in that span, including two in the first quarter to the Browns that led to a 13-0 hole.
“Everybody throws interceptions from time to time,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “If you’re going to play quarterback, you’re going to throw an interception from time to time. You can’t dwell on it, you’ve got to move on and figure out a way to win the game.
“… But obviously eight interceptions in three weeks is too many.”
Dalton’s 15 picks are tied for third in the league, though he also enters Week 13 as one of six quarterbacks with over 20 touchdown passes (21). He wasn’t sacked against Cleveland after going down 10 times in the previous two games, but his 93 passing yards marked the first time this year he was held under 200. He’s completed 47.4 percent of his throws in the last two games after connecting on 64.8 percent in the first nine.
The Chargers are one of six AFC teams at 5-6 and looking to gain footing in the race for the last wild-card spot. They play four of their last five games at home, though that hasn’t meant a lot recently. They’re 5-7 at Qualcomm Stadium since the start of 2012.
A 41-38 win at Kansas City last Sunday ended a three-game losing streak. Philip Rivers connected with Seyi Ajirotutu on a 26-yard touchdown with 24 seconds remaining to complete a game-winning and potentially season-salvaging drive.
“It’s the kind of win that can save the season,” Rivers said. “That doesn’t mean it saved it, but it certainly kept it alive.”
San Diego would welcome its defense to do some of the saving going forward. The Chargers have allowed 29.0 points per game in the last four weeks, which ranks 27th in the league.
They’re allowing an AFC-worst 389.5 yards per game.
“We’ve made changes before,” first-year coach Mike McCoy said. “We’re going to let the DBs compete this week and we’ll find out what we think is the best combination for us. We’re going to do what’s best moving forward.”
That could just be relying on Rivers, given the Dec. 1 date of the game. Since becoming the starter in 2006, Rivers is 26-5 with a 99.5 passer rating in December. The win total is tops in the league in that time and the rating trails only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
The Bengals, however, have won their last two games against Rivers and the Chargers, both of which came in December.
San Diego leading rusher Ryan Mathews left last Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury but is listed as probable.