When Chargers have the ball: Justin Herbert tries to bounce back after a fourth quarter during which he had passes intercepted twice by Denver cornerback Patrick Surtain II in Week 12. The second of those interceptions tipped off the hands of Austin Ekeler, but the pass was slightly behind the running back. Cincinnati is tied for 12th in the NFL with 10 interceptions, two of which came last weekend against Pittsburgh. Only five teams have given up fewer points per game than the Bengals, who have limited four of their last six opponents to 17 or fewer. But in those other two games, Cincinnati lost to quarterback Mike White and the New York Jets 34-31 and surrendered 41 points in a defeat to Cleveland. So, who can be certain what version of Bengals will show up Sunday? The Chargers’ offense has sputtered at times throughout the season, often struggling to sustain a running game. Cincinnati ranks fifth in the NFL against the run, meaning Ekeler could be fighting for his rushing yards again. The Chargers beat the Bengals on the road to start last season, 16-13, but both teams have much improved offenses now. It’s unlikely that 16 points will win this game this time around.
When Bengals have the ball: In beating the Steelers last weekend, Joe Burrow completed 20 of 24 attempts for 190 yards and a touchdown and also ran for a score. “He can make a lot of winning plays when the pocket’s tight,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “If there’s not a lot of offense there on that initial play, he can move and create.” The Bengals have scored 73 points in their last two games, while the Chargers have sunk to No. 29 in the league in scoring defense. Burrow has wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and tight end C.J. Uzomah as primary targets. But the biggest issue for the Chargers could be running back Joe Mixon, who is one of the NFL’s toughest to corral. Mixon is tied for the league lead with 19 broken tackles and fourth in yards after contact. “Pick a runner,” Staley said, “and he’s as good as any of them.” The Chargers have had a difficult time stopping the run, with poor technique, alignment and tackling cited most frequently as the issues. The expectation is that the Bengals will force Staley’s defense to prove it can slow Mixon. A week ago, Denver set an early tone against the Chargers by running for 108 yards in the first half.
When they kick: Dustin Hopkins is seven for eight on field goals and 12 for 13 on extra points for the Chargers. He badly missed a 52-yard attempt last weekend. Cincinnati drafted Evan McPherson out of Florida in the fifth round in the spring. The rookie is 17 for 20 on field-goal attempts and 34 for 35 on extra points. He has made his last 12 field-goal tries.
Jeff Miller’s prediction: The Bengals have played consecutive solid games, beating Las Vegas and Pittsburgh handily. In this season’s wildly up-and-down NFL, what are the chances that they’ll play a third solid game in a row? Better than the chances of the Chargers winning.
BENGALS 35, CHARGERS 27
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.