The Bengals haven’t played meaningful football in December since the 2015 campaign. As the calendar month changed to the last month of the year, they sit in the AFC’s five seed at 7-4 heading into Week 13.
Cincinnati controls their own destiny. The team hasn't let off the gas since coming out of the bye outscoring opponents 73-23 in two games.
An inconsistent Chargers team visits Paul Brown Stadium this week. When Los Angeles is hot, they’re dangerous, but when they’re cold, they’re vulnerable. The Chargers are 6-5 and hold the AFC’s seventh seed.
Zac Taylor said Sunday is the biggest game to this point for the Bengals with both teams in the thick of the playoff picture. The third-year head coach wants to set the tone for the rest of the season against a Chargers team with talent across the board and ability to create problems in all three phases of the game.
Let’s take a look at the key matchups as both teams look to start the month off strong in their quest to make the postseason.
Joe Burrow vs. Chargers Defense
The pass defense is the strength of the Chargers defense. Despite the Bolts allowing the fifth lowest yards per game (204.9), opponents are favoring the run against them due to their league-worst rush defense.
Los Angeles’ defense has seen the third fewest pass attempts (343), but third most rushes (341).
Cincinnati’s offense could and should follow-suit with a run-heavy game plan similar to the last two games. Burrow hasn't put up eye-catching stats in those games with their success on the ground, but he has put together two of his more accurate games.
Burrow has taken what the defenses have given him, limiting forced throws in recent weeks. He joins Matt Ryan and Justin Herbert as the most accurate quarterbacks on throws 10 or more yards downfield according to Pro Football Focus.
Up front, the Chargers apply plenty of pressure. They also blitz over a quarter of the time, but their efforts haven't led to much success in taking the quarterback down with 21 sacks (eighth-lowest) or forcing interceptions with just seven picks on the year. Star edge rusher Joey Bosa has 7.5 of those sacks.
Burrow is the highest graded quarterback against the blitz (93.9) according to PFF and averages 8.7 yards per attempt when under pressure (second-best).
In games where a balanced attack is established, Burrow has played better with pressure alleviated and allows Taylor to go deep into the offensive playbook.
Bengals Offensive Line vs. Chargers Defense
Cincinnati’s offensive line had another impressive showing against Pittsburgh last week. They shut down T.J. Watt and allowed Burrow to be sacked just twice.
The line dominated and had their best performance of the year on the ground. They opened lanes for Mixon and he finished with a career-best 165 yards and averaged 5.89 yards per carry.
Improvements continue to be shown, but they could be without two of their starting linemen Sunday. Riley Reiff and Trey Hopkins didn’t participate in practice this week and are both game time decisions listed as questionable with ankle injuries.
Isaiah Prince would start at right tackle if Reiff can't play and Trey Hill would take Hopkins' spot at center. Stability is important in developing consistent play in an offensive line. If Reiff and Hill are out, this will be another variation to a line that appeared to be hitting its stride.
Prince played well after Reiff exited the Steelers game. He had the fifth-best grade on the team (76.6) according to PFF.
The injuries to Reiff and Hopkins teeter this matchup. If the two play, the advantage goes to the Bengals coming off their performance against Pittsburgh. However, a pass rush with Bosa, Uchenna Nwosa, Kyzir White, and Derwin James (when he's in the box) could take advantage of the injuries in the trenches. Even a poor rush defense could find success if the line doesn’t gel.
Advantage: Chargers (If Reiff and Hopkins don’t play)
Bengals Skill Players vs. Chargers Defense
This is the largest mismatch of the game. Mixon is coming off back-to-back 100+ yard and multi-touchdown games. He had 58 carries total over that span.
The Bolts are giving up an average of 145.3 yards per game. Mixon and company need to exploit this matchup.
Prior to the season, the 25-year-old said he was ready to carry the load on offense. In the three games the running back has had 25 or more touches, Mixon has crossed the century mark easily and scored at least one touchdown. Those three games have been the only contests Mixon has recorded 100+ yards rushing. Cincinnati was victorious in all three contests.
Asante Samuel Jr. was declared out Friday with a concussion. The rookie has been a key member of the secondary this season.
With Samuel’s absence, it’s expected that Tevaughn Campbell will play in Samuel’s place. Campbell has been a liability for the Chargers in their secondary giving up chunk plays and missing tackles.
This could turn into a similar situation the Bengals had in their favor with Joe Haden out last week. Tee Higgins recorded his first 100-yard receiving game of the season, including a 32-yard grab for a score over James Pierre.
Expect the same to happen with Campbell on Higgins for most of the game if Chris Harris Jr. focuses on Ja’Marr Chase.
Tyler Boyd could see time against James in the slot—a challenge in which Boyd said he was ready for. James is one of the best safeties in the league when healthy. He’s fast, physical, and moves all over the field.
Justin Herbert vs. Bengals Defense
Herbert against the Bengals' secondary is the matchup of the game.
Los Angeles is a pass-first offense. They have thrown the ball 439 times and ran the ball just 248 times this season.
Herbert is fourth in the league with 3,230 yards passing averaging 293 yards per game. He’s thrown for 24 touchdowns. Two skills that have allowed him to excel in his young career are his accuracy and ability to throw the deep ball.
The quarterback has thrown 35 passes of 20 or more yards and seven of 40+ yards. Herbert is first among quarterbacks with a 122.3 passer rating on deep throws of 20 or more yards.
Cincinnati has only held an opposing quarterback to under 200 yards throwing once this season: Week 2 against the Bears facing Andy Dalton and Justin Fields. Dalton was sidelined with an injury early in the game, but Fields couldn’t find momentum in the air.
The Bengals have forced teams into passing situations by stopping their running attacks, but the secondary has given up the big play of 20 or more yards on 42 occasions (seventh most).
Herbert has been more successful with the long ball against zone coverage than single coverage. Chidobe Awuzie (85.0) and Mike Hilton (84.5) are second and third behind Jalen Ramsey (85.2) in cornerback zone coverage according to PFF.
The Chargers up and down play has stemmed from different areas of the team, but Herbert has contributed. He’s led the team to five game winning drives yet has made poor throws and costly interceptions in games they’ve lost this season.
Each of the losses the Bolts have sustained have come against a team ranked in the top ten in pressure applied. Cincinnati sits outside the top ten in pressure, but this bodes well for Trey Hendrickson and company who are continuing to bring the heat up front.
Chargers Offensive Line vs. Bengals Defense
The Chargers’ offensive line had their worst performance of the season in Denver last week. Herbert was pressured all game and took two sacks. Four of Los Angeles’ penalties were accounted for by the offensive line.
Matt Feiler did not play last week due to an ankle injury. The left guard’s absence was felt as Senio Kelemete filled in for the veteran. He allowed a team-high six pressures and one sack. Feiler was a full participant in practice Friday and will play against the Bengals.
Trey Hendrickson against Rashawn Slater is the matchup to watch here. Hendrickson continues to prove he was worth every penny of his offseason signing with 10.5 sacks and 53 pressures through 11 games.
Slater is a young, rising star at left tackle. The rookie has allowed pressure on just 3.8% of pass-throwing dropbacks and is ranked seventh among all left tackles per PFF.
The run game is where this Chargers' line struggles. They have not been able to put in place a consistent run game, only winning 69% of their run blocks.
Cincinnati has been stout against the run all season. Sam Hubbard is second among edge defenders in run stop win rate (34%). Hubbard has also contributed to the pass rush with a sack in each of the last three games.
This game could easily turn into a one-sided passing game from Herbert with Cincinnati’s defense knocking out the run game in each of the last two games.
Chargers Skill Players vs. Bengals Defense
Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are a 1-2 punch in the mouth at wide receiver. The duo has caught 131 passes for 1,639 yards and nine touchdowns combined this season.
Allen hauled in his 700th career pass last week in just his 111th career game. He joined Antonio Brown as the fastest players in NFL history to accomplish that feat.
The receiver is a favorite target of Herbert with eight or more targets in all but one game this season. He is a weapon that lines up outside, but can will play in the slot too.
Williams is Herbert’s go-to on the deep ball. Williams is averaging 14.9 yards per reception, while Allen has 11 yards per catch. Jessie Bates is going to have his hands full playing center field trying to stop the explosive play from happening on either side of the field.
Eli Apple continues to improve each week. He has had back-to-back interceptions and solid coverage of Chase Claypool for most of the day against the Steelers. Apple did get beat on a Claypool 41-yard completion early in the game.
He will have one of his toughest assignments of the year if he's matched up on Williams. He is a complete receiver that can beat a defender at any point of the field with his size and speed.
Logan Wilson against Austin Ekeler is another matchup to watch for. Ekeler is a dual-threat running back. As much as the Chargers favor the pass, Ekeler is averaging 4.5 yards per carry with seven rushing touchdowns. He’s posed as a liable option for Herbert out of the backfield with 51 catches, averaging 9.2 yards per reception and seven receiving scores. Ekeler has tabbed nearly a quarter of the Chargers first downs with his chunk plays.
“His [Ekeler] ability to make plays in the passing game is always tough,” Wilson said this week. “It’s never easy going up against a back like that who can catch the ball and make plays with his feet.”
Jared Cook has been Herbert’s fourth option behind Allen, Williams, and Ekeler this season with 371 receiving yards and three scores. Cook is another weapon Bates, Wilson and Vonn Bell will need to limit.
Evan McPherson vs. Dustin Hopkins
Evan McPherson showed off the boot again last week drilling a 51-yard field goal. That was McPherson’s seventh kick of 50 or more yards this season.
The rookie continues to put points on the board in situations that wouldn’t have been possible in the last handful of years. McPherson now has 85 points scored on the season.
The kicking position has been a struggle for Los Angeles. The team waived Tristan Vizcaino in late October and signed Dustin Hopkins to replace Vizcaino.
Hopkins started the season with the Washington Football Team before being released by WFT. He has been with the Chargers since Week 8. Hopkins has missed a field goal and extra in his time with the Bolts, but has accounted for 33 points in that time.
Many were upset that this game didn't get flexed to primetime with the Burrow vs. Herbert headline, however, having a West Coast team play at 1 p.m. ET greatly favors the Bengals. The last time the Chargers played at 1 p.m. ET, Baltimore beat them 34-6 in Week 6, exposing many of their weaknesses.
The Bengals are looking to finally reach a three-game win streak for the first time since 2015 as they have scratched the surface twice this season.
Get your popcorn ready, because round one of Burrow vs. Herbert shouldn’t disappoint with the capabilities both of these offenses can showcase with so much on the line.
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