The Bengals begin a crucial stretch of the season during this holiday month on Sunday against the Chargers. If they continue to string wins together they’ll be competing in the postseason, but if they go on a losing skid, they’ll be watching the playoffs from their couches for the sixth-straight season.
A postseason berth would do wonders for Zac Taylor’s job security as he glides through his third year at the helm in Cincinnati after two brutal years full of losing and controversy.
Winning the division title this year would pull Taylor’s name completely out of the national hot seat conversation, which would be a first in his head coaching career.
The Bengals are playing four of their last six games at home, which should benefit them, and it starts on Sunday with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Put the Ball in Mixon’s Hands
This might be the most obvious key I’ve written this year: feed the AFC Offensive Player of the Week. The Chargers are down in the darkest corner of the league’s basement when it comes to stopping the run. They rank dead last and are giving up an average of 145 rush yards per game. I don’t see any valid reason why Joe Mixon wouldn’t get the chance to torch this defense.
Last week I mentioned the need for Mixon to get at least 20 touches against the Steelers, and Taylor was generous with Mixon’s involvement. The skilled running back had 28 carries in Week 12, yielding 165 rush yards and two touchdowns.
Mixon has scored in each of Cincinnati’s last eight games, and has rushed for over 120 yards in each of the last two wins. I would expect the Chargers to be hyper focused on stopping his attack, but I think Mixon, Frank Pollack, and Taylor will be ready for that and should be able to establish the ground game.
Slow Down Austin Ekeler
The Chargers will rely heavily on Austin Ekeler to be productive this week. Ekeler has been a multifaceted machine and he is extremely dangerous because offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is able to utilize him in many different ways. He's rushed for 600+ yards and seven touchdowns this season, but he’s also been a consistent pass option for Justin Herbert.
Ekeler has seven touchdown receptions this season. The Bengals have been exceptional against the run this year, ranking 5th in the NFL, but they must have an answer for him as I expect him to be a giant part of their game plan with the focus on generating explosive plays.
"I know they are going to play me in man on third down, so I have to get open,” Ekeler said this week. “Let's not just get open, but make some type of explosive action out of this, as well. That's what it's going to come down to: How many plays can we make and how many explosive plays can we make out of those plays?"
If Herbert plays well and limits his mistakes, we could see a shootout at Paul Brown Stadium between him and Joe Burrow.
Show No Mercy Converting on Third Down
Last week the Broncos were 8-11 on third down, and the Chargers had to go back and figure out how they allowed that to happen. The Bengals can exploit their inability to be consistent in this area. Blown assignments have contributed to the Chargers’ lack of efficient third down defense.
Los Angeles ranks near the bottom of the league (29th) in points allowed, giving up an average of over 26 points per game to their opponents. With an offense like Cincinnati’s they should be able to move the ball and execute in the red zone all day long.
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