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Friday, November 22, 2013
Examining the Bengals' end-of-year stretch

By Coley Harvey

An examination of the Cincinnati Bengals' final five games:

Dec. 1 -- at San Diego. Following their bye week, the Bengals begin the final month of the season with their longest road trip, a journey to Southern California. The ballgame comes after the Bengals' beat the Cleveland Browns last weekend in Cincinnati. While the Chargers this weekend are hoping to snap out of a three-game skid Sunday when they travel to Kansas City, they would still bring a losing record into next week's game against the Bengals. Despite that fact, Cincinnati still believes a win on the road against a rather prolific offense, the seventh-ranked offense, would add to the resume as the season concludes. In addition to the Bengals' pass defense experiencing one of its stiffest challenges of the season, their entire offense will be looking to rebound from a tough overall showing the past three weeks. A red zone turnover played a role in the loss at Miami on Halloween night. The following week at Baltimore, besides the latter half of the fourth quarter, the Bengals generally had difficulty moving the ball. Last week, in a 41-20 rout over the Browns, they gained just 266 yards; 93 of which came from quarterback Andy Dalton. Last month, he topped the 300-yard passing mark four times -- including against the Dolphins.
Chargers' current record: 4-6. At Kansas City on Sunday.
All-time regular-season series: San Diego leads, 19-12.
Last meeting: Bengals won 20-13 on Dec. 2, 2012.

Dec. 8 -- vs. Indianapolis. The AFC appears to be operating on a tiered basis this season. Currently at the very top of the heap, are the 9-1 Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs. After the Broncos' win against the Chiefs last week, it's safe to say they are the best team in the conference. For now. Next week, the pair square off again, this time in Kansas City. In the next tier of the AFC's best teams exist the Patriots, Bengals and Indianapolis Colts. The rest of the conference enters the weekend with five or fewer wins. The Patriots, Bengals and Colts each have seven. By virtue of their 13-6 win last month over the Patriots, the Bengals currently hold the tiebreaker in that head-to-head series. A win against the Colts would give them another advantage in the event teams end up with the same record by the end of the regular season. That's why this non-division AFC game is important for Cincinnati. Also on the line this weekend is the Bengals' undefeated mark at Paul Brown Stadium this season. They hope to extend it as they make their final push ahead of the postseason. At 25.2 points per game, the Colts have the ninth-best scoring offense in the NFL. The game also will feature two young quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Dalton, who currently are trending in completely opposite directions.
Colts'  current record: 7-3. Vs. Tennessee on Sunday.
All-time regular-season series: Indianapolis leads, 16-9.
Last meeting: Bengals won 27-17 on Oct. 16, 2011.

Dec. 15 -- at Pittsburgh. Cincinnati's penultimate division game, this AFC North showdown carries serious late-season weight. The Bengals won the first matchup of the year, beating the Steelers 20-10 during the Week 2 "Monday Night Football" game. Rookie Giovani Bernard was the hero, wowing the home crowd with his screen catch that turned into a 27-yard touchdown. But the Steelers team that the Bengals faced that week, for now, looks completely different from the one that started the year 0-2 and had just lost its starting center and was fielding a porous offensive line. Now, the Steelers are winners of two of the past three and are quietly making a push up the standings. They enter this weekend tied for second place with the Browns and Ravens. These next three weeks will be pivotal for them ahead of the Sunday night rematch against Cincinnati four weeks from now. The Steelers play Cleveland and Baltimore in the next two weeks before hosting a Dolphins team that has played the last three weeks with a us-against-the-world mentality.
Steelers' current record: 4-6. At Cleveland on Sunday.
All-time regular-season series: Pittsburgh leads, 52-34.
Last meeting: Bengals won 20-10 on Sept. 16, 2013.

Dec. 22 -- vs. Minnesota. The Bengals finish their season slate against the NFC North when the upset-minded Vikings come to town. With their season currently out of reach, the Vikings will have to adopt the role of spoiler if they hope to beat the Bengals. Late last season, it was completely the opposite. They were playing for a postseason berth the final weeks of the season, and got it. Now, with a 2-8 record entering play this weekend, Minnesota looks nothing like that 2012 team. Quarterback controversy has loomed over the team all year, and running back Adrian Peterson, while good, hasn't been as productive yards-wise as he was last season. He went beyond the 2,000-yard mark last year. He may be lucky to hit 1,500 this year. Again, that's not bad, but that's not where many had been projecting him at the start of the season.
Vikings' current record: 2-8. At Green Bay on Sunday.
All-time regular-season series: Minnesota leads, 6-5.
Last meeting: Vikings won 30-10 on Dec. 13, 2009.

Dec. 29 -- vs. Baltimore. Cincinnati closes out its regular season with a rematch against the Ravens. After losing in overtime at Baltimore two weeks ago, the Bengals will hope to use this game as a chance to make up for the offensive miscues that led to the previous loss. Dalton threw three interceptions in that game. Much like the first meeting, this one probably will be close. The desperate Bengals could still be playing for a first-round bye and some type of home-field advantage, and the Ravens could still be fighting for a playoff spot. All of that depends on how the next five weeks goes, though. Whatever the playoff scenario the Bengals are playing for, this could also be the second straight year they decide to play for health in a finale against the Ravens and not risk leaving their starters in the full four quarters.
Ravens' current record: 4-6. Vs. New York Jets on Sunday.
All-time regular-season series: Baltimore leads, 20-15.
Last meeting: Ravens won 20-17 on Nov. 10, 2013.