SAN DIEGO — So, after their riveting victory at Kansas City, do the San Diego Chargers have what it takes to reach the playoffs for the first time in four seasons?
“We’re going to find out,” said Philip Rivers, whose 26-yard touchdown pass to Seyi Ajiritutu with 24 seconds left Sunday gave the Chargers a 41-38 win that may have saved the season.
Still, the Bolts are 5-6 and it will be a scramble for them to claim the AFC’s second wild-card spot. They play four of their final five games at home, starting Sunday (4:35 p.m. ET) against Andy Dalton and the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (7-4).
The fans haven’t quite caught playoff fever. The game fell 5,300 tickets short of a sellout at Thursday’s deadline, making it the first NFL game blacked out locally this season.
The thrilling win at Kansas City followed head-scratching losses at Washington and Miami under rookie coach Mike McCoy.
“We lost some tough ones, but we survived,” Rivers said. “However it is, we survived enough to be still hanging onto the rope. However tight a grip we have, I don’t know yet. But we’re alive and we get to play the last four of five at home.”
The closing stretch is big for the Bengals, too.
They came out of their bye week with a two-game lead in the AFC North with only five to go, three at home. Only one team left on the schedule currently has a winning record: Indianapolis, which has to play at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals’ first AFC North title since 2009 is right there for them, if they don’t blow it.
“So for us, we’re in control of everything right now,” Dalton said. “So this is a big five games for us. It’s a big point in the season because this is when you want to be playing your best.
"I think that’s kind of what I’ve taken from the first two seasons being here. At this point in the season, it’s make-or-break time for a lot of teams and what’s going to happen going into the playoffs and stuff like that. Our goal is to be playing well. Our goal is to win all five of these.”
Here are five things to watch Sunday:
WHICH DALTON WILL SHOW UP? The Bengals took control of the AFC North with a torrid October behind Dalton, who was the AFC’s offensive player of the month.
He completed 68 percent of his passes and threw for 11 touchdowns in a three-game span, something no other Bengals quarterback has accomplished. But he has gone south in his last three games, completing only 53 percent with five touchdowns and eight interceptions, two of which were returned for TDs. The eight interceptions came during a span of nine quarters.
“Turnovers are a concern,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “They cost us big time against Miami, they cost us against Baltimore and could’ve cost us dearly against Cleveland. I don’t know many teams that are going to win games if you’re losing the turnover margin. That’s something we definitely have to address and take care of the ball a little bit better.”
UNDER 300: Something’s got to give Sunday. The Bengals have allowed only one quarterback to throw for 300 yards this season, when Matthew Stafford passed for 357 yards in Cincinnati’s 27-24 win in Detroit. Rivers, by comparison, has thrown for more than 300 yards five times, including three 400-yard games. Cincinnati’s defense has had some impressive games, holding Aaron Rodgers to 244 yards; Tom Brady to 197, when his streak of consecutive games with a TD pass was snapped; and Joe Flacco to 140 yards, the lowest by any opposing quarterback this season.
CORNERBACK CONUNDRUM: The Chargers said their cornerbacks were competing for jobs in the days leading up to the game. That revelation came after Derek Cox, one of the team’s big free-agent signings, was benched for the third time in four games after allowing one touchdown pass and another big play in the win at Kansas City. As with most personnel matters and injuries, McCoy was tight-lipped on how the competition was going. Regardless of the starters, the Chargers will be tested by A.J. Green, who has caught 67 passes for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns.
SLUGGISH STARTS: In their last three games, the Bengals got off to woeful starts on offense and wound up making furious comebacks that fell short twice. They fell behind 17-3 in the third quarter at Miami before going to overtime and losing 22-20. The following week, they trailed Baltimore 17-0 at halftime before going to overtime and losing 20-17. And they trailed Cleveland 13-0 after the first quarter before putting up a club-record 31 points in the second quarter for a 41-20 win. The Bengals have played three OT games this season and gone 1-2. The NFL record for OT games in a season is five.
HOME IS WHERE: Much is being made of San Diego playing four of its last five at home. The Chargers are 2-2 so far this year at Qualcomm, where they were 3-5 last year. San Diego also will host the New York Giants, Oakland and Kansas City. The only trip left is to Denver on Dec. 12.
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