SAN DIEGO -- It was a clean handoff, a seamless transition.
Taking another big step to shed their image as laughable losers, the Cincinnati Bengals manhandled the sad-sack San Diego Chargers 34-27 on Sunday to continue their remarkable turnaround under first-year coach Marvin Lewis.
Welcome back, Bengals. Say goodbye to the Bungles.
And just like that, the Chargers' worst fears were realized. They inherited the role of the NFL's biggest laughingstocks.
"Whatever the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL means, now people far and near will relate that failure to the San Diego Chargers, until we do something about it," defensive end Marcellus Wiley said. "They're doing something about it."
Are they ever. Jon Kitna matched his career high with four touchdown passes, three to Chad Johnson, and a healthy Corey Dillon ran for 108 yards on 18 carries to help the Bengals gain a season-high 454 yards and win for the fifth time in six games.
It was Johnson who guaranteed Cincinnati's 24-19 win over previously undefeated Kansas City a week earlier, a victory that proved the Bengals were for real.
"The Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL of old are gone," said Johnson, who caught 10 passes for 107 yards. "Those days are over and we will continue to win and we will continue to have success under Marvin Lewis."
The Bengals (6-5) are tied for the AFC North lead with Baltimore. They're in contention this late in the season for the first time since 1990, when quarterback Boomer Esiason led them to their last winning record and playoff appearance.
What's more, they no longer need to dread going on the road. The Bengals came in as three-point favorites even though they'd been 12-48 on the road since the start of the 1996 season.
The Chargers (2-9) are in contention to own the top pick in the draft for the second time in four years. They've lost 16 of their last 20 games under coach Marty Schottenheimer. And if Cincinnati ends its 12-year playoff drought, the Chargers' eight-year absence will be the NFL's longest active streak.
"I don't think 'frustration' is a good enough word," Schottenheimer said.
In the third quarter, two fans carried a banner around the main stadium walkway that read: "Marty Must Go, Fire Schottenheimer." Some fans booed when security guards grabbed the banner.
Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson passed the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight season and scored once. Doug Flutie threw two touchdown passes to David Boston.
Kitna completed 24 of 38 passes for 243 yards and picked on Chargers cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Sammy Davis all day. Johnson beat Jammer both times in catching touchdown passes of 5 and 4 yards on the Bengals' first two drives for a 14-0 lead.
"I think we can take advantage of any secondary right now," Kitna said. "The way that we're playing, right now, running the football, we're not going to change our game plan. We've established our identity in the league now and teams have to defend us now."
The Chargers committed penalties on the game's first three plays from scrimmage and had four overall for 34 yards in the first drive.
"It makes you shake your head," Flutie said.
After the Chargers pulled to 14-13, Johnson beat Davis on a 12-yard TD catch for a 21-13 lead late in the first half. The Bengals forced the Chargers to punt, then moved 60 yards in just 43 seconds for Kitna's fourth TD pass, a 4-yarder to rookie Kelley Johnson to lead 28-13 at halftime.
The Bengals had 22 first downs and 308 yards in the first half alone. That's more yardage than the Chargers had total in four of their last five games.
Cincinnati's only scoring in the second half came on Shayne Graham's field goals of 37 and 47 yards.
Tomlinson had 95 yards on 16 carries. He passed the 1,000-yard milestone on a 38-yard run late in the first quarter. He had more yards on that play than he did a week earlier in gaining a career-low 29 yards in a 37-8 loss at Denver.
Flutie was 15-of-33 for 210 yards. Boston had nine catches for 139 yards, including TDs of 37 and 26 yards.
San Diego's Steve Christie kicked field goals of 48 and 26 yards.
- The Bengals ran 85 plays to San Diego's 55 and dominated time of possession 38:18 to 21:42.
- The Bengals had a season-high 33 first downs, just two off the club record. They also converted 13 of 20 third downs.
- In the last three games, the Chargers have allowed an average of 33 points and 454 yards.
- Wiley, the Chargers' $40 million defensive end, got just his second sack of the season and forced Kitna to fumble on the play.
The Associated Press News Service
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