Joe Burrow made his NFL debut against the Chargers in Week 1 of the 2020 season. With fellow rookie quarterback Justin Herbert watching from the sideline, Burrow's late-game comeback bid was undone by a missed field goal that preserved the Chargers' 16-13 victory.
Quite a few things have changed in the 15 months since that game. Herbert has prospered upon becoming a starter one week after the Chargers' 2020 season opener. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year after throwing throwing for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns. Burrow, whose rookie season was prematurely ended by a knee injury, has returned to lead the Bengals to a 7-4 record following last Sunday's blowout win over the Steelers. Cincinnati is currently the fifth seed in the AFC, while the 6-5 Chargers would be the seventh and final AFC playoff team if the postseason started today.
We'll preview the game along with giving our prediction for Sunday's outcome. Here's how you can follow the action in real time.
How to watch
When the Chargers have the ball
The Bengals' defense has had considerably more bite following their Week 10 bye. After allowing 75 points during their last two games before their bye, the Bengals gave up 13 points against the Raiders and 10 points in last week's win over Pittsburgh. Turnovers and a dominant run defense have been two keys to Cincinnati's recent defensive surge. The unit has been led by linebacker Logan Wilson (89 tackles, four interceptions), safety Jessie Bates III, and defensive ends Trey Hendrickson (10.5 sacks) and Sam Hubbard (seven sacks). Cornerbacks Eli Apple and Mike Hilton came up with big interceptions in last week's win over Pittsburgh.
If they want to avoid the same fate as the Bengals' last two opponents, the Chargers will have to establish their running game, led by Austin Ekeler. Along with keeping an eye on Ekeler, Cincinnati's run defense can't fall asleep on Herbert, who is second on the Chargers in rushing through 11 games. Success on the ground will likely help open things up for receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, who have caught a combined 131 passes for 1,639 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Herbert has also developed a rapport with first-year Charger Jared Cook, who is third on the team with 371 receiving yards and three touchdown receptions.
When the Bengals have the ball
During their last two games, Cincinnati's offense had a span where it scored on nine consecutive possessions. That's not good news for a Chargers defense that is 29th in the NFL in scoring, 29th in passing, 31st in third-down efficiency and 24th in red-zone efficiency. The Chargers' pass defense, led by Chris Harris, Derwin James, and rookie Asante Samuel Jr., is the strength of the unit, as it is currently fifth in the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed. Los Angeles is getting another solid campaign from pass-rusher Joey Bosa, who leads the Chargers with 7.5 sacks. Additionally, the Chargers are getting a career year from linebacker Kyzir White, who has tallied 86 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and a sack this season.
The Chargers' secondary will have to be on their game against the Bengals' formidable receiving trio of rookie Ja'Marr Chase, second-year wideout Tee Higgins and veteran Tyler Boyd. Higgins, who caught a 32-yard touchdown in last week's win over Pittsburgh, has lately been the beneficiary of Chase receiving extra attention from opposing defenses. Like Herbert has with Cook, Burrow has found success with tight end C.J. Uzomah, who is second on the Bengals with five touchdown grabs.
In many ways, running back Joe Mixon has been the X factor for the Bengals' offense. Mixon rumbled for a career-high 165 yards against the Steelers that included 117 yards in the first half. Expect the Bengals to feed Mixon early and often in an attempt to exploit the Chargers' subpar run defense.
The Chargers' defense has allowed an average of over 31 points per game over its last seven outings. Unless it can come up with some turnovers, Los Angeles' streak of giving up at least 24 points will probably reach eight games following Sunday's outing. Herbert and the Chargers' offense can keep pace with Burrow's offense, but their defense may ultimately be their undoing not only on Sunday, but for the 2021 season.
Score: Bengals 31, Chargers 23