Andy Dalton threw eight interceptions in the last three games. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Cincinnati Bengals' offense has trouble getting started

Bengals can't afford to play catch-up vs. Chargers

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CINCINNATI - During a bye week that gave them a chance to sit back and take stock of their shortcomings, the Bengals quickly hit upon the one thing troubling them the most.

Somebody needs to wake up their offense before halftime.

The Bengals (7-4) have needed big comebacks in each of the last three games, two of them ending in overtime losses. Their offense does next to nothing in the first half - or worse, it gives up points - before getting in gear and catching up.

Everybody knows what has to change when the AFC North leaders play at San Diego (5-6) at 4:35 p.m. ET on Sunday.

"I think the biggest thing for us this week is not playing from behind," safety Chris Crocker said. "It seems like the last couple of weeks we've gotten behind and then we've calmed down and started to play better. But we've had to play catch up."

For the most part, the defense has done a good job in the opening half. It's the offense that needs a lot of work.

The Bengals fell behind at Miami 17-3 in the third quarter before rallying to take the game to overtime and losing 22-20. A week later, they trailed 17-0 at halftime in Baltimore before taking that game to overtime, too, and a 20-17 loss.

They gave up 13 points in the first quarter against Cleveland before piling up a club-record 31 in the second quarter of a 41-20 win heading into their bye.

The offense's numbers have been awful before halftime.

During the first half of the games at Miami and Baltimore, the Bengals had 13 series that resulted in seven punts, two interceptions, one fumble, one field goal, one missed field goal and one drive that ended when they couldn't convert a fourth down.

In the first quarter against Cleveland, the Bengals had three punts and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

The Bengals haven't been able to keep drives going. They've converted only 9 of 37 third-down chances (24 percent) in the last two games. Against Cleveland, they had a third-and-10 and a third-and-20 in the first quarter because of penalties.

"The last couple of weeks we've been behind the chains, had third-and-long situations which makes it tough," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "If we can get these third downs shorter going in, I think it will help keep drives alive."

The turnovers have put a lot of pressure on their defense, which has limited the damage. During the two overtime games and the first quarter against Cleveland, Dalton threw eight interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

Despite the struggles, the Bengals head into the closing stretch of their schedule in control of their division. But a loss in San Diego would cut their lead over Baltimore (6-6) to one game.

The Bengals finish with three of their last four games at home - including the season-ender with the Ravens. The only road game is at Pittsburgh.

Even with their flaws, they're still the ones to catch.

"To be honest, the last three weeks the ball's bounced away from us in every way and shape possible," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "It's just been that kind of a stretch. And that's NFL football.

"To get through it and we're still sitting here talking about being first in the division - I think we've accomplished a lot. You always want to call yourself out to be better, but to realize that you're obviously doing something right."

NOTES: Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, safety Chris Crocker and defensive tackle Devon Still are back from injuries. Maualuga missed the last three games with a concussion and an injured left knee. Crocker missed the Browns game with an injured hamstring. Still missed the last four games with an injured elbow. ... This will be the first home blackout in the NFL this season. The Chargers said more than 5,300 tickets were still unsold at Thursday's deadline, meaning the game won't be televised in Southern California.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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