SAN DIEGO (AP) — After a 3-1 start, the Bengals got a bit full of themselves and promptly lost to Miami, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Denver, seemingly being relegated to insignificance after reaching the playoffs two of the three previous seasons.
Suddenly, the Bengals (6-5) are back as playoff contenders after winning three straight games by at least 18 points.
Now they travel to San Diego (4-7), where the Chargers are finding different ways to come from ahead to lose, having dropped three straight and six of seven.
The Bengals' winning streak has coincided with Ben Roethlisberger's absence from the Steelers, allowing Cincinnati to pull even with Pittsburgh in the chase for the final AFC wild-card spot. Indianapolis controls the first wild-card spot at 7-4.
"We've dug ourselves out of our hole, but we still haven't gotten anywhere yet," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "There's still a lot of work to do, a lot of things ahead of us, a lot of great challenges."
After today, the Bengals will face Dallas and Philadelphia, both of which have losing records, before finishing with a showdown at Pittsburgh and a home game against AFC North leader Baltimore, which routed Cincinnati in the season opener.
Whitworth said the Bengals "felt a little good about ourselves and let things slip" after their 3-1 start.
"And I think we refocused in and realized the work and the preparation it takes every week to win in the NFL. I think being a young team, they needed to learn that. ... And we definitely have young guys who have the talent to be successful at this level, so I'm excited about the rest of the season."
The Chargers also started 3-1, and they have been a confounding mess since.
They blew a 10-point lead in the second half of a 31-24 loss at New Orleans on Oct. 7 and followed that up with an epic collapse, letting the Denver Broncos rally from a 24-0 halftime deficit for a 35-24 victory.
Then came Sunday's home game against the Ravens, when they astoundingly let Ray Rice convert a fourth-and-29 on a dump-off pass. The Ravens, who trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter, sent the game into overtime before winning.
While San Diego has sputtered, the Bengals have averaged 31 points the last three games. During that stretch, second-year quarterback Andy Dalton has passed for 639 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis will try for his third straight 100-yard rushing game. By comparison, San Diego's Ryan Mathews has yet to crack 100 yards in a game this season.
The Bengals are eager to prove they are for real.
"We just have to continue to have a sense of finish, and when we get the opportunity, we need to close out games," coach Marvin Lewis said. "Whether it be first downs, whether it be third-down stops, turnovers, sacks — whatever it may be, we have to continue to do that."
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