Two years ago, on the first NFL Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Chargers lost to the Broncos 16-13, at home, in overtime after Tim Tebow worked his magic
Last year, on the first NFL Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Chargers lost to the Ravens 16-13 at home, in overtime after Ray Rice converted the now-infamous 4th and 29.
This year, on the first NFL Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Chargers host the Bengals. If this one goes to overtime I am looking for Rod Serling.
The Chargers will probably not have Eddie Royal against Cincy. The wide receiver who leads the team with seven touchdown catches (five coming in the Red Zone) was downgraded from "questionable" to "doubtful" on Saturday with toe and chest injuries.
Cincinnati doesn't do anything extremely well, and doesn't do anything extremely poorly. This is just a solid team across the board. The Bengals are ranked in the top-10 in both total offense and total defense. There's really not a glaring weakness to try and exploit.
Except, maybe, for this:
Cincinnati has turned the ball over 22 times this season. Only 4 teams have more giveaways. Quarterback Andy Dalton has been picked off 15 times, a product of the Bengals love of trying to push the ball down the field with deep passes. The Chargers will have to take advantage of the gambling to win this one.
Which leads us to our three players to watch for (as long as you are going to the game or have a rudimentary knowledge of how to manipulate the internet):
Donald Butler, ILB:
You thought I was going to go with a cornerback after that buildup, huh? Butler played arguably his best game of the year last week against Kansas City. He seems to be at least close to fully healthy after battling a groin injury. In his first two seasons, Butler picked off a pass. He got another one in the pre-season against the Bears, but hasn't had another since. That could change this Sunday. The Bengals have a pair of effective tight ends in Brandon Pettigrew and Tyler Eifert. Chargers safety Eric Weddle has drawn most of the tight end coverages, but this is really the first time the Bolts will face a pair of play-makers at that position in one game. Butler will be in coverage quite a bit, and has the skills to jump a route and made a game-changing play.
Seyi Ajirotutu, WR:
Last week's hero will get the first shot at taking Royal's snaps, but he'd played his way in to the rotation anyway. In only 36 offensive snaps this season, Tutu has caught 3 passes for 64 yards and a touchdown, all in the fourth quarter. Any time he gets on the field, he seems to make things happen. Plus, with the way Keenan Allen has been playing, #13 will be betting a lion's share of the attention from the Bengals defense. That means Ajirotutu will have a chance to make more big plays. Cincinnati has only allowed one 300-yard passer in the last 26 games, and it took Lions QB Matt Stafford (who's on pace for 5100 yards this year) 51 attempts to do it. Bengals corner Adam Jones did not mince words when he was asked about Philip Rivers, "Ain't gonna be no 300 this Sunday." Ajirotutu will have a big say in that statement's validity.
Danny Woodhead, RB:
"He is the definition of a football player." That's how Chargers head coach Mike McCoy described Woodhead after the running back scored a pair of touchdowns in the Bolts' 41-38 win over the Chiefs. Woodhead simply does EVERYTHING well. No running back in the NFL has more catches in 2013 than Danny. That is going to be a huge advantage for the Chargers against the aforementioned Cincinnati pass defense. If big plays are not there down the field, the Bolts will have to go with the proverbial "dink and dunk" approach by throwing underneath. Woodhead is arguably the best weapon in the league in that situation. He can keep the chains moving, prolong drives, and produce points. If he's able to be the safety net for Rivers again on Sunday, the Chargers will be able to control the ball, and the game.
Cincy ain't no joke. The Bengals may not be blowing teams away consistently but they usually find ways to win, despite having lost eight defensive players (four starters) to injury already. However, nobody (myself included) gave the Chargers much of a chance last week against Kansas City.
I am not going to make that same mistake again.
The way Rivers looks in the offense right now is scary-good. Even with San Diego's obvious defensive deficiencies, I have a gut feeling a lot of points won't be needed in this one.
Final score: Chargers 23, Bengals 20