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Chargers Need Wintry Win to Stay in Contention

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    For their next season-saving feat, the San Diego Chargers have to make their longest trip east all season, play in wintry conditions and beat a newly confident team that's determined to freeze them out of the playoffs.

    It'll be quite a thing if they're still talking postseason while thawing out in the visitors' locker room at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday night.

    The Chargers (8-6) are on another one of their accustomed late-season hot streaks. They've won six of their last seven, digging out of a deep early hole to move one game behind Kansas City for the AFC West lead.

    "We know we need to win the next two to even have a chance, and we still need some help," said quarterback Philip Rivers, the NFL's highest-ranked passer in December. "We've always wanted to finish strong, and we've been able to do that. But it's certainly going to be a challenge these last two weeks."

    This one could be the tougher of the two.

    The Bengals (3-11) think they finally caught their breath in the frosty December air last week. They ended a 10-game losing streak that matched the longest in franchise history by running over rival Cleveland on a bitterly cold afternoon.

    The forecast for Sunday? Cold and windy again, with the home team feeling better than it has in a very long time.

    "We have a chance to spoil somebody's season because our season has already been spoiled, and I think that is also weighing heavy on our guys," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "It's a good situation for us to be in. We've got nothing to lose. We know what we are playing for. We're playing for a win and to slow somebody's season down."

    It might come down to whether the NFL's top-ranked defense can stop a running back who ended the last game with a tear running down his right cheek.

    With receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco hobbled by injuries, the Bengals went back to the formula that won them the AFC North last season and broke that long losing streak. Cedric Benson ran 31 times for 150 yards -- both season highs -- for a 19-17 win over Cleveland that felt so good it made him cry.

    Owens had knee surgery Monday and Ochocinco missed practice last week with a bad ankle, so Benson figures it's probably going to come down to him again. Benson is a free agent after the season and could be leaving the city where he revived his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

    Maybe more cold teardrops on Sunday.

    "Not sure," Benson said. "It's been a fun ride. A lot of growing, and I'm very grateful for it. That wouldn't be surprising if it does get a little emotional out there."

    While the Bengals work up a little emotion, the Chargers will be trying to ride a little momentum. They tend to do that at this time of year.

    San Diego has reached the playoffs each of the last four years, finishing each season with an impressive winning streak. The Chargers won their last 10 regular-season games in 2006, the final six in 2007, the last four in 2008 and the final 11 last year, including a 27-24 win over the Bengals in San Diego on Dec. 6.

    This year, they've pulled themselves out of their biggest deficit yet by getting a grip.

    "In our first seven games, we lost 13 fumbles," coach Norv Turner said. "Over the past seven games, we've lost three fumbles. It's obviously made a big difference in terms of how we've played and how we've finished games."

    The Chargers have won 20 of their last 21 games in December, the only loss coming at home to Oakland on Dec. 5. They need to win in Cincinnati and in Denver against another 3-11 team to have a chance of making the playoffs.

    No surprise that they're taking it right to the end.

    "Teams that have a chance to go to the postseason usually are playing their best in November and December," said Rivers, who is 36-6 as a starter in regular-season games played in November, December and January. "That's one thing we've been able to do the past four years now. Unfortunately, we had quite a deeper hole than we've had previously. We've been in a situation where we've really needed to be perfect for the past nine games."

    Can they be perfect while shivering?

    San Diego's longest trip east has been to Indianapolis, where it played in a dome and won on Nov. 28. The weather has been kind to them -- until now.

    "We played in a monsoon almost in Kansas City in Week 1, but since then we haven't had any (bad) weather games," Rivers said. "This is the farthest we've gone all year. It is quite different this year, but I don't think it'll be a problem.

    "I don't know if there's anything you can do. You just go there in warm-ups, get acclimated and handle it for three-and-a-half, four hours, and hope you play really well and win the game."