SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The Cincinnati Bengals won their fourth successive game with a 20-13 win at the free-falling San Diego Chargers on Sunday to move into playoff contention.
The Chargers have now lost seven of their last eight games, leaving the future of their much criticized head coach Norv Turner looking bleak and their fans once again venting their frustration at the end of the game.
Andy Dalton put the Bengals ahead with 4:11 remaining, diving into the end-zone after a clever scramble and then a Mike Nugent field goal extended the advantage to seven points.
The game was over when, with the Chargers on a fourth and 10 on the Bengals 17-yard line, quarterback Philip Rivers’ throw into the end zone was intercepted by Reggie Nelson.
That prompted boos from the Chargers faithful who swarmed towards the exits as their team’s playoffs hopes were left as little more than a mathematical possibility.
San Diego are 4-8 behind the Denver Broncos (9-3) who have already secured the title in the weak AFC West division and their wildcard chances look slim.
The Bengals in contrast improved to 7-5 in the AFC North, level with Pittsburgh who defeated divisional leaders Baltimore (9-3) on Sunday.
“We are obviously in the hunt for this thing,” said Dalton, “We know the end goal but you can’t look too far ahead. We have to come out and play our best next week,” he said of the home game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Playing solid, if unspectacularly, the Bengals have performed an impressive turnaround in form following four successive losses from early October and the comeback spirit was evident in Sunday’s win.
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was once again crucial for the Bengals, putting up 118 yards on 25 carries - his third successive game rushing for more than 100 yards.
It began brightly for the Bengals as Dalton ended a 16 play, 91 yard opening drive, helped by two crucial penalties from the San Diego defense, with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham.
But, after a field goal from Nick Novak, the Chargers went ahead as Demorrio Williams picked off a Dalton pass and returned the interception 31 yards to make it 10-7.
The teams exchanged field goals before Dalton’s piece of inspired improvisation, pump-faking right and then rushing down the middle, produced the decisive play.
“I thought I was going to be able to throw it quick somewhere but I wasn’t able to. So I just found the lane and was able to get in,” said Dalton.
“Not everything is going to go exactly how you planned and it is about what you do whenever things break down. It was a big play and we needed it at that point.”
Too many things did not go to plan though for Rivers whose name was booed by his own fans during the team introductions and sporadically from then on.
“I heard boos occasionally throughout the game,” Said Rivers.
“If you throw the ball away here, you get booed, so it’s tough. A throwaway is better than an interception. I’d hate to (have) heard what those are (like).”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury