The Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) will have much to play for when they square off against the in-form San Diego Chargers (10-3) tonight, and not all of it is the fact they can lock up the AFC North title with a win. Three days ago the Bengals were shocked to learn of the death of their wide receiver Chris Henry, who tumbled out of the back of a pickup truck driven by his fiancee in the midst of a domestic dispute.
When his teammates were told of Henry's death on Thursday they met in their locker room and dedicated the rest of the season to Henry's memory. It was a touching gesture. But will they be able to function effectively so soon after the unexpected loss of a teammate who had begun to turn around what had once been a turbulent life which had seen him arrested four times and suspended three times by the NFL?
"It really wouldn't matter where we were at, we're going to pull it together as a family," said the Bengals' offensive guard Bobbie Williams. "Coaches and players included, we're going to ball that fist up and try to deliver a good, solid punch to whoever. If we were here or on the road it doesn't matter. We're going to be that unit." Not even the Bengals are sure how they will react, but one thing is certain: they will get no quarter from the Chargers.
San Diego can lock up a play-off spot for the fourth consecutive year with a win and the Bengals know how they will try to do it, regardless of the situation and the public sympathy that the Bengals are likely to have going for them. Despite the presence of future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson in the backfield, the Chargers have become a pass-first- and-pass-often offence averaging 27.8 points a game under their quarterback Philip Rivers.
Tomlinson had only 50 yards on 21 carries in a 20-17 win last week in Dallas and is averaging a career low 3.2 yards per carry on a team ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing at 87.5 yards per game. But that has not slowed down the Chargers, who have won eight games in a row and will be formidable opposition for the Bengals defence. "The first goal that you have, obviously, is to win your division, which we still have some work to do to get that done," Rivers said.
"But you want to just get in. This game this weekend will allow that to happen if we go out and play well and win the game. "We win this game and we can be assured of playing past January 3." As much as San Diego will throw, Cincinnati want to run the ball, setting up what on paper will be a clash of contrasting tactics. The Bengals have built the consistency of their offence around their running back Cedric Benson, but that approach failed last weekend in Minnesota, where the Vikings stopped their running game cold and then held quarterback Carson Palmer to 94 yards passing in a 30-10 rout.
Yet Palmer remained confident. "After one loss there's no reason to say, 'We're going to become a passing football team' because we're a running team," Palmer said. Today they will be running with heavy hearts. firstname.lastname@example.org