Chargers start fast, unravel, and then get it together on defense to beat Bengals

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  • Cincinnati Bengals
    Cincinnati Bengals
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  • Los Angeles Chargers
    Los Angeles Chargers
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  • Kyzir White
    Kyzir White
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  • Brandon Staley
    American football coach
Los Angeles Chargers' Tevaughn Campbell (20) celebrates a fumble recovery for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)
Chargers' Tevaughn Campbell (20) celebrates a game-changing fumble-recovery return for a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals. (Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

Kyzir White entered the postgame interview room with athletic tape dragging a few feet behind his left leg.

The image of the linebacker looking like a disheveled mummy couldn't have been more fitting on an afternoon when the Chargers nearly unraveled.

But White and his defensive cohorts rallied in the fourth quarter, producing two turnovers and scoring a momentum-clinching touchdown as the Chargers kept it together for a 41-22 victory over Cincinnati.

Two weeks ago at home, they blew a 27-10 fourth-quarter lead against Pittsburgh before scrambling back to win in the final minutes. This collapse was similar — but different.

“We got control in the fourth quarter,” coach Brandon Staley said. “We got control and then we put it back away. That’s what I was satisfied with.”

After opening a 24-0 lead barely 19 minutes into the game, the Chargers went to pieces with three turnovers in allowing the Bengals to score 22 consecutive points.

But then they won the final quarter 17-0 to quell the tension that had been building and claim the franchise’s most significant triumph since beating Baltimore in the playoffs following the 2018 season.

The result left both the Chargers and Bengals at 7-5 but gave the Chargers what could prove to be a key tie-breaking edge in January.

“In that second half, when it got really tight, we had some big stops," Staley said. "Then we finished the fourth quarter with a bagel. Just really, really proud of our defensive staff and players.”

The signature moment came on the third play of the final quarter, with the score 24-22 and Cincinnati having just advanced into Chargers territory. Bengals running back Joe Mixon fumbled and Tevaughn Campbell picked it up.

The cornerback has struggled in pass coverage at times this season and had a few more rough moments Sunday, but he was there to collect Mixon’s miscue and sprint 61 yards for a touchdown.

The defense then forced Cincinnati into a three-and-out — during which the Bengals went backward 10 yards — and the offense had the ball back just short of midfield.

Chargers' Uchenna Nwosu recovers a fumble by Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9).
Chargers' Uchenna Nwosu recovers a fumble by Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9). (Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Four plays later — two of them long Justin Herbert completions — Austin Ekeler scored from a yard out to produce a 16-point lead and a chance to finally exhale.

The Chargers had avoided calamity by suddenly turning rock solid after teetering on the edge.

“There was no flinch,” Herbert said. “It’s the NFL. The teams are good.”

The Chargers sacked Joe Burrow six times, a franchise best since 2016. They came up with four turnovers, matching their season high. They stopped Cincinnati on each of its final six possessions.

The run defense, ranked last in the league, limited Mixon to 54 yards on 19 carries. The third-down defense, ranked 31st, stopped the Bengals on four of their final five attempts.

“Last week, we had a bad taste in our mouth,” White said of a Chargers loss in Denver. “We felt like we let the running backs get loose too much. We just wanted to accept the challenge this week.”

Edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu had a significant impact throughout the game, and especially early. He sacked Burrow on Cincinnati’s opening possession, forcing a fumble and then recovering it, setting up a Dustin Hopkins field goal.

Nwosu’s hit also left Burrow with what he afterward called a dislocated pinky, limiting the quarterback’s effectiveness for a stretch. Nwosu added a second sack later, matching his total for the season entering Sunday.

“He deserves so much credit,” Staley said. “He’s really settled in to his fundamentals and his assignments. … He’s been really close to kind of bursting a little bit. Today was one of those bursts.”

Herbert finished 26 of 35 for 317 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. He outlasted Burrow, who was 24 of 40 for 300 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions.

Burrow was the first overall selection in the 2020 draft. The Chargers took Herbert five picks later.

“Justin controlled the game,” Staley said. “He made a lot of big plays in the passing game.”

And then Herbert and the offense turned everything over to the defense, which rose up in time to grab a game there to be grabbed.

“Sometimes when it gets tight, your defense has to win the day,” Staley said. “When you’re on the road and it’s loud, your defense can get you the momentum back by shutting down a really prolific offense, and that’s what happened today.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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