Players rarely admit they’ve glanced at what lies ahead on the NFL schedule. Some coaches take it as far as not mouthing the next opponent’s name until the week of the game arrives.
It’s the “focus on one game at a time” mentality. That phrase was used often in the Chargers’ locker room this week.
The Chargers host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, but they were frequently asked about next week’s game, the one that could decide the AFC West. The one that’s four days away from Sunday and scheduled to be televised for everyone to see.
Go ahead, name the team. The Chargers are well aware of Thursday night’s opponent. They’ve peaked ahead, but assured they remain focused on the Bengals, a 15-point underdog.
“We know the schedule that’s left, but we have to focus on the present,” Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward said.
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn didn’t avoid questions about Melvin Gordon’s playing status for the “Thursday Night Football” showdown against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
Gordon was ruled out against the Bengals, forcing the star running back to miss a second consecutive game because of an MCL sprain. Lynn provided optimism on Gordon returning next week, but quickly brought the attention back on the Bengals.
“I can’t even think that far down the road,” Lynn said Friday. “I got something else to do here in a couple of days.”
The wounded Bengals (5-7) have lost four in a row and will enter the StubHub Center with Jeff Driskel as their starting quarterback. The Chargers defense won’t have to worry about quarterback Andy Dalton and star wide receiver A.J. Green. Both are on injured reserve.
But it wasn’t that long ago when the Chargers (9-3) lost as heavy favorites at home against a struggling team with a head coach on the hot seat.
The Denver Broncos, who had lost six out of seven at the time, snapped the Chargers’ six-game winning streak Nov. 18 and started a streak of their own. The Broncos have won three consecutive games for a late-season playoff push that could potentially save Vance Joseph’s job.
That’s what the Bengals are aiming to do. Multiple reports have said longtime Bengals coach Marvin Lewis could be fired at the end of the season. A winning streak to end the year might be enough to buy Lewis a 17th season with the Bengals. It worked for him last year.
“Never overlook your opponent,” said Chargers cornerback Desmond King when asked what the team learned from the 23-22 loss to the Broncos. “That’s something you’re gonna have to stick with throughout this game again. It’s an NFL team with talented guys on their team that can still go out there and get a win.”
Technically, the Bengals aren’t out of the playoff race. After spending most the season as one of the top six seeds in the AFC, the Bengals are now two games behind the Baltimore Ravens for the final slot, with four other teams ahead of them in the standings.
It’s complicated and it requires a lot of help, but the Bengals aren’t giving up hope on making the postseason.
The Chargers had two complex ways of clinching their first playoff berth in five years this week, but the Tennessee Titans’ 30-9 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday put an end to that.
“A lot of (expletive) needed to happen,” Hayward said. “When you control your own destiny, you don’t really have to worry about it. You just worry about your own things you can control.”
Hayward said it’s an exciting time for the Chargers to be this close to a postseason berth and in the mix for the AFC West title and the No. 1 seed in the conference with four games remaining on the regular-season schedule.
But he too doesn’t like to look ahead. As for looking back, Hayward couldn’t help himself.
The Chargers have had talented teams since Hayward joined the franchise in 2016, but now they’re finally putting it all together despite key injuries and a slow start to the season.
“We were 1-2,” Hayward said. “Played some really good teams, fought back, and we knew there was going to be a little adversity along the way. Everybody does. Nobody in this league is undefeated.”
Hayward also added: “It only takes one game to put it together.”
The Chargers put it together after that 1-2 start. So did the Broncos after beating the Chargers.
Hayward and the Chargers will try to stop the Bengals from putting it together Sunday.
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