SAN DIEGO – For four games, the Bungles were back.
After a 3-1 start, the Cincinnati Bengals got a bit full of themselves and promptly lost to Miami, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Denver, tumbling to 3-5 and seemingly relegating themselves to insignificance after reaching the playoffs two of the three previous seasons.
Suddenly, the Bengals (6-5) are back as playoff contenders after winning three straight games by at least 18 points, the first time they'd done that since 1976. One victory was against the New York Giants and two were against the tomato cans of the AFC West, Kansas City and Oakland.
Now they travel to San Diego (4-7), where the Chargers are finding different ways to come from ahead to lose, having dropped three straight and six of seven. As the Chargers plummet closer to missing the playoffs for the third straight season, it appears the window is ready to slam shut on the Norv Turner era, and perhaps on general manager A.J. Smith's time with the Bolts, as well.
The Bengals' winning streak has coincided with Ben Roethlisberger's absence from the Steelers, allowing Cincinnati to pull even with Pittsburgh in the chase for the final AFC wild-card spot. Indianapolis controls the first wild-card spot at 7-4.
"We've dug ourselves out of our hole, but we still haven't gotten anywhere yet," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "There's still a lot of work to do, a lot of things ahead of us, a lot of great challenges. So I think we're excited about that, and we've got a lot of great opportunity. We've been able to dig ourselves out to a chance to where now we do have that opportunity to play well the rest of the season and make it to the playoffs."
After Sunday, the Bengals will face Dallas and Philadelphia, both of which have losing records, before finishing with a showdown at Pittsburgh and a home game against AFC North leader Baltimore, which routed Cincinnati in the season-opener.
Whitworth said the Bengals "felt a little good about ourselves and let things slip" after their 3-1 start.
"And I think we refocused in and realized the work and the preparation it takes every week to win in the NFL," he said. "I think being a young team, they needed to learn that. We're going to be prepared now to go forward. I think guys are ready, they're prepared, they understand what it takes. And we definitely have young guys who have the talent to be successful at this level, so I'm excited about the rest of the season."
The Chargers also started 3-1, and it's been a confounding mess ever since.
Half of the Chargers' wins are against Kansas City, which has an NFL-worst 1-10 record. They blew a 10-point lead in the second half of a 31-24 loss at New Orleans on Oct. 7 and then followed that up with their epic Monday night collapse in which they let Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos rally from a 24-0 halftime deficit for a 35-24 victory.
Then came Sunday's home game against the Ravens, when the astoundingly let Ray Rice convert a fourth-and-29 on a dump-off pass. The Ravens, who trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter, sent the game into overtime before winning.
Rice's play undid what had been a solid performance by San Diego's defense. Philip Rivers managed to go turnover-free for just the third time this season but was sacked a season-high six times.
Rivers has been under siege most of the season due to a leaky line, and he could be in trouble again Sunday. Tackle Geno Atkins leads the Bengals with nine sacks and end Michael Johnson has eight. They'll line up opposite San Diego's weak link, the left side of the offensive line, although the right side has collapsed, too. The Bengals have 35 sacks while the Chargers have only 22.
Not only were the Chargers physically beaten up by the Ravens, but the Bolts could have a hard time shaking off that fourth-and-29 play.
San Diego's mood is "as good as it can be right now," Rivers said. "It was a tough loss. Every loss is tough. It's been a tough stretch, but I think that as competitors being in this league, you don't ever get used to losing but you learn how to move on at some point because the ball is going to be kicked off on Sunday and we have to go and find a way to win. I know that we'll be ready to go on Sunday. From watching this defense I know that it's heck of a defense and I know what kind of talent that they offensively from being with a few of those guys last year at the Pro Bowl and seeing them up close. It's a good team."
While San Diego's offense has sputtered, the Bengals have averaged 31 points the last three games. During that stretch, second-year quarterback Andy Dalton has passed for 639 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis will try for his third straight 100-yard rushing game. By comparison, San Diego's Ryan Mathews has yet to crack 100 yards in a game this season.
One more Denver win or Chargers loss will secure the AFC West title for Manning and the Broncos. While mathematically alive in the wild-card race, the Chargers trail four other teams.
San Diego is 21-22 since its last playoff appearance, an embarrassing home loss to the New York Jets following the 2009 season.
As if they need any reminders of past face plants, here come the Bengals.
In 2010, the Chargers' four-year playoff run came to a frigid, shocking end when they were routed by the Bengals in the season's penultimate game, in Cincinnati.
Turner seemed to sum up that whole season when he turned to then-defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and said, "What happened?" after Jerome Simpson blew past unprepared cornerback Antoine Cason to haul in a 59-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer as the Bengals pulled away in the fourth quarter.
Palmer is now with Oakland, which lost 34-10 at Cincinnati on Sunday.
And the Bengals are eager to prove they're for real.
"We just have to continue to have a sense of finish, and when we get the opportunity, we need to close out games," coach Marvin Lewis said. "Whether it be first downs, whether it be third-down stops, turnovers, sacks — whatever it may be, we have to continue to do that. We have a little better understanding of what it takes to do that, and now we have to go prove it and execute it. But talking about it in here or in that (locker) room doesn't matter. We have to go do it."
AP Sports Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL