Chargers set to earn their stripes

You could see it coming as soon as the schedule was released. Smack in the middle of a mostly favorable itinerary was a brutal two-game road-trip against the defending champions of the AFC North and West, respectively. That rough stretch starts on Sunday, as the Chargers travel to Cincinnati to take on a desperate Bengals squad.

Despite losing four of their last five games, the Bengals are an immensely talented team. Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson are two of the league's elite at their respective positions; Rudi Johnson provides the offense with balance; and Deltha O'Neal and Tory James may be game's best pass-thieving pair.

The Chargers will not make the same mistake they did in week seven, when they went into Kansas City and were out hustled by the more motivated home team. The Bengals may not hold a lofty place in the standing, but they certainly have the Chargers respect.

"It is going to be a test for us," LaDainian Tomlinson said. "Cincinnati is one of the top teams in the AFC North. They are going to be ready and we have to match their intensity and be ready from the jump start. They are going to try and get on us fast."

The Chargers must not only beat the Bengals, but also must overcome the temptation to look past them. Sitting around the bend in week 11 is a primetime showdown against the Broncos, a game which could have monumental repercussions in the chase for the AFC West crown.

The looming Broncos game should only make the showdown in Cincinnati that much more crucial. Should the Chargers lose to the Bengals, their showdown in Denver would become a must-win affair if they are to challenge for the divisional crown.

"We can't look ahead to the second of these road trips," Philip Rivers said. "You have to look at them one at a time. They (the Bengals) have come off a couple of tough losses at home and they are at home and will be ready to go."

The Bengals appear to match up well with the Chargers on paper. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh will give San Diego's much-maligned secondary all it can handle. "We all know about Chad Johnson," cornerback Quentin Jammer began. "He has become one of the top two or three receivers in this league. Houshmandzadeh is coming along and Chris Henry is another great receiver. It is going to be a tough task trying to get these guys stopped."

Also, the Bengals should be able to better endure the absence of stud left tackle Levi Jones with Shawne Merriman set to miss the game, too.

The Chargers, though, are more concerned about themselves than they are with the Bengals. The Bolts feel they should still be undefeated and are unwilling do endure another unnecessary setback.

"I think we could be 8-0," coach Marty Schottenheimer said.

Come Sunday, he would likely be happy to settle for 7-2.

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