SS Paul Oliver (Doug Pensinger/Getty)
All week, the San Diego Chargers have heard about the different scenarios that could allow them to sneak into the playoffs. But if they don't beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, none of that will matter. We set the stage for this must-win affair with keys to the game, team notes and personnel updates.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Field Turf
TV: CBS, Gus Johnson, Steve Tasker
PREDICTION: Chargers 38-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: With WR Terrell Owens out with a knee injury, the Bengals got back to their ground game and RB Cedric Benson plowed his way for 150 yards on 31 carries last week. Expect more of the same as QB Carson Palmer's protection - and decision making - has been spotty and San Diego brings the league's No. 1 defense to town. Plus, Cincinnati's secondary is banged up. Even with TE Antonio Gates (foot, ankle) likely out, Chargers QB Philip Rivers should move the ball with relative ease.
FAST FACTS: Rivers is 20-1 as a starter in December. ... The Bengals have had 16 defensive backs play at least one snap this season.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The clock is running out for Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates.
Each week Gates wrestles with his foot and toe injury - the foot is more serious. And every week he puts up the good fight, testing it before kickoff to either give the coaches a thumbs up or thumbs down.
But it's becoming clearer that Gates could be done for the year. Regardless, his availability for the must-win game Sunday in Cincinnati looks to be in serious jeopardy.
"Time is the key," a glum Gates said. "There's not magical treatment for an injury like this."
The torn plantar fascia is keeping him off his feet. Any pressure he puts on his foot - in practice or warming up for the games - comes with a serious dose of pain.
Usually, the hard-nosed Gates shrugs it off. But every man has a limit and Gates has reached his on numerous occasions.
But Gates is having a more difficult time ignoring the obvious.
"Just because I hope to come back if we end up making the postseason, there's no guarantee that I'll be able to go," he said. "It gives me a chance."
That's encouraging, but only if the Chargers make it. They need to sweep their final two games against the Bengals and Broncos and hope the AFC West-leading Chiefs stumble in one of their two final games.
But Sunday, and probably the following one as well, the Chargers will have to make do without Gates. So far, they've been OK with that in going 4-0 in his absence. But anyone thinking the Chargers don't miss Gates is mistaken.
With Terrell Owens done for the season and Chad Ochocinco limited at best for Sunday's game against San Diego, Bengals wide receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell will once again have a chance to show that they can figure into the team's future plans.
For Caldwell, who will start on Sunday, it has been a roller-coaster season. He was the most improved player on the offense during offseason workouts, but saw his role reduced with the drafting of Jordan Shipley and the signing of Owens.
In last Sunday's win over Cleveland though he had four receptions for a career-high 89 yards. Last year he was second on the team in receptions with 51 and has 14 going into the Chargers game.
"They brought in some key players and I had to fall back a little bit," Caldwell said. "I think I learned a lot more by taking a back seat and evaluating, seeing their work ethic for how they prepared."
Caldwell does provide some versatility to be used in different ways, including lining up at any receiver spot. Over his three-year career they have run him on reverses nine times and as a former high school quarterback he has lined up in the backfield a couple times.
Against the Browns, he showed some of that speed by taking a receiver screen 53 yards, which marked the longest reception of his career.
Said Caldwell about the future: "It could be a completely different wide receiver corps next year. I think we've got a lot of young guys who want to go out there and prove themselves and step up there. We're just hungry and do whatever it takes. Now I want to solidify it. Let them know this is my position and I'm here to stay, and not be in and out and falling back."
--WR Malcom Floyd (hamstring) didn't work and indications have gone from him playing this week to him possibly being down - he has yet to work this week.
--RG Louis Vasquez (neck) was a full participant but it's not known if he will start on Sunday.
--ILB Stephen Cooper (knee) didn't practice and he said there is a strong chance of him being down this week. He hasn't been able to shake this for most the season.
--ILB Brandon Siler (ribs) was a full participant and he would take the snaps Stephen Cooper misses.
--WR Patrick Crayton (wrist) practiced on a full basis, which is more than he did Wednesday. It appears he is out one more week.
--OLB Antwan Applewhite (ankle) was a full participant and depending how he feels Friday, he could go Sunday.
--OLB Larry English (foot) was a limited participant and he might be out one more week.
--FB Jacob Hester (ill) worked and is fine for Sunday.
--RB Ryan Mathews (ill) practiced and is fine for Sunday.
--WR Kelley Washington (hip) was a full participant and he'll go Sunday if they decide to make him active.
--RB Brian Leonard did not practice for a second straight day due to an ankle injury. He is not expected to play and would be replaced by Cedric Peerman as the third-down back.
--C Kyle Cook had full participation in Thursday's practice after being limited on Wednesday. He will be in the starting lineup on Sunday.
--CB Jonathan Wade was limited in practice for a second straight day due to a knee injury but is expected to play against San Diego.
--RB Bernard Scott was limited in Thursday's practice after missing Wednesday's session due to a toe injury. He is expected to play.
--OT Dennis Roland was limited for a second straight day due to a knee injury but is expected to play on Sunday.