Facing the streaking San Diego Chargers in a game with big playoff implications was going to be tough enough for the Cincinnati Bengals before the death of wide receiver Chris Henry.
The Bengals dedicated the rest of their season to Henry, beginning with Sunday's game between the division leaders.
Playing days after their teammate's death is “going to be tough and all,” said defensive tackle Domata Peko, a close friend of Henry, who was out for the season with a broken arm. “I know one thing about Chris, he's a great competitor and if there's something he would want us to do, it's keep on fighting, keep on pushing. And that's what we're going to do, push through these hard times and go out there and get this win for Chris.”
Henry died Thursday, a day after falling from the back of a pickup truck during what police described as a domestic dispute in Charlotte, N.C.
The winner will at the very least clinch a playoff spot.
If Denver loses, the Chargers (10-3) will secure their fourth straight AFC West title. Winners of eight straight, the Chargers can also earn the conference's No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round bye with a win and a Denver loss or tie plus a New England loss or tie.
The Bengals (9-3) can clinch the AFC North title with a win or a Ravens loss, as well as keep themselves in the running for the No. 2 seed.
Players will put a commemorative No. 15 sticker on their helmets and coaches will wear commemorative pins during the game.
Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeill spent time with Henry in recent offseasons through mutual friends who'd gone to West Virginia with Henry.
“It hits close to home to the NFL family. We never want to see a player lost. I think everybody is feeling it. Our remorse goes out to everybody. Hopefully, the Cincinnati Bengals bounce back from it. They have to come in and be professional, and I think they're going to do a great job of doing it. At the same time, we've got to show our respect.”
The Bengals were grief-stricken in October when Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, died unexpectedly at the couple's home. Three days later, Zimmer coached the defense in a 17-14 win in Baltimore that put them in control of the AFC North.
The Bengals already had plenty to focus on before Henry died.
They could have clinched the division last week but lost by 20 points at Minnesota, their worst loss this season against a top team. Their offense was a mess, particularly their passing game, as Carson Palmer threw for only 94 yards.
The Bengals planned to travel on Friday, something they didn't do before going to Oakland and losing last month.
Palmer said arriving a day early will be “a huge advantage. Getting used to the time, the weather. It's been 20 degrees here for a couple of weeks now, so getting in some 65-degree weather will be nice, letting your body adjust to that. It will be definitely a much better advantage than a couple of weeks back.
“It's set up for us to be effective,” he added, “and I think that's what coach wanted to get done by getting out there a day early.”
The Bengals are within reach of just their second playoff spot in the last 19 years.
“It's huge for us,” center Kyle Cook said. “Obviously we want to come back and defend ourselves. We've been working hard all year to get where we're at. We're not going to let anything slide or give anything away.”
To do that, though, they'll have to get past Philip Rivers and a charging Chargers team that is 16-0 in December since 2006. The Chargers have ended each of the last three seasons on a winning streak.
“Obviously their team plays well in December,” Cook said. “I don't know what it is. It's hard to explain. Obviously we'd like to start something like that around here, and the only way we can start that is by doing it this week.”
With Vincent Jackson about to join tight end Antonio Gates with 1,000 yards receiving, the Chargers will face a defense Rivers said is dynamic in its coverages, fronts and blitzes.
“They present a lot of different looks and they're very sound in what they do,” Rivers said. “I think what you see is, throughout the course of the game, you look up and there's not a whole lot of points on the scoreboard for the teams they're playing.”
The Bengals swept their division games, winning twice against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, who in turn beat the Chargers.
Rivers said the Chargers are shooting simply to get in the playoffs, then worry about the division title and bye later.
“Obviously it means a ton to both teams,” Rivers said. “It's what you'd expect in December, as a game with a lot riding on it, and we're looking forward to it.”
Rivers said there's no concern about confidence turning into cockiness. As well as things have been going, he doesn't want the Chargers to be considered a team of destiny just yet.
The Chargers had to win their last four games last year, coupled with Denver's historic collapse, to win the division title at 8-8.
“As good as they can be going, they can turn in the other direction,” Rivers said. “Just because you win eight in row doesn't mean you're going to win the ninth. As we found out last year, there's a lot that can happen in the last two weeks of the season. We've just got to carry on like we have and take care of business.”