For the second straight season, the Bengals’ December stretch run begins in sunny San Diego against the Chargers. The biggest difference this year though is that Cincinnati leads the AFC North and is control of its own destiny.

Going into today’s game, the Bengals have a 1½-game lead over the Ravens, who beat the Steelers on Thursday night. After facing San Diego, three of the final four games are at home. They should also be rested after being one of the final four teams to go on their bye week.

With 11 games under their belts, Marvin Lewis and the coaching staff were able to do something they rarely get to do – cross-scout. Defensive coaches got to assess the offense and vice versa because there was a larger sample size. It was that cross-scouting that should help define the direction for the last five regular-season games.

How this team has evolved in some ways is similar to the past couple years – there are still plenty of questions about the offense, and the defense has remained solid despite losing their top two players due to injuries. As you go into December, the identity of this team is pretty much set.

With that in mind, and after doing some self-scouting of our own, here are five questions the Bengals need to answer if they are to take the next step, which is three straight postseason trips for the first time in franchise history and win a playoff game for the first time in 22 years.

Will there be consistency from QB Andy Dalton?
The three-game stretch where the passing game was firing on all cylinders is a distant memory. Andy Dalton has thrown eight interceptions in the past three games along with being sacked 10 times.

In wins over the Bills, Lions and Jets, Dalton was 75 of 117 for 1034 yards with 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 116.5. In the past three it is 69 of 131 for 705 yards with five touchdowns, eight picks and a 55.7 rating. He’s also completed less than half his passes in two straight games for the first time in his career.

While it would be easy to lump them all on Dalton, the consensus is the Pick Six to Joe Haden was the result of A.J. Green cutting his route short. With the Bengals falling behind early in the past three games, pass protection at times has been an issue. Dalton was sacked five times in both the Dolphins and Ravens games but was not sacked against the Browns.

“Quarterbacks throw interceptions, number one, but we’ve just got to continue to clean them up,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of running better routes, better depths and, if it’s cloudy at all, Andy is going to have to find another receiver.”

Three of the next four opponents the Bengals face are ranked 23rd or lower in the league in total defense. San Diego comes into today’s game 29th in total defense and 27th against the pass.

During the bye week, Dalton said he looked at all aspects of his game and noted that he felt he made some strides on his mechanics.

Even with the three-game slump, Dalton is third in the AFC and sixth in the NFL in touchdown passes with 21. He is also fourth in the AFC in passing yards (2,954) and tied for fifth in completions (252). His 85.2 passer rating is eighth.

“I feel like I’ve gotten better from where I was the last couple of years,” he said. “So I think that some of the throws I’ve made this year were throws I wasn’t hitting the last couple of years. I can see areas I’ve improved. It’s what I try to do each year.”

Do we really know how the secondary has done without Hall?
It is a valid question to ask. In the four games since Hall’s injury, the Bengals have allowed only 166.8 passing yards per game, which is below their season average of 211.1. However, they haven’t faced passing attacks like the next two in San Diego and Indianapolis.

The Chargers have one of the more varied passing games in the league. Antonio Gates is back to his prior form and is tied for the AFC in receptions by a tight end with 59. Danny Woodhead also has 59 receptions, which leads running backs in the conference. Rookie receiver Keenan Allen is also coming into his own with 50 receptions.

Philip Rivers, who is 26-5 in games in December, leads the league in completion percentage (70.8 percent) and is fourth in passing yards (3,381). Two of those losses though have been to the Bengals. When the Bengals ended Tom Brady’s touchdown passes streak in Week 5, it was without Hall, who missed the game due to an injury.

After some early struggles, Terence Newman and Adam “Pacman” Jones are playing much better. Newman has been targeted the fourth-most among corners in the conference at 71 but has allowed only 40 receptions. Jones is sixth with 69 targets but has allowed only 34 catches.

Chris Crocker has also played well playing some slot corner. Against Cleveland, Dre Kirkpatrick was targeted four times and gave up two receptions, but one of those was a 74-yard touchdown where he let up for a second in coverage.

One player not to overlook during the stretch run is safety Reggie Nelson. Of his 18 career interceptions, 10 have come in regular-season games played in December or January.