PHILADELPHIA — With their offensive line overwhelmed with six Eagles sacks in the first three quarters and quarterback Andy Dalton suffering through one of his worst games as a pro Thursday night, the Bengals defense and special teams rescued Cincinnati from the abyss of postseason disaster with four turnovers in a span of seven minutes that gave the Bengals a 34-13 win over the Eagles.
Which is why it's nice to have a top 10 defense. It pitched another good one in holding the Eagles to 42 yards rushing and made two huge stops in the first half to force field goals from the 3 and 1 when Philly could have easily taken a 21-10 lead at the half instead of 13-10.
At 8-6, the Bengals are a half-game ahead of the Steelers for the second wild card with Pittsburgh heading to Dallas on Sunday while the Bengals enjoy their third day of the three-day weekend before heading to Pittsburgh for the Dec. 23 game that merely means everything.
Trailing 13-10 late in the third quarter, the Bengals playoff hopes were wilting fast as they tried to stop a nine-game losing streak on prime time here at Lincoln Financial Field.
The man of the hour turned out to be cornerback Leon Hall with 5:58 left in the third quarter. Rookie quarterback Nick Foles hung up a bomb down the left sideline that was short for wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. Hall stopped, caught it, and took it 44 yards the other way to put it at the Eagles 40.
As it did all night, the Bengals offense then had to overcome itself. This time it was a first-down hold on right tackle Dennis Roland, in the game for Andre Smith getting his helmet fixed.
But the Bengals got it back with running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, in the process of ripping off his fourth 100-yard game in five outings, going to the right perimeter for 16 yards. Later in the drive wide receiver A.J. Green made a leaping catch to convert a third-and-nine. Then the Bengals had to overcome a delay of game when Dalton ran past the pass rush on first-and-goal from the 11, made a nifty move to the left on linebacker Mychal Kendricks at the 5, and put the Bengals up for good at 17-13 with 1:05 left in the third quarter with his 11-yard touchdown run.
Then on Philadelphia's second snap after the score, rookie running back Bryce Brown fumbled as defensive tackle Pat Sims finished him off and defensive end Wallace Gilberry picked it up for a 25-yard fumble return for Cincinnati's first defensive TD of the season and first since last Oct. 30 in Seattle that made it 24-13 with 21 seconds left.
Then on the next snap, safety Reggie Nelson, the man who had that last defensive touchdown, got his helmet on the ball after wide receiver Clay Harbor caught a 16-yarder and safety Chris Crocker recovered at the Eagles 13. The Bengals had to settle for Josh Brown's second field goal of the game to make it 27-13 early in the fourth and when Brown popped up the ensuing kickoff it was fumbled by the front line and Bengals safety Taylor Mays recovered.
The Bengals went nowhere, but got a life when Brown lined up for a field goal and the Eagles were called for disconcerting signals and Dalton turned it into a five-yard TD fade to Green over cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromatrtie with 12:47 left in the game that made it 34-13. Green finished with six catches for 57 yards and the only Bengals wide receiver with a catch. His touchdown ended a three-game drought. Dalton was 13-of-27 for 127 yards and Green-Ellis had 106 yards on 25 carries.
Following the script of Sunday's stunning loss to the Cowboys but in much more condensed fashion, the Bengals blew a 10-0 lead in the first half with the help of sloppy play in all three phases and suffered their second sack-and strip of Dalton at a devastating moment on the first play after the two-minute warning and fell behind the Eagles at halftime, 13-10.
The defense, which held the Eagles to a field goal after the first sack-and strip, bailed out the offense again. A play after Smith was called for a hold, Eagles defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins came unblocked. Swinging outside from right guard to around left tackle, Jenkins swiped the ball out of Dalton's throwing hand to give the Eagles the ball at the Bengals 12 on the strength of the fourth sack of Dalton.
But with the help of a false start and a pass defensed by middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, the Bengals held at the 1-yard line by allowing 11 yards on seven plays and forced Alex Henery's 20-yard field goal with 17 seconds left in the half to make it 13-10.
Two series before the Eagles, who came in with just 22 sacks on the season and eight in the previous four games, got their first-sack-and-strip of Dalton and tied the game at 10. Defensive end Brandon Graham pushed aside Smith to bat the ball from Dalton's throwing hand for a fumble Philly recovered at the Bengals 29.
The Eagles moved the ball with the help of a holding call on WILL backer Vontaze Burfict and an unnecessary roughness call on cornerback Adam Jones when he headbutted wide receiver Riley Cooper in response to Cooper's swing at him. Those were two of six penalties called on the Bengals in the half.
But the Bengals held at the 3 and Henery's 22-yard field goal with 7:37 left tied it at 10.
Dalton struggled in the half, hitting just eight of 15 passes, the longest of which was 19-yarder to tight end Jermaine Gresham. After the Eagles tied it at 10, Gresham was called for a hold on first down and Dalton missed a wide open Green on second down before defensive end Trent Cole came through the left interior for Philadelphia's third sack of the night as the Bengals slid to 1-for-6 on third down and finished the half 2-of-7.
Bengals go up early
Left end Carlos Dunlap's forced fumble and rookie running back Daniel Herron blocked a punt to stake the Bengals to a 10-0 lead in the first 7:09 of the game.
But the Bengals offense couldn't put the Eagles away and the defense let Philly get back into the game when their third offside penalty of the game, this one on SAM backer Manny Lawson, led to Foles's 11-yard touchdown pass to Cooper open at the goal line in the middle of a zone to cut the lead to 10-7 with 11:40 left in the second quarter.
After Lawson jumped on second-and-eight, Foles faked a wide receiver screen and hit a wide open Maclin for a 46-yard gain down the middle to set up the touchdown. The Bengals ends, Dunlap and Michael Johnson, each jumped offside early in the game, but they were wiped out by third-down passes of 25 and 16 yards to wide receiver Jason Avant.
Foles wasn't exactly Ron Jaworski in the half. He was 12-of-24 for 145 yards and not particularly sharp in the red zone. The Eagles couldn't run it in the half (30 yards on 13 carries), so the only offense was Cincinnati's futility.
Trying to break their tough luck on prime time over the past five years, the Bengals opened on script when Dunlap forced a fumble. Dunlap was all over a wide receiver screen and punched the ball out and defensive tackle Domata Peko recovered at the Eagles 44.
Believing their offensive line to be much bigger than the Eagles defensive front, the Bengals immediately turned to Green-Ellis in an effort to pound the running game and he broke his first carry for a 29-yard gain around the right edge as he followed fullback Chris Pressley and pulling right guard Kevin Zeitler.
After Green reached back to swipe a would-be interception from cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for a seven-yard gain, BJGE punished the Eagles on the next four carries, the first for a push-the-pile five-yard run.
Green-Ellis then secured his 13th conversion on 14 third-and one tries this season for a touchdown behind Pressley that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead over the Eagles 3:50 into the game.
Enter Herron after the Bengals forced the punt when Hall blanketed Harbor on a deep third-down bomb. Herron, rushing off the edge, then muscled wide receiver Marvin McNutt back into punter Mat McBriar and McNutt's arm blocked the punt and Herron recovered it at the Bengals 11.
But Cincinnati didn't have a good red-zone set. On second down, Dalton appeared to miss open wide receiver Andrew Hawkins for a touchdown and got sacked. Then on third down he checked it down to Gresham and the Bengals had to settle for Brown's 24-yard field goal that made it 10-0 with 7:09 left in the first quarter.
A knee injury drove Pressley from the game late in the first quarter and it didn't look good as he limped off with the aid of trainers.
The offense didn't play as well as the defense in the first half. Dalton was erratic on back-to-back series to force the first two punts.
The Bengals just couldn't sustain it up front. BJGE had 55 yards on 11 carries in the half and they couldn't keep Dalton clean enough to get the ball to Green. Green had just 41 yards on four catches on six targets and he was the team's leading receiver.
PREGAME NOTES: If smiles and a few quick shoves of defensive line coach Jay Hayes in pregame warmups mean anything, Bengals right end Michael Johnson figures to be active for Thursday night's game against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. And he was, extending his streak to 62 straight games, which encompasses his four-year career.
Johnson (great toe) played the second half of last Sunday's 20-19 loss to Dallas after he got injured sharing a sack with left end Carlos Dunlap late in the first half, but didn't practice Monday and Tuesday.
» Kicker Mike Nugent (right calf) wasn't active, but rehab trainer Nick Cosgray checked on his pregame field goals that he tried while using a metal holder. Nugent looked free and easy kicking from about 32 yards, but Josh Brown got his second Bengals appearance Thursday.
Also inactive were rookie cornerback Dre Kirpatrick (concussion) and running back Cedric Peerman (ankle) for the second straight game. Also, safety George Iloka, defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, and tight end Richard Quinn were out. Kirkpatrick has played in five games this season battling one injury after another.
» It may have been harder than any hit he delivered during his Pro Football Hall of Fame career. Moments before going on the pregame set of NFL Network, Deion Sanders hugged Bengals cornerback Adam Jones running to him down the sideline and they fell to the ground in a playful wrestling match. Sanders is one of those that took Jones under his wing when no one signed Jones in 2009 and he sat out his second season in three years.
Sanders's relationship with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, his secondary coach in Dallas, is a major reason Jones signed with the Bengals in May 2010.
» Bengals punter Kevin Huber had a T-shirt made up for NFL Network's Rich Eisen and it will no doubt appear on Eisen's "Punters Are People, Too" gig. Huber found a picture of Eisen running his annual 40-yard dash in his suit at the NFL scouting combine and had it put on the shirt.
» The Bengals game captains were quarterback Andy Dalton and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis for the offense, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and left end Robert Geathers for the defense and linebacker Vincent Rey for special teams.
» As expected for the Eagles, running back LeSean McCoy and quarterback Michael Vick were inactive, along with tight end Brent Celek.