PHILADELPHIA — Maybe Thursday's game with the Bengals (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12 and NFL Network) gets so bad that the Eagles fans end up chucking snowballs at Santa Claus as they so famously did all those Christmases ago, but the Bengals and most of the pundits aren't planning on a rout.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable gives the 7-6 Bengals the edge against the 4-9 Eagles, but they do so knowing that stranger things have happened during December games involving playoff contenders and teams about to embark on a housecleaning.
Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst who participated in a Bengals blowout at old Veterans Stadium in 1975 and a tight Cincinnati victory over Ron Jaworski's Eagles in 1982, doesn't predict scores. But he gives the Bengals the edge because they know they have go win it after giving away Sunday's game to Dallas in the last seven minutes, yet he also cautions the teeming talent still toiling on the Philly roster.
Les Bowen, the long-time Eagles beat reporter for The Philadelphia Daily News, says the games have become secondary and the stories are now about the last strains of the Andy Reid era and the Eagles obit for quarterback Michael Vick and what's next. Bengals-Eagles is an afterthought, he says, and that's why he gives the edge to Cincinnati because it's a club with more at stake.
Versatile Paul Dehner, Jr., the Bengals beat reporter for CBSSports.com who also writes fluently in the college game, has gone to school on the damage losing Bengals teams did in the Decembers of '08 and '10 and thinks the Eagles are dangerous. But not dangerous enough to hold off a Bengals team that has more talent, he says.
Solomon Wilcots, the former Bengals safety who has become a national voice for CBS Sports and NFL Network and still lives in Cincy, says his old team should win if it stays at home with a game plan that favors the simple execution of its defensive line that he thinks dominates a Philly offensive line down to four backups.
Let's go around the table.
There hasn't been much focus on the game. We're in such a strange situation. We seem to be at the end of the Andy Reid era, and Nick Foles taking over for Michael Vick has become the main story and what is going to happen next season has overshadowed the games.
Putting up a rookie quarterback like Foles against a really good Bengals defense in a short week with little preparation is a tough challenge and he has no experience in a quick turnaround.
Foles had a tremendous game Sunday and he pulled it out at the end. He's a very tall quarterback and he doesn't run well, but he showed good pocket presence. He stepped up and did a nice job biding his time. The joke was his 10-yard touchdown run took five minutes.
Up until a few weeks ago, the offensive line was the worst in the NFL. Only one guy, left guard Evan Mathis, was playing at the end of last season. They've got a rookie right tackle in Dennis Kelley and King Dunlap has been a fill-in in years past and is playing left tackle, but he's played pretty well. Center Dallas Reynolds has been on the practice squad the last three years and is playing for the first time.
But in the last three weeks they've played better. Right guard Jake Scott, the former Titan and Colt, came off the street last month and has stabilized them and helped the young guys to buy in. They're not great, but they're better than they were.
Running back Bryce Brown had back-to-back games a few weeks ago with 178 and 169 yards that haven't been done by an Eagles rookie since Steve van Buren, but he came back to earth last week with six yards on 12 carries for an 0.5 average, and in the two previous games he had something like an 8.5 average. Their best receiver, DeSean Jackson, is out, but Jeremy Maclin is coming off a 100-yard game and Riley Cooper has played well.
The defense really wasn't great last week and it isn't going to be great. There are a lot of holes that can be exploited if Andy Dalton does what other quarterbacks have been able to do. Since Todd Bowles became the defensive coordinator, they haven't been able to stop any quarterback with any kind of pedigree whatsoever in a stretch of seven games. Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman last week was the first quarterback to have less than a 120 passer rating and they don't have an interception in that stretch.
The starting corners, Nnamdi Asomugha and D. Rodgers-Cromartie, have not been good at all. People are wondering if Nnamdi is washed up and DRC kind of just wanders around in coverage and their third corner, Brandon Boykin, is a rookie. Their safeties have struggled covering the pass and starting free safety Kurt Coleman isn't going to play and he'll be replaced by special-teamer Colt Anderson, a good tackler.
They don't play the wide-9 defense anymore with defensive line coach Jim Washburn gone a few weeks ago, so they don't just put their head down and rush the passer anymore. It's more reading, but they can still go. I don't know if it's because of all the changes, but defensive end Trent Cole has not been Trent Cole and hasn't had a good year.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 26-23. It wouldn't shock me if the Eagles won. But if you're trying to put up some wins to get into the playoffs like the Bengals, I would think this is the kind of team you want to play. Especially on four days rest.
The Eagles don't have bad talent. They really don't. Trent Cole is one of the best all-around ends in the game. He's not only a good pass rusher, but he plays the run extremely well. DeMeco Ryans is the middle linebacker and has been to the Pro Bowl. He runs the defense, but they've been through some things on that side of the ball.
They just fired their defensive line coach a few weeks ago and they let go the defensive coordinator in midseason. They don't run that wide-9 defense anymore; they're playing that 4-3 defense a little differently. The surprising thing about the game against Dallas is the sack ratio. It was plus-two in Dallas's favor and I thought for sure it would be the other way around. The Bengals blocked the run well, but they gave up some pressure on the pass in the interior and they'll have to pick that up. Rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler played well until his last snap, when he got beat on a stunt.
I think that's a big matchup this week. A good one between that young Bengals interior against Fletcher Cox, the Eagles first-round pick playing defensive tackle.
To me, Eagles head coach Andy Reid isn't going to let his rookie quarterback, Nick Foles, sit back in the pocket against this rush. The Bengals are going to have to be ready to play screens, draws, bootlegs. They'll try to get Foles out of pocket and change his launch point, so it's going to come down to the other players besides the linemen. It's going to be a do-your-job kind of game on defense for the Bengals. They have to play their responsibilities. When it's a checkdown, they have to make the tackle for a two-yard gain and not turn it into five or six. Then that makes it third-and-long for the line.
It's going to be a detail thing. Go back and look at the Dallas game and if one of about 25 plays goes differently, they win the game. And it's a pretty clear matchup. The Bengals have 42 sacks; the Eagles have given up 41.
THE EDGE: Bengals. They have to go win the game. They didn't win a game at home they should have won last week, now they have to go win a game against the NFC that they should win. Period.
That's the biggest thing about this game: How the Bengals come out.
In the last five weeks this team has hopped on people, 52-9, in the first quarter. The Eagles are the type of team you can put away early if you come out with the same kind of intensity. That's something they have to do again on a short week after what I think was the most devastating loss as we've seen here this year judging by the locker room after the game. If they jump out early on a Philly team early that has been demoralized this year, I think they can run away with it like they did in those three straight they won by at least 18 points.
The Eagles do have a lot of good players, but you just get beat down in a long losing streak. But injecting some fresh faces like Foles and running back Bryce Brown helped give them a little bit of energy last week in Tampa and that's what makes them a little dangerous. There are a lot of examples of losing teams surprising teams down the stretch. You've got guys playing for themselves, trying to win jobs for next year. Look around the league. Last week Carolina at home vs. Atlanta, you name it.
It's been the same every game for me. The Bengals front four has been dominant. It changes everything. It always comes back to the front four. It's why they've won seven games. This week it's even more so. You've got a quarterback that's certainly not as mobile the way Dallas's Tony Romo was last week out of the pocket. If you start rattling him and getting in his face as this defense is good at doing, they've got a young guy that hasn't seen a lot of that. But the Bengals have to catch the interceptions and pick up the fumbles, and that was an issue last week.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 28-10. They run away with it. Something like 14-0 in the first quarter and from there the Eagles will fade, the fans will boo and throw things and the Bengals will be fine.
The Bengals defensive line has to show up and put on a great performance on a national stage. The Eagles run it, but they don't really run it. Look, Foles threw it 51 times last week.
I think Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are the three most dynamic young pass rushers in the game and they have to dominate an Eagles offensive line that is banged up and has not played well at all. They've been terrible at times.
I like the Bengals in this one because of their defense. Defense always shows up home or away and the short week is more of a challenge for the road team because they've got two days on the ground, one in the air, and then they play the next day and it cuts into preparation. But I expect it to be fairly simple. Both coaches value execution over scheme and I think they'll make it more of a physical challenge than a mental one.
I was surprised the Bengals didn't run it at the end of Sunday's game. In this league, you throw it to get the lead and run it to close out ballgames. They should be able to run it on the Eagles. Tampa Bay's Doug Martin went over 100 last week and the week before DeMarco Murray had 83 for Dallas.
The big talk in Philly has been how the wide-9 defense couldn't stop the run. It opened up the inside lanes against smaller inside backers. Now they've changed it. They're clogging the lanes and bouncing it outside.
THE EDGE: Bengals. The Eagles are morphing before our eyes into something else. They're doing different things on defense because of the firing of the coordinator and you don't know what the rookie quarterback is going to do or how he's going to respond. There's almost no tape to watch because what they're doing is so new. There is probably a part of the Bengals saying they don't know what they're going to do. The Bengals edge is less because they're on the road on a short week, but their defense gives them the overall edge.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The playoff picture for a Marvin Lewis team hasn't been this clear since 2006, when all the Bengals needed to do in the last three games was win one to go to back-to-back postseasons and they didn't. Now to repeat playoff berths, they have to win all three. A loss Thursday almost assuredly is sudden death. A loss to Pittsburgh next week guarantees it.
But the Eagles, Steelers and Ravens all have issues. Last week Philly won for the first time since September while Pittsburgh and Baltimore lost, and the Eagles are coping with virtual anarchy on defense with a new coordinator and line coach. Plus, they're now in the baby steps of a rookie quarterback and that doesn't even take into account the drama engulfing the future of head coach Andy Reid.
But there's enough here to make the Bengals nervous.
There's the god awful end to the Dallas game. The short week on the road. The nine-game losing streak in prime-time. And their uncertain track record against rookie quarterbacks that under Lewis is 11-11 and 2-2 this year with the villains Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden. The Bengals can't let it happen in threes. And they are 8-16 on the road in December and January under Lewis.
And with running back LeSean McCoy out, the Bengals don't want rookie running back Bryce Brown to do to them what Browns rookie Trent Richardson did to them in two of his first six NFL starts and what Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer did to them in his first NFL start. And Brown, a seventh-rounder out of Kansas State, is capable since he ripped off 178 against the Panthers on Nov. 26 in the last game at Lincoln Financial Field and followed that up with 169 in Dallas on Dec. 2.
The Eagles only and best shot at keeping the beasts off Foles is running Brown like that. While the Bengals haven't allowed a 100-yard game since Dwyer on Oct. 21, they have given up more than five yards per carry in the last five games and they wilted against the run a bit in the final series against Dallas.
But many of those yards in the 4-1 stretch have been of the throwaway variety against big leads or on second-and-longs. And the Bengals remain one of the top teams in the NFL at allowing just five plus-20-yard runs, and in the last two weeks they haven't allowed a run longer than seven yards and longer than 17 in the last four games. Another outing like that against the run makes it very difficult for Foles.
On the flip side, the Bengals have to pound the running game like some say they should have pounded it in the final 6:35 last Sunday after running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis spent the first 53:25 getting 89 yards on 12 carries, capping a four-week run only Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson have gained more yards. With Philly giving up at least 101 yards rushing to their last nine foes, and at least 123 in seven of those games, The Law Firm should be big at Lincoln.
Meanwhile, it's a good game for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to bounce back. He was a bit wild last Sunday, missing wide receiver Andrew Hawkins in the red zone on third down and unable to put it in front of wide receiver Marvin Jones in stride for what may have been a catch-and-run TD.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had a teachable moment for Dalton's interception that he tried to jam into wide receiver A.J. Green that turned what could have been at least a 14-3 lead into a 10-10 game and allowed Dallas to hang around. What irked Gruden is Dalton had tight end Jermaine Gresham on a checkdown.
"If there are a couple of plays in the game Andy wished he had back, the interception is one," Gruden said. "It's a first down and 10 call and there is absolutely no reason to throw that ball and I think later on he had Hawkins on a basic stick route and threw it too hard and far away.
"Those plays have got to be converted. The naked bootleg and we throw it to the tight end for five (on the pick). That's all we want on first down. Anything else is great, but we're not trying to force the ball on a naked (bootleg)."
It's another example, Gruden says, where Dalton's enormous intangibles sometimes—not often—don't pan out.
"I think sometimes that happens. You get rolling and sometimes you get a little bit giddy. You get a little bit excited that you're invincible," Gruden said. "I think that may be what happened to Andy. 'Yeah, I'll pass that up, pass that up, and pick,' and all of a sudden you're back to reality.
"(Green) wasn't open at any point. He ran outside leverage and A.J. kind of stopped and came out toward the sideline, but the corner where he was, there was no reason to throw that ball. He thought A.J. was going to break across his face, and he was going to throw it toward out of bounds and A.J. kind of slowed down. That's one of Andy's things. Sometimes he sees things that nobody else does and anticipates people to do things that they don't do. That's one of his flaws. That's not a terrible flaw, but sometimes it works in a negative way."
But Dalton has played well enough to win the last six games and could have used a lot of help catching the ball, particularly from Green.
But look for both these guys to have a shot to get back into their games. Green hasn't scored a TD in three straight games. His longest drought is the final four games of last season. And he hasn't had a catch longer than 17 yards in the last two weeks. But the Eagles haven't had an interception in the last seven games and they've allowed 120-plus passer ratings in six of those games in which Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant has three TDs and Vincent Jackson went for 131 yards last week in Tampa.