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Game Preview: Bengals-Eagles

The wait, and the losing, is finally over. After suffering through eight consecutive losses, the Eagles snapped their skid last Sunday afternoon in Tampa Bay as rookie starting quarterback Nick Foles played his best game of the season and led the offense on a thrilling game-winning drive that featured the go-ahead touchdown as time expired. It was a banner day for Foles, who had to carry the load without much of a running game and in the face of constant pressure. All he did was account for over 400 yards of offense and three touchdowns while leading the team to an emotional win. Now, though, the task for the Eagles is to rebound from success and wipe the slate clean ahead with a quick turnaround ahead of Thursday night's nationally televised matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. Like they did against the Bucs last week, the Eagles are charged with playing the role of spoiler against a 7-6 Bengals team that is right in the mix of the playoff race.

The Bengals are currently 7-6, tied in record with the Pittsburgh Steelers. At present, the Steelers own the rights to the second and final wildcard spot because they hold the tiebreaker over Cincinnati, though the two teams meet next week -- meaning that the Bengals control their own destiny with three games remaining. Both teams are one game ahead of the 6-7 New York Jets. So the stakes are sky-high for the Bengals on Thursday night as they come into Lincoln Financial Field on the heels of a disappointing last-second 19-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. The well-rounded Bengals boast a top-10 defense and a top-15 offense and feature a pair of star players in wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Green, the unreal second-year receiver, ranks sixth in the league with 1,151 receiving yards thus far and leads all receivers with 10 touchdowns. Atkins has been the most disruptive interior force in the NFL and leads all defensive tackles with 10.5 sacks. But who and what else will determine the outcome Thursday night? Let's take a look …

Last Time They Met:
November 16, 2008 – Eagles 13, Bengals 13

Yes, now we all know ties are allowed in football. Many forget that the Eagles had to rally just to make it to overtime in this infamous trip to Cincinnati as they scored the last 10 points of the game in the second half. But, of course, neither team could muster enough offense in the extra frame and the Eagles fell to 5-4-1, though they would rebound with a stunning late-season run to the playoffs.

Tale Of The Tape (2012 Stats)
Bengals Eagles
Record 7-6 4-9
Points Scored Per Game 24.7 (11th in NFL) 18.5 (T-27)
Total Yards Per Game 355.2 (15) 362.9 (11)
Rushing Yards Per Game 117.5 (14) 125.5 (9)
Passing Yards Per Game 237.8 (14) 237.4 (15)
Points Allowed Per Game 21.5 (T-13) 26.2 (25)
Total Yards Allowed Per Game 328.0 (6) 348.6 (14)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game 105.5 (11) 119.3 (17)
Passing Yards Allowed Per Game 222.5 (10) 229.3 (15)
Turnover Ratio 0 (T-14) -19 (31)

When The Eagles Have The Ball:

Last week, Nick Foles proved that he could carry the Eagles offense, as he threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns while leading the team with 27 yards rushing and adding a rushing touchdown of his own. He did that without the aid of a running game, though the performance did come against the league's worst pass defense. It will be a different story for Foles on the short week, as the Bengals allow only 222.5 passing yards per game (10th in the league) and only 6.21 yards per pass (7th in the league). Though some credit goes to the Bengals' cornerback tandem of Leon Hall and Terrence Newman, as well as safeties Nate Clements and Reggie Nelson, the key to the Bengals' numbers against the pass is their fierce pass rush. With 42 sacks on the season thus far, the Bengals lead the league and will no doubt be coming after Foles early and often. Even though he was sacked six times by the Buccaneers last week, Foles generally did a good job of getting the ball out when possible in the face of the rush. That will be of the utmost importance again behind an offensive line that struggled at times in pass protection a week ago.

The key, then, for the Eagles offense may be to recapture the success they had running the ball in the two games prior to the Bucs matchup. During that span, Bryce Brown ran for a combined 347 yards, the second highest two-game rushing stretch in Eagles history. But Brown was stymied by Tampa Bay's No. 1 ranked run defense to the tune of only six yards on 12 carries. The Bengals rank 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (105.5) and 14th in yards allowed per run (4.2). Because of the short week of preparation, the Eagles may be more willing to lean on the running game anyway. And, with LeSean McCoy returning to practice this week, this may be Brown's last game as the lone bellcow, so he'll be plenty motivated to leave everything on the field.

 Up front, the obvious focus is Geno Atkins, who has emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his third season. His 10.5 sacks lead all interior defensive linemen and, according to ProFootballFocus, he has the third best overall rating of any defensive player, behind only Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Broncos linebacker Von Miller. But the Bengals defensive line brings more to the table than just Atkins. Defensive end Michael Johnson has 8.5 sacks of his own and fellow end Carlos Dunlap is no slouch either.

Linebackers Rey Maualuga, Manny Lawson and pre-draft lightning rod Vontaze Burfict have done their job against the run this season, but they represent the weakness of the Bengals' pass defense. The Bengals rank 28th in tight end coverage according to Football Outsiders, which could open an opportunity for third-year Eagle Clay Harbor in what will be his first NFL start as a No. 1 tight end with Brent Celek sidelined because of a concussion.

Eagles Projected Starting Lineup
Offense Defense
QB Nick Foles LDE Brandon Graham
RB Bryce Brown LDT Cullen Jenkins
FB Stanley Havili RDT Fletcher Cox
WR Jeremy Maclin RDE Trent Cole
LT King Dunlap WILL LB Mychal Kendricks
LG Evan Mathis MIKE LB DeMeco Ryans
C Dallas Reynolds SAM LB Jamar Chaney
RG Jake Scott LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
RT Dennis Kelly RCB Nnamdi Asomugha
TE Clay Harbor SS Nate Allen
WR Jason Avant FS Colt Anderson

When The Bengals Have The Ball:

The foundation of the Bengals offense was formed just a year ago in the 2011 NFL Draft when Cincinnati used its first two picks on wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton.

Green was the fourth-overall pick of the NFL Draft and has quickly established himself as one of the premier receivers in the NFL. The 6-4, 207-pound Green was the first rookie wide receiver to earn a Pro Bowl bid since Anquan Boldin in 2003.

Green will likely be back in the Pro Bowl again this season as he has 79 receptions for 1,151 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has four 100-yard receiving games and at one point caught a touchdown in nine straight games this season. However, he has been kept out of the end zone in the past three contests.

The second piece of that 2011 NFL Draft was quarterback Andy Dalton, who was selected with the 35th overall pick. He, too, earned a Pro Bowl bid after throwing for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns as a rookie.

The duo helped lead the Bengals to a Wild Card spot last season and they are in the hunt again this season.

Dalton's improved statistically in every category from last season. He became just the third player in NFL history joining Dan Marino and Peyton Manning with 20 or more touchdown passes in each of his first two seasons. Dalton is also extremely deadly in the red zone. Green certainly helps, but Dalton has 18 touchdowns against no interceptions for a 101.9 passer rating inside the 20-yard line this season.

Dalton's other security blanket is athletic pass catching tight end Jermaine Gresham, who is second to Green with 55 catches for 636 yards and five touchdowns this season. Brandon Tate is the starting receiver opposite Green and Andrew Hawkins has caught 45 passes for 485 yards and four touchdowns as the primary slot receiver.

On the ground, the Bengals rely on veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is a tough, downhill runner with limited burst and cutting ability. He had not fumbled in his career prior to this season, but has lost two this year. He is creeping up on the 1,000-yard mark for the year with 974 yards and five touchdowns. He had a three-game streak of 100 yards or more snapped in Sunday's loss to Dallas. On Sunday, the Eagles happened to surrender their first 100-yard rusher of the year in Doug Martin. Cedric Peerman is the change-of-pace back for the Bengals, but his status is in doubt due to an ankle injury.

Up front, the Bengals have an underrated pair of tackles in Andrew Whitworth on the left side and Andre Smith inside. Trevor Robinson has taken over the duties at center.

The Eagles will certainly have to limit the Dalton-Green connection. If they can do that, they will help put the team in position to come away with a win on Thursday night.

Bengals Projected Starting Lineup
Offense Defense
QB Andy Dalton LDE Carlos Dunlap
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis NT Domata Peko
FB Chris Pressley DT Geno Atkins
WR A.J. Green RDE Michael Johnson
LT Andrew Whitworth WLB Vontaze Burfict
LG Clint Boling MLB Rey Maualuga
C Trevor Robinson SLB Manny Lawson
RG Kevin Zeitler LCB Terence Newman
RT Andre Smith RCB Leon Hall
TE Jermaine Gresham SS Nate Clements
WR Brandon Tate FS Reggie Nelson

Key Matchups

DT Geno Atkins vs. C Dallas Reynolds

Defensive tackle Geno Atkins may not be a household name, but he is a surefire playmaker. Atkins' production this season is a major reason for the Bengals' success on defense. At 6-1, 300 pounds, Atkins has proven to be a disruptive pass rusher. His 10.5 sacks lead the team and are the most by any defensive tackle in the league. He has also forced three fumbles and has two passes defensed.

Opposing him Thursday night will be center Dallas Reynolds and an Eagles interior offensive line that struggled last week in Tampa Bay. In that game, the Buccaneers notched six sacks, including two by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

Despite a bumpy performance, the Eagles' offensive line has played better in recent weeks. The injuries along the line have been well-documented, and it has taken backups like Reynolds and rookie Dennis Kelly time to jell with their linemates. Last week, quarterback Nick Foles showed what he could do with time in the pocket, so it will be up to Reynolds to keep Atkins out of the backfield.

TE Jermaine Gresham vs. LB Jamar Chaney

Linebacker Jamar Chaney worked all summer to claim a starting job before a hamstring injury in Training Camp derailed his chances. But after several months of hard work and patience, Chaney finally regained a starting role on defense last Sunday. Rookie Mychal Kendricks switched from the strong side to the weak side, creating an ideal opportunity for Chaney.

Kendricks is now free to use his athletic ability to blitz and create havoc in the backfield, while Chaney can use his coverage abilities to work against tight ends. Chaney understands the importance of taking advantage of opportunities, and he didn't waste this one. Chaney only had two tackles, but tight end Dallas Clark only had one catch for 19 yards. This week, Chaney will be squaring off against one the league's up-and-coming tight ends in Jermaine Gresham.

A first-round pick in 2010, Gresham is second on the Bengals in catches, yards and touchdowns with 55 receptions for 636 yards and five scores. Gresham has three touchdowns in his last five games, which means shutting him down will be a terrific test for a veteran linebacker looking to make an impact late in the season. Look for Chaney to assert himself now that he has worked himself back into the starting lineup.

Players To Watch

WR A.J. Green

Don't let his lack of NFL experience fool you – A.J. Green has emerged as one of the best wide receivers in the game. The 6-4, 207 pound wideout was drafted fourth overall by Cincinnati in 2011 and rewarded the Bengals by catching 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns last season, earning a Pro Bowl nod along the way. This year, he has stepped up his game and has 79 catches for 1,151 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Green started the season on a tear by scoring at least one touchdown in nine consecutive games this season. But those numbers have come to a screeching halt recently, as Green has been held scoreless for the last three weeks. The secondary played one of its better games of the season last week against the Buccaneers, but they'll need to improve on that performance if they want to stop the ever-dangerous Green.

TE Clay Harbor

Tight end Clay Harbor has spent the majority of the season out of the spotlight. But after Brent Celek was concussed on the first play of the game last Sunday, Harbor stepped up in a big way. Harbor hadn't caught more than three passes all season, but he finished the day with a career-high six catches for 52 yards and a critical fourth quarter touchdown.

With Celek ailing, Harbor will be asked to start against the Bengals and help the Eagles get their second win in 10 days. In 14 games this season, Harbor has 22 receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns, but it's worth noting that both scores came in critical moments. The first was a game-winning touchdown catch against the Browns in Week 1 and the second came as the Eagles were rallying in the fourth quarter last week. Harbor is no stranger to big moments, and the Eagles would love a few more from Harbor on Thursday night.

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