The first full season of Thursday Night Football comes to a tepid conclusion this week, as the Philadelphia Eagles play host to the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Eagles (4-9) entered Week 14 as one of the league's coldest teams, having lost eight in a row, and probably costing Andy Reid his job in the process. But on the strength of Nick Foles' 381 passing yards—including a last-second, game-winning touchdown strike to Jeremy Maclin—they found a way to prevail 23-21 in Tampa Bay.
The Bengals (7-6) entered Week 14 as one of the league's hottest teams, having won four in a row, and playing themselves back into the AFC wild-card race. But thanks to a myriad of squandered opportunities, they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and dropped a 20-19 nail-biter to Dallas.
But there's a silver lining in the Queen City: Pittsburgh, the team its beloved Bengals are chasing, also faltered last weekend against San Diego. That leaves the door wide open for Cincinnati and (gulp!) New York to sneak into the AFC's sixth seed.
The Eagles played spoiler to the Bucs' playoff hopes last weekend, and hope to do the same against the Bengals on Thursday. Let's take a closer look at how it might play out.
When: Thursday, Dec. 13th, 8:20 p.m. ET
Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pa.
Watch: NFL Network
Spread: Cincinnati -3.5 (via VegasInsinder.com, LVH)
The Bengals fall on the wrong side of three, but remain a strong bet for several reasons.
First and foremost is the talent disparity. Or, more specifically, the collective team competence disparity.
Just look at the Dallas game as a litmus: Cincinnati may have lost, but it looked and played like the better team—or, at the very least, an equal team—throughout. The Eagles, on the other hand, looked over-matched both times they played the Cowboys (who aren't even that good to begin with).
Next comes the venue. Think the Eagles have an advantage at the Linc? Think again.
Philly is 0-5-1 against the spread at home this season, failing to cover by an average of six points per contest. By contrast, the Bengals are 4-2 against the spread when they travel away from Cincinnati.
And then there's the sheer motivation factor. The Bengals have everything to lose on Thursday night; falling to the Eagles would cripple their hopes of making the postseason. The Eagles finally snapped their losing streak on Sunday, and could be poised for a letdown after a short week.
Take the Bengals to cover.
Over/Under: 45.5 (via VegasInsinder.com, LVH)
It hasn't been pretty in 2012, but the Eagles offense is starting to provide scintillas of hope.
It averaged 16.1 points in its first 10 games, but have righted the ship (modestly) by averaging 26.0 in its last three.
That being said, the unit continues to be decimated by injury. The latest casualty is Brent Celek, who last weekend joined Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy in the group of Eagles stars sidelined with concussions.
The Bengals offense has been deceptively good this season, but it might find a harder go than it expects in Philly. The Birds' run defense looked slightly better against the Bucs last weekend, the team's first game since abandoning wide-9 guru Jim Washburn. It also held Josh Freeman, a more accurate passer than Andy Dalton, to a 41 percent completion rate.
Oh yeah, the Bengals have also hit the under in five consecutive games.
Sloppiness has plagued Thursday Night Football the entire season, and this game should offer more of the same. Play the under.
Cincinnati Bengals Injury Report (via USA Today as of Nov. 11, 2012)
|CB Dre Kirkpatrick||Concussion||Questionable|
|RB Cedric Peerman||Ankle||Questionable|
|K Mike Nugent||Calf||Questionable|
|TE Richard Quinn||Hamstring||Questionable|
|DT Devon Still||Back||Questionable|
Philadelphia Eagles Injury Report (via USA Today as of Nov. 11, 2012)
|WR Jeremy Maclin||Groin||Probable|
|CB Nnamdi Asomugha||Hamstring||Questionable|
|RB Chris Polk||Toe||Questionable|
|DT Mike Patterson||Illness||Doubtful|
|S Kurt Coleman||Sternum||Doubtful|
|TE Brent Celek||Concussion||Out|
|RB LeSean McCoy||Concussion||Out|
|QB Michael Vick||Illness||Out|
Fantasy Big Plays
Cincinnati Bengals: WR A.J. Green
According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles rank 31st in the league defending the pass. More importantly, they also rank 31st in the league against opposing No. 1 receivers—only New Orleans does a worse job against primary pass-catchers.
The Eagles defense made marked improvements last week, but in this respect, the Bucs' game was more of the same: Vincent Jackson tore it up for 131 yards and a touchdown.
Green was held to just 44 yards against Dallas, but resilience has been one of his many attractive qualities. Prior to last weekend, he'd been held to 65 or fewer receiving yards three times this season. Check out how he's done the week following each of those letdowns:
|@ Washington (9/23)||9||183||1||27.2|
|@ Cleveland (10/14)||7||135||2||26.9|
|vs. Denver (11/4)||7||99||1||17.9|
Um. Yeah. Start Green with confidence.
Philadelphia Eagles: RB Bryce Brown
Don't be fooled by last week's game against the Bucs. Nick Foles isn't nearly that good, and conversely, Bryce Brown isn't nearly that bad.
According to Football Outsiders, Tampa has the second-best run defense in the league. It also allows a league-high 311.6 yards per game through the air. Both of those numbers help explain the anomalous stat-lines from Foles (381 passing yards, 2 TDs) and Brown (12 carries, 6 yards) last Sunday.
Pay more attention to Brown's previous two games, where he averaged 173.5 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Those gaudy numbers came against Dallas and Carolina, the 15th- and 18th-best run defenses in the league, respectively.
Cincinnati ranks 26th.
Brown owners who read too much into last week's game could be punished for their rashness. Put him in your lineup as a solid RB1.
Key to Victory: Can the Eagles Protect Nick Foles?
It doesn't get much more lopsided than this.
Cincinnati's defensive line is the best pass-rushing unit in the league, boasting an Adjusted Sack Rate of 8.7 percent (h/t Football Outsiders). That could be trouble against the Eagles' porous offensive line—a makeshift unit that's been held together by tape and glue all season.
Philly should have no problem establishing the run, but at some point it's going to have to throw the ball. Already without DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek, time in the pocket will be even more vital to Foles' success than normal.
If the Bengals make Foles a tackling dummy—the way New Orleans treated Michael Vick in one of the Eagles' other prime-time games—the Birds are in store for a long night.
Things haven't been quite so sunny in Philadelphia this season––skewing closer to The Day After Tomorrow than they have to Blue Crush. A late-season surge won't be enough to part the clouds, but it could be a fitting coda to Andy Reid's capricious tenure.
There's some revenge factor in play here, too: Last time these teams met, the one-win Bengals dealt the playoff-contending Eagles a potentially catastrophic tie. Andy Reid would cherish returning that favor to Marvin Lewis four years later.
The Eagles will come out with energy, but in the end, they simply don't have enough healthy horses—on either side of the ball. They'll hang around for a while, making the Bengals sweat it out for longer than they'd like, but it won't be enough.
Predicted Score: Cincinnati 23, Philadelphia 17