Week 15: Nick Foles will face his stiffest test tonight when the Eagles host the Bengals. The rookie quarterback deserves all the praise he has gotten for his performance on Sunday, but it came at the expense of a woeful Buccaneers pass defense. To be fair, Foles didn’t have much time in the pocket for most of the game, and was without the aid of a competent running game. But the Bengals are a much more balanced defense that features one of the best players currently playing in the NFL.
The Eagles may just have to double team defensive tackle Geno Atkins all night, and that could work, although having center Dallas Reynolds as part of any tandem weakens it considerably. But that will free up defensive ends Michael Johnson (8-1/2 sacks) and Carlos Dunlap (4-1/2 sacks) for one-on-ones against tackles Dennis Kelly and King Dunlap. Scary.
On the other side of the ball, the post-wide nine Eagles defense showed some improvement in Tampa. But there were breakdowns in the secondary yet again in the second half. Nnamdi Asomugha deserves credit for returning after a nasty-looking fall, but the Eagles cornerback was picked on endlessly. If it were just one game, you could excuse his effort, but Asomugha has gotten increasingly worse as the season has progressed. There’s no way he should be asked to cover Bengals receiver A.J. Green, unless he’s getting help over the top. Let Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had his best game in weeks on Sunday, shadow the speedster, and take your chances elsewhere.
The Eagles are certainly capable of playing spoilers for the second straight game. Andy Reid has his players still fighting. But Cincinnati, which is still in the playoff hunt, has superior talent at several key spots. I think it will be enough to win tonight.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Eagles 17.
What goes right: Bryce Brown bounces back, although he doesn’t eclipse 100 yards on the ground.
What goes wrong: The Eagles don’t have an answer for Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Week 15: The Nick Foles Era in Philadelphia won’t finish without a victory -- that was ensured last week. But it will help Foles’ case to be the team’s quarterback of the future if he can add at least one more win in the final three games. The remaining games are all against playoff contenders, so he’ll be tested.
The first test is Thursday against the Bengals. Don’t expect Foles to notch the second win. The Eagles will be competitive, but the Bengals have a strong defense and an emerging offense -- and badly need a victory if they want to make their second consecutive postseason.
The key for the Eagles will be re-establishing Brown in the running game. His putrid results last week was mostly the byproduct of Tampa Bay’s rushing defense, although Browns needs to generate more than six yards on 12 carries. Cincinnati can stuff the run, but the Eagles need more balance because Foles won’t have as easy of a time through the air as he experienced last week. One thing to watch is whether Brown runs between the tackles. He’s quick to bounce outside, and he insists he’s following his blocks. But he’s big enough to run between the tackles and at least muster a few yards. When he bounces outside, he’s more prone to negative plays.
In the passing game, Clay Harbor will be intriguing to watch. He caught all six passes targeted for him last week and will log significant playing time on Thursday. Harbor has improved at blocking, but he’s best when he can create a mismatch in space. Harbor has yet to show he can be anything more than a depth player, but a good outing on Thursday might make the Eagles reconsider his future.
Fans that still want the Eagles to win should be more concerned about Cincinnati’s offense on Thursday, because that will be a difficult matchup. The Bengals have rediscovered a running game in recent weeks with BenJarvus Green-Ellis averaging 109.25 rushing yards in the past four games. They’re 3-1 in that span.
Green has developed into one of the top 3 wide receivers in the NFL, and he’ll be a major challenge. Look for Rodgers-Cromartie to spend much time on Green, who hasn’t caught a touchdown in three games. That will change on Thursday. The other player who could present problems is Gresham, one of the most underrated at that position in the NFL. Gresham catches nearly 69 percent of the passes thrown in his direction.
The short week could help the Eagles, and the game plan won’t vary considerably from what they did against Tampa Bay last week. This is a game the Eagles can win, although it’s a game the Bengals need to win. Look for the Eagles to add their 10th loss, and their attention will turn to playing spoiler against division rivals during the next two weeks.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Eagles 23
What goes right: Bryce Brown averages more than four yards per carry. Fletcher Cox adds his fourth sack in six games. Clay Harbor catches a touchdown.
What goes wrong: A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham both catch touchdown passes. Nick Foles commits his first turnover since his first start.