The Cincinnati Bengals had been doing their best to trade in their infamous "Bungles" badge for a new one. But the black sheep of the AFC North blew a great chance to paint themselves into the play-off picture last Sunday, capitulating late on to the Cowboys of Dallas. They let a 19-10 lead slip with only 7:15 left on the clock, coming up empty on defense when Tony Romo extricated himself from a sticky third-and-10 on the 42-yard line.
As a result, the Bengals still stand third in the division. But with the rival Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers floundering, a win in Thursday Night Football will put them firmly into wildcard contention. An early game is just the opportunity they need to swiftly banish the bitter after-taste of the Dallas match which would've otherwise lingered long in their mouths. And fortunately for Cincinnati fans, their next course is a very palatable one: the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles may have kept their own play-off hopes dangling by the thinnest of statistical threads with an unexpected comeback victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, make no mistake, they're done for the season. That's party because they'll be taking to the field without pivotal playmakers, Mike Vick and LeSean McCoy, whose respective recoveries from concussions have taken far longer than even cautious rehab schemes predicted. Vick still has "marginal tracking issues" with his eyes - not the best condition for spotting wide receivers or, more importantly, advancing defensive linemen.
Which means the rookie QB-RB duo of Nick Foles and Bryce Brown gets another chance to fill their teammates' big boots. Foles did showcase some burgeoning promise with 381 yards for two touchdowns (and no picks) against Tampa. He even complemented those figures with composure under the gun, connecting in the last second of the game for a breathless 23-21 triumph.
Bryce Brown, on the other hand, regressed from two breakout efforts (which saw him rack up 347 yards on the ground) with just 12 yards from six carries against the Bucs. The novelty of their fresh-faced assault does offer Philly something new, but it should prove ineffectual now that they are faced with a motivated and focussed Cincy D, which excels at the pass rush. In fact, they rank 11th the league in Total Passing Yards Allowed, so Foles in particular could be in for a tricky evening.
Not that Cincinnati's own game-changers have been enjoying a prolific time of late. Despite winning four of their last five matches, both quarterback Andy Dalton and top receiver AJ Green have misfired. While Dalton has looked a little ragged, as befits a rising star learning his trade, the consummate Green has more worryingly dropped some key catches and been kept out of the end zone for three consecutive weeks. Happily, both have the perfect chance to rebound tonight against a stretched Eagles secondary. And then there's the dependable running of Ben Green-Ellis, fresh from his third straight 100-yard game, as a meat-and-drink alternative.
In conclusion, expect the Bengals bundle their way past both the Eagles and the handicap (only a field goal). It may not be pretty, but they have the impetus to stay in the postseason conversation. Philly, though, will be sent to Coventry.
Back Cincinnati Bengals (-3 points) on the Match Point Spread @ [1.72] or better
Back Cincinnati Bengals (-3 points) on the First-Half Point Spread @ [1.85] or better
Back AJ Green to be First/Anytime Touchdown Scorer @ [6.0] or better