Philadelphia, PA – The moribund Philadelphia Eagles sure showed some Christmas spirit on Thursday night, gift-wrapping a 34-13 win for the playoff-hopeful Cincinnati Bengals.
The mistake-prone Birds turned it over five times overall, including a mind- numbing sequence in which they gave it away four times over an eight-minute span bridging the third and fourth quarters, as the Bengals scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to remain relevant.
"Sometimes it's the offense, sometimes it's the defense, but we were able to get things going with the turnovers today and they were a big part of the game," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said.
The Bengals, of course, let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers last Sunday, faltering and allowing 10 points in the closing minutes of a devastating 20-19 home loss to Dallas.
A repeat wasn't an option against an injury-depleted Philadelphia team with a lame duck coach who has basically tapped out on the season. Michael Vick wasn't playing at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday. Neither was Shady McCoy, DeSean Jackson or the Eagles' three best offensive linemen.
Yet Cincinnati still found itself trailing 13-10 at intermission before the Eagles' implosion of goodwill bailed the Bengals out and allowed them to jump one-half game ahead of AFC North-rival Pittsburgh for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
"It's what you have to do," Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton said. "We had a tough one and we did have a quick turnaround. This is my first Sunday-Thursday game to play and I thought we did a good job. I thought we were able to put that loss behind us and just come out and play."
It may seem strange to thumb your nose at any 21-point win in the NFL, especially this late in a season in which you are still in postseason contention but you can bet Lewis wasn't all that happy on the flight back to Cincy.
The Eagles were playing a boatload of young players during a short week and their makeshift offensive line looked tailor-made for Geno Atkins and Co. to dominate.
Instead of rolling over Philadelphia, however, the Bengals were sloppy for most of the night. Dalton put up Christian Ponder-like numbers on the offensive side of the ball, and Atkins failed to register a tackle or sack despite playing in 77 percent of his team's defensive snaps.
Leon Hall deserves credit for camping under a badly underthrown Nick Foles pass and starting the Eagles fateful sequence, and Pat Sims certainly should be lauded for busting through the line and nearly taking a handoff himself when Bryce Brown fumbled.
That said, if Cincinnati, which finishes its season with games against division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore, has any plans of making the postseason, it will need a lot more from its marquee players.
First and foremost on that list is Atkins, their stud defensive tackle.
The University of Georgia product usually dominates the interior and has already established a Bengals single-season record for most sacks by an inside player with 10 1/2. Sacks never tell the whole story, however, and Atkins also leads the team in QB pressures (33) and tackles-for-loss (13).
"Geno's quick, like most small D-tackles," Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "He's a quicker athletic guy. But the thing that separates him from all others is he has insane exceptional strength.
"He's a really, really strong guy for a smaller player. That's what takes him to a whole other level. It is hard to deal with a guy who's below you and under you. It's hard to get your hands down there to control him."
Being able to collapse the pocket on a consistent basis gives any defense a leg up.
"The position of inside pass rusher is a key position," ESPN analyst Bill Polian said. "When you get an athletic defensive lineman who can rush the passer at the tackle position, it makes it so much harder for the offensive line to slide and help people.
"If you're going to chip, it's going to be with a back or a tight end. The line can't move because you cannot run the risk of the guard whiffing and having that guy go clean to the quarterback. I think after the quarterback -- is the most important guy on the team. If you can rush from the inside, that usually means you can rush with four and cover with seven, and that gives you a heck of a defensive advantage."
Cincinnati normally has that advantage but not on Thursday. Atkins was whitewashed against a line which was missing All-Pro Jason Peters as well as two other high-level starters, center Jason Kelce and right tackle Todd Herremans. The Eagles then lost left guard Evan Mathis during the contest and Whitworth still ended with more tackles in the game than Atkins.
To be fair Geno received plenty of attention, enabling far more pedestrian players like Sims, Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry to step it up against inferior competition.
And that's nice but you need your playmakers to make plays in big games.
Normally it's Atkins' work ethic which sets him apart.
"When I go in the weight room on Mondays, he's fresh off a two-sack game or seven tackles, he's got 500 pounds on his back, and he's squatting under the rack," Whitworth said of Atkins.
So what happens when he's fresh off no tackles and zero sacks?
We are about to find out.
"He's one of those type of guys," Whitworth continued. He's on a mission to be a really good player and to push himself. That's what makes him good. That's what makes him who he is."