The Bengals are trying to rebound from a disappointing loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 14, while the Eagles are feeling a little better in a rough season after a last-second win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Although the Bengals are the only team harboring playoff aspirations heading into this game, the opportunity for the Eagles to build upon the momentum generated by last week's win should lead to an inspired effort in Philadelphia. Given the talent on both rosters, this should be a compelling battle to watch, regardless of the records.
Here are three key questions for this Thursday night bout:
Can the Bengals bounce back to make a postseason push?
The Bengals had their four-game winning streak abruptly halted last Sunday when Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey nailed a 40-yard field goal as the clock expired. The defeat prevented Cincinnati from securing a one-game lead in the race for the AFC's final wild-card spot and halted the momentum generated over the second half of the season.
Marvin Lewis must get his troops to move past that setback, so that they can focus on knocking out a hapless Eagles team. With that in mind, expect Lewis to instruct offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to come out with an aggressive plan that puts the ball in the hands of A.J. Green, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Jermaine Gresham early in the game. By getting the offense off to a fast start, the Bengals can put Philadelphia in a hole and let their aggressive defense harass a rookie quarterback into a miserable showing in prime time.
Do the Eagles have a franchise quarterback in Nick Foles?
The Eagles have suffered through a miserable season, but the emergence of Foles as a legitimate franchise quarterback could offset some of the disappointment for owner Jeffrey Lurie. The rookie certainly has shown flashes of being a long-term solution in five games (four starts), completing 61.4 percent of his passes with four touchdowns against three interceptions. Those numbers aren't bad for a rookie with limited experience, but they pale in comparison to the confidence, poise and leadership Foles has displayed since taking the starting reins after Michael Vick's concussion in Week 10. Foles has demonstrated the ability to repeatedly make plays under pressure, most notably directing a game-winning drive in the final moments against the Bucs last Sunday.
Coming off his finest showing as a pro, Foles must prove to Eagles teammates, coaches and fans that his impressive play on the road in Tampa is sustainable over the long haul. If he performs well against the Bengals while continuing to display impressive intangibles, Philadelphia definitely will feel better about Foles' chances of being the long-term solution at quarterback.
Will Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga match Bryce Brown's physicality?
The Bengals' defense quietly ranks sixth in the NFL behind the remarkable play of Burfict and Maualuga in the middle. The duo has combined for 200 tackles and a number of splash plays that have left opponents in dire straits when facing the Bengals. Burfict has been particularly impressive as a rookie starter after arriving in Cincinnati as an undrafted free agent with a tarnished reputation. However, he has been a model citizen in the locker room this season, and has displayed the kind of physicality that made him a feared defender as a collegian at Arizona State. With Maualuga also showing tenacity and toughness from his linebacker spot, the Bengals have a dominant presence in the middle that discourages opponents from running between the tackles.
Cincinnati needs its talented tandem to be on point against the Eagles and slow down Brown. The rookie sensation has started the last three games following LeSean McCoy's concussion against the Washington Redskins in Week 11. While he has battled ball-security issues, Brown was highly impressive in his first two starts, racking up 347 yards and four touchdowns. But the Bucs completely shut him down last week, holding Brown to just six yards on 12 carries. How will he fare on Thursday night? The play of the Bengals' linebackers will go a long way in determining that -- as well as the outcome of the game.
The Eagles played inspired football against the Buccaneers under Foles' direction. That effort produced the team's first win since September, and provided a glimmer of hope for the Eagles' downtrodden fan base. However, I don't believe the positive vibes generated by the win will be enough to help the Eagles topple Cincy in a prime-time game. The Bengals have a chance to earn their way into the playoffs and need this win to stay on schedule. With this kind of motivation, I can't see the Bengals laying an egg on Thursday.