6 things to watch for in Bengals-Eagles game

Next game

Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-7-1)

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

TV: Ch. 19, 45

Radio: 700-AM, 1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM

One team’s struggles will continue, while the other’s will be assuaged when the Cincinnati Bengals, winless in their last four, take on the Philadelphia Eagles, losers in four of five and six of eight, meet Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

Then again, maybe misfortune will strike both clubs in the form of a tie, which is what happened the last time the Eagles flew into town.

Neither team has been eliminated from the postseason race, nor will either one of them be with a loss today.

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But the Bengals (3-7-1) and Eagles (5-6) are no longer in position to even talk about playing the second weekend in January.

The sole focus at this point is on just winning a single game and getting some confidence and momentum back to see if they can finish strong over the final five weeks.

Here are six things to watch for when the Bengals and Eagles try to maintain a little footing before going over the cliff.

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Dalton’s delivery

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton refused to blame his right shoulder injury on the decline in his numbers of late, but it’s been evident he’s lost some zip on passes.

He was on the injury report as a limited participant the Wednesday before the Bills and Ravens games, but he’s been full go for every practice this week.

Dalton has been able to get away with being slightly off the mark in the past due to A.J. Green’s athleticism and huge catch radius, but with Green out Dalton has to be sharp for the offense to be effective.

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Last week the absence of Green led to the Bengals trying a lot of short throws underneath, and the Ravens capitalized on that strategy with a less aggressive pass rush where the defensive linemen getting their hands up and batting down several passes, including four on the Bengals’ final drive.

I don’t think any quarterback is going to say getting the ball batted isn’t frustrating,” Dalton said. “I’ve never seen it happen four times on a drive. I have to find windows to throw the ball.”

Center of conversation

The Bengals benched center Russell Bodine and replaced him with T.J. Johnson for two series last week against Baltimore, so it will be worth watching to see if a rotation of any sort develops as it has at right tackle with Cedric Ogbuehi and Eric Winston.

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Whomever is at center will have his hands full with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

“He’s really talented,” Dalton said. “He can be disruptive at times. Our guys have to be prepared for him. He’s big, physical, quick. He can do it all.”

The offensive line has allowed at least once sack in all 11 games this year, but this could be their chance to stop that streak. While Philadelphia ranks 11th in the league with 26 sacks, the Eagles only have six in their last five games after producing 20 in their first six.

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Automatic attention

When (if?) the Bengals score their first touchdown Sunday, all eyes will be on kicker Mike Nugent. And many will have daggers coming out of them as the bulk of the fan base has lost all patience.

As experienced and as committed to technique as Nugent is, it’s impossible to think his recent struggles won’t be in his head when he lines up for his next PAT after missing three in a row.

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The Bengals have voiced their support and backed it up by not making a move. But if Nugent continues to struggle with something that – while not as automatic as it used to be before being moved back – should be pretty routine, he could force the Bengals to make a move.

Slow starts (still)

It’s the clear Bengals players and coaches are sick of talking about it, but the questions will continue as long they continue to let the opponent drive down the field for touchdowns to start the game.

It’s happened four games in a row and six of the last eight. And Sunday’s opponent, the Eagles, have showed an ability to start fast of late, scoring touchdowns on their opening drives in two of the last three games.

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One thing that might help the Cincinnati defense settle in is for the offense to take the ball if the Bengals win the toss, but head coach Marvin Lewis said he has no intention of abandoning his practice of deferring.

“A lot of times we are deferring that kick to earn field position and to have the only opportunity to have two back-to-back possessions (last one of the first half and first one of the second half) in the game,” he said.

Finishing form

As rough as the opening drives have been, the Bengals have recovered and played well the rest of the way, at least of late.

They are ranked 17th in scoring defense this season, allowing 22.3 points per game, but they have shown marked improvement in the last month and a half.

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Over the last six weeks, the team ranks eighth in scoring defense, allowing 20 points per game, and in the three weeks since the bye, that number is 18.7, which is much closer to the 17.4 they allowed last year while setting a franchise record.

“We looked at some things in the bye week,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “Obviously we’ve got to start faster, but the scoring’s been down, which is good. And third down conversions have been down.”

Basement battle

A Bengals victory will clinch a sixth consecutive last-place finish in the AFC North for the Browns ahead of next week’s Battle of Ohio in Cleveland.

In addition to six straight, it would be the eighth last-place finish in the last nine years for Cleveland.

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The only thing that keeping the Browns from being on a streak of eight in a row is the Bengals collapse in 2010, when they lost 10 straight after a 2-1 start and finished 4-12, one game behind the Browns for third place.

Since the AFC North was founded in 2002, the Browns have finished last 11 times, the Bengals twice and the Ravens once. Pittsburgh hasn’t finished last since the AFC Central days in 1988.

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