It was the play that perhaps best typified the Philadelphia Eagles' season, though there were many more to come. With 9:59 left in the first quarter of the Cincinnati Bengals' 34-13 thumping of Andy Reid's team, Eagles punter Mat McBriar set to punt from his own 32-yard line, but running back Dan Herron blocked receiver Marvin McNutt into McBriar, the punt was blocked by McNutt's rear end, Herron picked up the blocked punt, and ran it for a 3-yard gain to the Eagles' 11-yard line.
Before the punt, tight end Clay Harbor had to be reminded that he was supposed to be on the field. It was all the things the Eagles have been this season -- a self-fulfilling doomsday prophecy marked by a lack of on-field awareness, comical errors in physical matchups, all run by a set of coaches (in this case, special teams coach Bobby April) who are supposed to be much, much better than this.
The blocked punt, which set the Bengals up at the Philly 11-yard line, set up a 24-yard field goal by Josh Brown, which was the second score from an Eagles turnover -- on Philly's opening drive, receiver Jeremy Maclin fumbled after catching a pass from Nick Foles, and Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored from 1 yard out on the ensuing drive.
The Eagles were actually able to match Cincinnati's 10-point lead, and actually had a 13-10 lead at the half. The Eagles' defensive line, freed from the constraints of the wide-nine formation favored by former line coach Jim Washburn, were able to befuddle Cincinnati's offensive line and quarterback Andy Dalton for a time. Dalton was sacked three times in the second half, and gave the Eagles the ball back twice on fumbles, Foles got it together with his receivers for a while, and rookie running back Bryce Brown started to establish a presence on the ground.
It's not clear what happened to the Eagles in the locker room at halftime, but the team that came out of the tunnel at Lincoln Financial Field was a completely different unit, and in a historically bad way. In one five-play stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters, Philly lost four turnovers -- a Foles interception by Leon Hall on a pass attempt to Maclin with 5:58 left in the third quarter, a Brown fumble recovered by Bengals defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry for a 25-yard touchdown with 30 seconds left in the third quarter, a Harbor fumble on a pass from Foles nine seconds later, and a fumbled kick return by defensive tackle Cedric Thornton early in the fourth quarter.
Even for the Eagles, who have been generous to a fault all season, it was a truly horrible performance. And in that stretch, the Philly lead evaporated. Thirty-one of Cincinnati's 34 points came from turnovers.
The Eagles' defense played well enough to win, limiting Dalton to 13 completions on 27 attempts for 113 yards and one touchdown pass. Green-Ellis did rush for 106 yards on 29 carries, pushing him over the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in his career. Dalton hit super-receiver A.J. Green six times in 10 targets for just 57 yards, and Green was the only Bengals receiver to catch a pass all night. It could be argued that Foles actually played better than Dalton, continuing an unexpected streak of reasonable efficiency for the third-round rookie from Arizona. Foles completed 16 of 33 passes for 182 yards, one touchdown, and one interception -- a decent enough stat line for a team playing with its collective head on its shoulders.
But the Eagles have rarely been that sort of team all season. With this loss, they dropped to 4-10, the franchise's first double-digit losing season since 2005, and last place in the NFC East. The 8-6 Bengals, who desperately needed this win to stay in the AFC playoff race, bounced back from a 20-19 loss to the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday to remain in the hunt. Marvin Lewis' squad faces the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens to finish out their season, which means that control of the AFC North will come down to a series of brutal inter-division battles.
"We definitely had our chances last week," Dalton said after the game, "and if we could have pulled out a win in that one, it would have helped us out. Fortunately, nothing changed in the playoff race. We still control our destiny and these next two are important."
For the Eagles, "brutal" would be a perfect way to describe another embarrassing performance this time, typified by a play in which a punt was blocked by the butt of a teammate.
"I take responsibility for it," Reid said after the game. "I'm the one who's teaching them, along with my coaches, and we've got to do a better job. The guys have got to keep playing hard, and they've got to keep learning from their mistakes."
At this point, Reid's players should be master football scholars, given all their mistakes from which to learn.
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