The Eagles' path to the postseason required them to take care of the lowly Bengals in Week 11. Instead, they had their worst performance of the year, struggled on offense at the end of the game and tied the Bengals in an ugly 13-13 affair.
The Eagles' major weakness was their passing attack. Considering that is generally the Eagles' strength, this game is hardly indicative of a seasonwide trend. Through three quarters, the Eagles were losing largely because Donovan McNabb had thrown three interceptions on Cincinnati's half of the field. McNabb has some weaknesses as a quarterback, but traditionally, ball security is not one of them. This was a bad game on a windy day and cannot be considered representative of a propensity for turnovers.
More symbolic of the Eagles' general problems was that the offense struggled late in yet another close game. Those offensive problems in close games make the Eagles underachieve compared to their overall talent level. They have won five games by at least nine points, and all of their losses came by six points or fewer. The Titans have only one more win by nine or more points, but they are undefeated because they are 4-0 in close games.
To learn something meaningful from this somewhat-shocking tie, we jump ahead to the fourth quarter. The Eagles trailed 13-10 despite reaching Cincinnati territory on six of their seven previous drives. From that point forward, the Eagles had seven possessions. But they managed to reach Cincinnati territory only once and only once put together a drive with multiple first-down conversions.
The Bengals have an improving but still struggling defense. They are unable to get pressure with their defensive linemen and end up either not pressuring the quarterback or desperately blitzing. Against the Eagles, they were able to bring pressure because their young cornerbacks could match up on the Eagles' wide receivers in single coverage. The number of blitzes increased late in the game, which forced RB Brian Westbrook to stay in pass protection, eliminating a potent threat in the passing game.
In those seven possessions, the Eagles failed to make noticeable adjustments. They went to almost a straight passing attack, with only the occasional conventional run play. This team fundamentally lacks confidence in its running attack. In the fourth quarter and overtime, only six of their 33 plays were handoffs. These plays netted a respectable 26 yards, and only one gained less than 3 yards. But the Eagles chose not to rely on running plays and instead went to two gadget plays, one of which led to a 3-yard loss.
The Eagles' fear of their running game eliminates the necessary offensive balance they need to be successful. Teams know that they will lean on McNabb in tight situations, and they react accordingly. As a result, McNabb is not effective in late and close situations. In 52 attempts when the teams are separated by fewer than seven points in the fourth quarter, McNabb averages only 5 yards per pass.
Football Outsiders tracks a team's DVOA in late and close situations, which is defined as the second half or overtime when the teams are separated by a touchdown or less. The Eagles' offense, which ranks 11th overall, ranks 23rd in late and close situations.
The Eagles' ineptitude allowed the Bengals to avoid losing a third consecutive close game to an NFC East team. Cincinnati lost in overtime to the Giants and was within two points of Dallas late in the fourth quarter. The season has been undone by the injury to quarterback Carson Palmer and an injured and ineffective offensive line. The glimmer of hope is on defense. The Bengals have played above-average defense, according to defense-adjusted value over average, in four of their past seven games.
Of course, this sudden defensive renaissance likely will be too late to save Marvin Lewis' job. The Bengals are unlikely to win more than another game or two. Still, although the Bengals are a dysfunctional team in some ways, they have a much brighter future than their compatriots in ineptitude: Kansas City, Detroit and St. Louis. The Bengals still have Palmer and his talented receivers. Now, they are starting to develop a talented young secondary. Leon Hall is much improved in his second season, and Johnathan Joseph held up well against a barrage of passes by McNabb. Both players are undermined by the league's worst pass rush. If the Bengals could add a dominant pass-rusher, their pass defense would improve by leaps and bounds. Ex-Titans lineman Antwan Odom was supposed to be that player, but the free-agent addition has just 2 sacks this year.
The Eagles, despite all the makings of a Super Bowl-caliber team, may soon have to start thinking about upgrading for the future. The failure to beat Cincinnati put them behind the eight ball in the competitive NFC. The Eagles close with five of six games against teams with winning records, and they probably can afford to lose only one more game. Needless to say, the Eagles' lack of ability to move the football in close games likely will make them the best team left out of the 2008 postseason.
Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.