After nearly three quarters of uninspired, undisciplined and unproductive football Thursday night, the Cincinnati Bengals got four turnovers in a span of six minutes to tighten their grip on their playoff destiny.
The Bengals converted the four turnovers into 24 points in 3 minutes and 33 seconds to rally for a 34-13 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.
“Sometimes it’s the offense, and sometimes it’s the defense,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “We were able to get things going with the turnovers, and they were a big part of the game.”
The win temporarily moves Cincinnati (8-6) one half game ahead of Pittsburgh for the final AFC wildcard spot, with a date with the Steelers at Heinz Field looming on Dec. 23.
Philadelphia, which lost for the ninth time in 10 games to fall to 4-10, committed five turnovers in all, and the Bengals turned every one of them into points.
“I give all the credit in the world to our defense,” guard Kevin said. “The defense had the momentum shifters tonight and got us finally going. Give this one to the defense.”
The five turnovers were the most the Bengals have forced since 2007, when they caused Baltimore to cough it up six times. And the biggest one was Leon Hall’s interception late in the third quarter that started the stretch of four in six minutes.
“It was definitely huge,” said Hall, who returned his first interception in more than a year 44 yards to the Philadelphia 40 to set up the Dalton’s 11-yard touchdown run for the go-ahead score.
“Before that happened, I looked at Leon and I said you’re going to get an interception, I’m going to block for you and you’re going to score,” defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. “I’ll be dogged, he intercepted it and almost scored. It was a crazy.”
Two plays later, Gilberry was the one who scored when he scooped up a Bryce Brown fumble that Pat Sims forced and returned it 25 yards for his first career touchdown.
“We felt the momentum,” Gilberry said. “That’s what we do. When something’s going good, we try to hone in on it and embrace that feeling and just roll with it. Guys were making plays and having fun.”
One play after Gilberry’s scored the Bengals’ first defensive touchdown of the year, Vontaze Burfict jarred the ball free from Clay Harbor and Chris Crocker fell on it at the Philadelphia 13 to set up a Josh Brown 32-yard field goal for a 27-13 lead.
Eagles defensive tackle Cedric Thornton dropped the ensuing kickoff, which was a high-arching pooch, and Taylor Mays recovered the ball at the Philadelphia 33 to complete the remarkable four-turnover stretch.
“Coming out of the half we felt that we just needed to make some plays and more plays would come our way,” Hall said. “We were saying who’s going to make the big play, and it just so happened to be turnovers. We got them in a short span, which was huge giving our offense the ball on a short field. Whether it’s a touchdown or a field goal, putting points on the board was huge in this game.”
The five turnovers give the Eagles an NFL-high 34 this season and a remarkable 72 in their last 30 games.
“Five turnovers and 31 points, that really says it all,” Eagles head coach Andy Reid said. “I thought the effort was there and guys played hard, but you just can’t have those turnovers. That’s a problem.”
Dalton’s 5-yard TD pass to A.J. Green followed the fifth turnover and made the score 34-13 with 12:47 left in the game.
“The defense was what gave us momentum by their great play,” said Green, whose touchdown was his first in four games. “Our offense needs to continue to execute and gain the momentum for us in the next couple of weeks.”
While the onslaught of takeaways late in the game was the key, the defense actually set the tone early when Carlos Dunlap forced a Jeremy Maclin fumble on the second play of the game to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who finished with 106 yards to bring his season total to 1,080.
The Bengals added a Josh Brown field goal after Dan Herron forced a block punt a few minutes later for a quick 10-0 first-quarter lead.
But the second quarter was a disaster for the Bengals, who managed just two first downs and 22 total yards while committing six of their season-high 10 penalties.
“I think we looked at each other with 30 minutes to go and we were down and we and we knew we had to go put football plays together,” Lewis said. “We hurt ourselves with the penalties and some other things in the first and second quarter, both offensively and defensively.
“I like this football team,” Lewis added. “I don’t like how we play sometimes, but I like this football team.”
Half of the Philadelphia’s six sacks also came in the second quarter, and two of them resulted in Dalton fumbles the Eagles recovered. But in a sign of things to come, the defense came up big by holding Philadelphia to a pair of field goals after they had had a first-and-goal at the 5 following the first fumble and first-and-goal at the 1 after the second one.
The Bengals held the Eagles to 221 yards of offense and limited rookie quarterback Nick Foles to 16 of 33 passing for 182 yards four days after he threw for a career-high 381 at Tampa Bay.
If Pittsburgh and the New York Jets lose Sunday, the Bengals will be in position to clinch their second consecutive playoff berth with a win against the Steelers next week.
“We’ve got nothing to celebrate,” Lewis said. “I like the situation with the fact that we control us. That’s all we can ask for here in December is that we control what we can do and take care of business and we’ll be where we want to be. We’ve got an opportunity to keep playing in January.”