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Thursday, December 13, 2012
Can Bengals become prime-time players?

By Jamison Hensley

To stay in the hunt for a playoff spot, the Cincinnati Bengals know they have to beat the Philadelphia Eagles. They also have to conquer the NFL's worst case of stage fright.

The Bengals, which play at Philadelphia at 8:20 p.m. ET Thursday, have lost nine straight prime-time games. That's the longest streak since the Bills dropped 11 straight on the national television from 2001 to 2009, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Since their last prime-time win in the 2007 season opener, the Bengals are the only team in the NFL without a win in a prime-time game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Why do the Bengals always seem to freeze up when the national spotlight hits them?

"I think we don't really pay attention to that," cornerback Leon Hall said. "It's more you guys kind of bring it to our attention, to be honest. We kind of take it as a prime-time game, must-win game we got to have."

Beating the Eagles in prime time would do more than improve the perception of the Bengals in front of a national audience. If Cincinnati can win its final three games (at Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh and home against Baltimore), the Bengals will secure a playoff berth and could end up with the division title.

A loss would hurt the Bengals' chances of overtaking the Steelers for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are currently tied with 7-6 records.

"We're back to the mentality that we feel like we have to go undefeated," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "So 3-0 is the mentality, and it starts with Thursday. It feels like every game we enter is a must-win. That's the mentality we go into this week with. Thursday we have to win the football game no matter what. Until somebody tells us we're in, that has to be the mentality."

The Bengals should beat the Eagles, whose quarterback (Nick Foles) is making his fifth career start and whose coach (Andy Reid) is on the hot seat. The biggest hurdle is overcoming their prime-time problem.

Cincinnati is 4-11 under coach Marvin Lewis in prime time, and that record looks even worse when breaking down the losses. The Bengals have looked ragged in prime time with an average margin of defeat of 16 points during that nine-game losing streak. Of those nine losses, only three have been by fewer than 11 points.

The Bengals player who has struggled the most in prime time has been quarterback Andy Dalton. In two games on national television (at Baltimore and home against Pittsburgh), Dalton has completed 55 percent of his passes for 326 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Dalton's two lowest QBR totals of the season have come in prime time: 15.7 against the Ravens and 16.9 against the Steelers.

Dalton and the Bengals have to end this trend if they want to make it back to the playoffs.