For Matt Barkley, preseason a potential showcase

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For Matt Barkley, preseason a potential showcase

When he first arrived in Philly, brash former USC quarterback Matt Barkley conceded nothing to anyone about the starting job. Not Dennis Dixon, not Nick Foles, not even Mike Vick.

And when he came back to the NovaCare Complex this spring and took third-team reps behind Foles and Mark Sanchez, Barkley wasn’t willing to admit that he wasn’t in the picture to be Foles’ backup.

About two weeks into training camp, Barkley is seemingly echoing an alternate sentiment. He’s still confident, he’s still diligent, still steadfast in his belief that he can be a franchise quarterback in the league if given the opportunity.

It’s just probably not going to be here.

"I don't know what [the path] is yet. We'll see in a couple years what it is," he said after Wednesday’s walkthrough. "But obviously I do want to be a starting quarterback and play in the NFL. I definitely think I have learned a whole lot here and hope to learn a lot more. I don't know what the future will hold, but I'm excited for whatever it brings."

Sounds like a much different guy than the one who reported to training camp last year insisting that he hadn’t been ruled out in the race to be Chip Kelly’s first starter.

Barkley, who’s run exclusively with the third offense throughout camp, looks forward to Friday’s preseason opener against Chicago for different reasons than Foles. A good performance in the preseason is Barkley’s chance to have his work displayed for the 31 other teams.

He readily admitted that his preseason showcase is an audition for the rest of the NFL.

"I figure every chance you get to be on the field in front of an audience is a tryout of sorts,” he said, “whether it's for your own team, your own self or for another team. You have to prove that you're capable of playing in the NFL.

"I'm not going to be thinking of it as a test while it's happening -- I'm just going to be playing, having fun -- but when it comes down to it, that's what is going on."

Reality must have settled in some time in the past two weeks, when the coaches not only gave all second-team reps to Sanchez, a newcomer who basically bombed in his last two seasons with the Jets, but then split Barkley’s third-team reps with G.J. Kinne, the lowest man on the quarterback totem pole.

The Eagles traded up in the fourth round last year to draft Barkley. Kinne, a former Tulsa standout, signed as a rookie free agent and spent his first year on the practice squad. Even after some of Barkley’s most impressive practices -- and he’s had a few -- he never ascended the practice depth chart.

Now, it’s feasible -- although not probable -- that Barkley could end up being cut or traded as the Eagles move forward with Foles, Sanchez and Kinne.

“There are so many things that you don't have control of in this league,” Barkley said, “and so I feel like if you can just worry on how your passes are, how your mindset is going into a game and how your preparation is going, knowing your responsibilities and your reads, then everything will take care of itself.

“You don't know who's watching you on any given day. You don't know who’s talking behind closed doors or whatnot. So as long as I'm putting my best foot forward, showing them what I'm capable of …”

Barkley admitted that his short pro career so far hasn’t exactly mirrored the blueprint he had mapped out. But he’s been through an experience like this before, when USC coach Pete Carroll, the biggest reason for Barkley’s decision to play at USC, bolted for the Seahawks job after the quarterback’s freshman season.

“I remember thinking, ‘This wasn't supposed to happen.’ My plan was to play for him and he just took off,” Barkley said. “So that was kind of a young, rude awakening to the business of football. And I didn't take it personally. I got it then that it was a business move that was best for him. He was moving on and I was moving on.

“But I do remember that moment of knowing that you never know what's going to happen in the future. That second year, I learned a lot about leadership and I didn't expect it to happen but there were gains still from that year. Just like last year, I learned a whole lot about being a pro, protecting my body, recovery, all that stuff Chip emphasizes here. I didn't think that would necessarily happen last year, my rookie year, but I still learn from it.”

Eagles-Bengals 5 things: Season isn't over yet

Eagles-Bengals 5 things: Season isn't over yet

Eagles (5-6) at Bengals (3-7-1)
1 p.m. on FOX

Eagles +1.5

The Eagles' backs may be against the wall, but the season isn't over yet. Five games still remain, beginning with a trip to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals on Sunday.

With a 5-6 record, the Eagles would need some help to reach the playoffs. Of course, it's a moot point if they don't help themselves and end their current two-game skid. Who knows, a win over a 3-7-1 Bengals squad could be the beginning of an improbable run.

1. Unwelcome in the jungle
If the Eagles do manage to defeat the Bengals on Sunday, they would be making history. While it's not exactly a huge sample size, the franchise has never won in Cincinnati, posting a 3-0-1 record in four tries.

They've come close on multiple occasions. In 1994, the Bengals tied the Eagles with three seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, recovered a muffed kickoff, then kicked another field goal to win 33-30 in regulation. And in 2008, the clubs finished in a 13-13 tie when the Eagles committed four turnovers to Cincinnati's one.

Granted, winning at Paul Brown Stadium isn't a problem that's inherent to the Eagles. Since 2013, the Bengals are 21-6-1 at home, and that's even going 2-2-1 this year. "The Jungle" is an underrated difficult place to play — although whether the crowd will be behind a losing team this week remains to be seen.

2. The road to victory
Once again, Eagles coach Doug Pederson faced questions about balance after the offense's run-pass ratio was seriously out of whack in the loss to the Packers on Monday. This week, it would behoove Pederson to listen to critics of his play-calling, because pounding the rock will likely be the blueprint to victory.

That's because Cincinnati's run defense is among the worst in the NFL. The unit ranks 28th in terms of ground yards per game, surrendering 180 or more three times this season while allowing an average of 4.4 per carry.

Furthermore, the Bengals are much stronger defending the ball when it's in the air. They're not dominant or anything, coming into the game ranked 13th against the pass, but it's obvious where the real weakness is.

Given that top receiver Jordan Matthews is battling an ankle injury and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has struggled to put the entire offense on his shoulders, it's clear what the Eagles should do. Lean heavily on Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood, and play the ball-control and field-position angles if they must.

3. Eyes on Eifert
The good news for the Eagles is they are catching the Bengals without All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green and versatile running back Giovani Bernard — injured players who previously accounted for 60 percent of the team's offense. The bad news is Cincinnati recently got one of their weapons back.

Tyler Eifert has been back in action for five games now, and the fourth-year tight end has picked right up where he left off following a Pro Bowl campaign in 2015. In the Bengals' last four contests, Eifert has 20 receptions for 303 yards and two touchdowns, which would project to 80, 1,212 and eight over a full season.

The Eagles have a few things going for them. They haven't been getting killed by the tight end position this season, and the Bengals currently don't have anybody else the defense really needs to focus in on. That being said, this offense is centered around Eifert right now, who's been targeted 34 times in the last four games. He's an impact player.

4. Better clean up their act
It's no secret that penalties have been a huge problem for the Eagles all season. Officials are flagging the team 8.2 times per game, which is the third-highest rate in the NFL this season. Needless to say, those calls have hurt, costing them an average of 64.3 yards.

That's not going to fly against the Bengals, who believe it or not are one of the cleanest teams in the league, at least as far as the refs are concerned. At only 5.7 penalties per game, Cincinnati boasts the third-lowest rate, while their average of 44.9 yards lost is the best out of all 32 teams.

The Eagles have already proven they have trouble overcoming the officials. Going on the road and facing a team that's the total inverse could be a huge problem. They're not going to get many freebies, nor can they afford to give them away.

This team has no margin for error to begin with. In what is anticipated to be a very tight game, the Eagles better not let flags or lack there of against their opponent influence the outcome.

5. It's not over yet
At this point, the Eagles have minimal roads to the playoffs, but a victory Sunday would at least serve to get them back in the conversation. A division championship is officially off the table. A wild-card berth, on the other hand, is still a possibility.

Washington currently owns the sixth and final spot in the tournament at 6-4-1, although the Eagles would have a chance to make up some ground with their meeting next week. The Buccaneers are 6-5, and the Vikings are 6-6, followed by the Packers and Saints sharing the Eagles' 5-6 record. It's not like anybody is running away with this.

So while postseason play might seem like a long shot, it's not exactly outlandish, either. With a win over the Bengals on Sunday, the Eagles could very well be hosting Washington next week in a battle for their playoff lives. That means it's not quite time to give up just yet.

Eagles-Bengals predictions by our (cough) experts

Eagles-Bengals predictions by our (cough) experts

With their playoff hopes waning, the Eagles (5-6) travel to Cincinnati for a matchup against the struggling Bengals (3-7-1).

The Birds have lost six of their last 8, including two straight. Cincinnati hasn't fared much better, going winless in its last four.

It's time for our (cough) expert predictions for the Week 13 matchup.

Reuben Frank (5-5)
Now that the Eagles' playoff hopes have dwindled down to about a 1-in-12 shot, we'll find out if Doug Pederson can keep this team motivated and sharp for the remaining third of the season. That's a lot of football left to go, and for a team that's lost six of its last eight and five straight on the road, it's not going to be easy. But I do believe the Eagles won't stop playing hard. The effort has been there all along. The Green Bay game got away from them at the end, but for the most part, the losses have been competitive, and the team hasn't shown any signs of quitting. 

Now when you look at the schedule, it's filled with winning teams, division leaders, Hall of Fame quarterbacks and teams coming off byes. Of their last nine opponents, only the Packers currently have a losing record at 5-6. But they have Aaron Rodgers. Which brings us to the Bengals. They're 3-7-1, they're missing their Pro Bowl wide receiver and their starting running back and they've won just two of their last 10 games -- one of them against the Browns. 

Final conclusion: This is a team the Eagles can beat. I see a big game for Wendell Smallwood against the NFL's fifth-worst rush defense and also a big performance from Kenjon Barner with his one weekly carry. The Eagles are 0-3-1 all-time in Cincinnati. But Bobby Hoying beat the Bengals in 1997, and if Bobby Hoying can beat 'em Carson Wentz can. I'm going Eagles 17, Bengals 16 and back to .500 with four games to go.

Eagles 17, Bengals 16

Dave Zangaro (3-8)
The Eagles managed to put up just 13 points against the Packers' swiss cheese defense, so it's hard to imagine they'll suddenly catch fire against a better defense on the road.  

The best chance the Eagles have on offense, is to run the ball early and often, but they're without their top running back Ryan Mathews. That means rookie Wendell Smallwood will become the lead back. 

Oh yeah, did we mention that the Eagles' best receiver, Jordan Matthews, is dealing with an ankle injury that kept him out of practice most of the week? Even if Matthews plays, he might be severely hampered by the ankle. 

No, the Bengals don't pack the same punch as the Packers, but they'll be at home and Andy Dalton is at least a decent quarterback, Jeremy Hill runs hard and Tyler Eifert is a very good tight end. 

The Eagles catch a break with A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard out, but I don't think that's going to be enough. 

Bengals 17, Eagles 15  

Derrick Gunn (4-7)
After their latest two game losing streak where do the Eagles go from here? In their last two outings the Birds have given up 26.5 point per game while scoring just 14 points per game. The offense has lacked big play capability, and the defense hasn't stopped opponents from making key plays (Green Bay was 10 of 14 on 3rd down). Now they take to the road to face a Cincinnati team that is worse off than they are. The Bengals were projected to be serious playoff contenders but have been pretenders with a 3-7-1 record.

To add insult to injury, the Bengals are playing without 40 percent of their offensive production. Their top wideout, A.J. Green, is out with a hamstring injury and RB Giovani Bernard, who's lost for the year with an ACL tear. The Bengals can't score but their defense has been improving over the last three games giving up an average of 18.6 points.

Jordan Matthews' ankle injury could handcuff the Birds' passing attack. Hopefully the defense can get to Dalton who's been sacked 32 times. I can't believe I'm saying this but just call it a hunch: I don't like the Birds in this situation. 

Bengals 16, Eagles 13

Ray Didinger (5-6)
The Cincinnati Bengals have won one game since Sept. 29 and it was against the Cleveland Browns which almost doesn't count. They are currently on an 0-3-1 slide and will miss the playoffs for the first time in six years. Their best receiver, A.J. Green, is hurt and running back Giovani Bernard is lost for the season. Quarterback Andy Dalton fumbled four times in last week's loss to Baltimore. In short, these are not fun times in Cincinnati.

That would seem to bode well for the Eagles but there is that pesky matter of playing on the road (where they have lost five in a row) and the fact they are coming off their worst performance of the season, Monday's home loss to the Packers. The Eagles have scored just 28 points in their last two games while the Bengals have scored 26 so don't look for a lot of offense on Sunday. This could come down to the kickers and if so Caleb Sturgis is a lot better than Mike Nugent who has missed four of his last eight extra-point attempts.
 
Eagles 19, Bengals 13

Andrew Kulp (6-5)
Records aside, these are similar teams right now. The offenses lack weapons, the defenses are OK but flawed and the only way either team can win is ugly.

And ugly this game will likely be. The game comes down to kicks, a battle Caleb Sturgis can win against a struggling Mike Nugent. Bonus prediction: Eagles fans get plenty of chores and projects done around the house during this snoozer.

Eagles 13, Bengals 9

Corey Seidman (5-6)
The over/under is just 42 and I'm not expecting a whole lot of points. 

The Eagles are reeling, the Bengals are reeling, but when it comes down to it the Eagles enter this game healthier and should be able to keep Cincy's offense in check. 

Eifert is the Bengals' most dangerous weapon at the moment and the Eagles have been pretty good defending the seam with Jordan Hicks, Nigel Bradham and the safeties.

Eagles 20, Bengals 16

Andy Schwartz (5-6)
Just when I thought I had this team figured out, just when I’d evened my record at .500, the Eagles laid an egg.

They did so against a Packers team that had lost four straight. I should have seen it coming. Aaron Rodgers wasn’t going to let the Packers lose five in a row. The Eagles’ defense, despite having played well at home, was at his mercy. 

Now the Birds face another reeling team. Cincy hasn’t won in more than a month. The Bengals have lost three straight after tying the Redskins. 

But the Bengals don’t have Aaron Rodgers. They don’t have A.J. Green or Giovani Bernard either. And they’re not the Packers. They’re the Bengals.

After last week, it’s easy to pick the Eagles to lose. After last week, you wonder if the Eagles will win again this season. 

But the Eagles haven’t lost three straight all year. The pass rush wakes up, the special teams makes a big play, and that helps the offense score three touchdowns.

Eagles 24, Bengals 18