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Bengals hope fans turn out for crucial game on Sunday

CINCINNATI -- One victory away from an unexpected playoff spot, the Cincinnati Bengals are already immersed in their biggest challenge of the week.

No, it's not getting ready for Baltimore. It's trying to get somebody to come and watch.

The Bengals (9-6) drew another less-than-capacity crowd for their 23-16 win over Arizona on Saturday that secured only their third winning record in the last 21 years. With a victory on Sunday over Baltimore, they would clinch the final AFC wild-card berth for a chance to win their first playoff game since the 1990 season.

Big moment. Will there be another small crowd?

Only 41,273 fans showed up on a sunny, 38-degree afternoon to watch the breakthrough victory Saturday. Paul Brown Stadium was more than one-third empty, and that's been the norm all season. Players buoyed by the chance to make the playoffs wasted no time lobbying for an audience.

"I just want to thank the fans who were out there today," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We really felt you guys out there, and that helped us out big time. I really want to encourage all of the Cincinnati fans to come out and cheer us on as we try to make the playoffs."

The franchise's two decades of futility have brought about the strange situation: a team begging for fans as it closes in on the playoffs.

There's a lot of bad history behind it.

The Bengals went 4-12 last season, when coach Marvin Lewis essentially played out his contract while looking for an indication the front office was fully committed to winning. After two days of talks, he agreed to return even though owner Mike Brown said publicly that there would be no significant changes.

Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer then insisted he would sit out rather than play another season in Cincinnati. The Bengals eventually satisfied his request for a trade, sending him to Oakland during the season.

Although the Bengals got a first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder, for fans it confirmed the notion that the franchise is hopeless.

Also, Paul Brown Stadium has been an ongoing point of contention as the region struggles to recover from the recession. Hamilton County voters approved a sales tax hike in 1996, and the Bengals signed a 30-year lease that gives them a lot of control over the facility and much of its revenues. The stadium came in way over budget -- bad for taxpayers -- and cost roughly $450 million when it opened in 2000.

Fans bristle that the family continues to get enormous benefits from the taxpayer-financed stadium while the team remains one of the league's least successful. On Friday, the family increased its control of the team by purchasing shares from one of the original franchise partners for more than $100 million. Forbes magazine reported that the Brown family paid in cash for the shares, estimated at 30 percent of the team. Forbes estimates that the team is worth $875 million.

The longstanding resentments showed in the team's ticket sales this season. The Bengals have sold out only one of their seven home games, when the Steelers brought thousands of fans. They've drawn the smallest crowds in the 65,500-seat stadium's history, including an all-time low of 41,142 for a win over Buffalo.

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Eagles' hopes buried

PHILADELPHIA -- For all those super expectations, all the preseason hype and all the big-name additions, the Philadelphia Eagles are left to ponder all that went wrong.

Despite their late-season surge -- a three-game winning streak -- the Eagles (7-8) aren't going to the playoffs. That's the reality for this Dream Team.

So before they begin looking ahead to next season, they're thinking about the 'what ifs?' One play could be the difference in several of the losses, especially because the Eagles blew five fourth-quarter leads.

"If we would have gotten into the playoffs, I feel we would have definitely done some damage," quarterback Michael Vick said after Saturday's 20-7 win at Dallas. "It's unfortunate that we didn't and that's the game of football. If you make some mistakes early and you get behind in the count in the win/loss column, you sell yourself short in the end and you're in the position that we are in. We're just happy that we are finishing strong. We have one more game to play and we're going to give it everything we've got."

Vick and his teammates wasted an opportunity to repeat as division champions in a mediocre NFC East that will crown a champion -- either the Cowboys or New York Giants -- with no more than nine wins.

The Eagles entered Saturday at 6-8 and still had a chance to win the division, but were eliminated when the Giants beat the New York Jets.

"I've watched this team grow as the weeks have went on," Vick said. "The last three or four weeks, we've come together as a team. It's a family environment, a family atmosphere and that translates to winning. That's why you see a different team. I think we are well put together and well fit. We're playing together and that's what it's all about. But it takes time to build that chemistry, build that unity, that togetherness. Doing it now, it's exciting for me and there's not a place that I'd rather be each and every day."

When the Eagles went on a spending spree and brought in Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cullen Jenkins, Steve Smith, Ronnie Brown and Vince Young to join a roster that already had a talented core of star players, expectations were elevated to perhaps unrealistic levels.

Even management declared this an all-or-nothing season in which nothing less than a Super Bowl victory would be considered a success.

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Bears are short-handed

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Chicago Bears were without their top two running backs for Sunday night's game at Green Bay after Marion Barber was ruled inactive.

The game ended at edition time with the Packers winning, 35-21.

Barber did not practice this week because of a calf injury and was listed as doubtful going in. Chicago already was without top running back Matt Forte, who missed his third straight game with a sprained right medial collateral ligament.

Kahlil Bell started at running back for the Bears. Devin Hester played despite an ankle injury.

Josh McCown started at quarterback for Chicago. He replaced Caleb Hanie, who was ineffective after Jay Cutler broke his right thumb.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers worked behind a patchwork offensive line because of injuries. Green Bay also was missing wide receiver Greg Jennings (sprained left knee) and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (concussion).

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