Eagles-Cowboys Preview: Win or Go Home
If anybody told me before the season started that the Philadelphia Eagles would be playing for a chance at 10 wins and the NFC East division title, I would have said they were crazy. But that's exactly where we are heading into Week 17 of the NFL schedule, as the Eagles (9-6) head to Arlington to face the Dallas Cowboys (8-7) on Sunday night. The winner of this game wins the division and the loser misses out on the playoffs. How cool is that?
The Cowboys are actually playing for the chance to win the division in Week 17 for the fourth straight year. The fact that they failed each of the three previous tries is good news for the Eagles. The Eagles are trying to make the playoffs and win the NFC East for the first time since 2010. Let's take a look at the matchup.
The Cowboys beat the Eagles 17-3 back on Oct. 20, but these are two completely different teams than the ones that played back in October. While both defenses are terrible, the Eagles offense is the second best unit in the NFL in yards per game (420.7) and the Cowboys offense is a lowly 22nd (336.3 ypg). That might sound like a huge difference until you realize that the Eagles are 2nd in points scored (27.9 points per game) and the Cowboys are 3rd (27.8).
NFC East Standings
New York Giants
Nick Foles 118.7
Peyton Manning 113.0
Aaron Rodgers 108.0
Philip Rivers 105.5
Drew Brees 101.8
Eagles Offense Versus Cowboys Defense
Eagles QB Nick Foles had, by far, his worst game of this breakout season in the first matchup against the Cowboys. He completed only 11-of-29 passes for 80 yards before he sustained a concussion in the third quarter. Since Foles returned two weeks later to tie an NFL record with seven TD passes against the Raiders, he has been on fire. He has thrown for 2,628 yards, with 25 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. He is completing 63.9% of his passes and his 118.8 QB rating leads the NFL. Foles also set an Eagles' single-game record by completing 84% of his passes (21-for-25) last week against the Bears. He is one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league, facing the second worst pass defense in the NFL (290.7 ypg) and the worst overall defense in the entire NFL (418.6 ypg).
The Eagles 9th ranked passing offense (258.7 ypg) should be on full display against the Cowboys. DeSean Jackson is ranked No. 8 among receivers with 1,304 yards on 79 receptions and 9 TDs. He actually only needs 106 yards to break Mike Quick's single-season franchise record, set in 1983. He'll be covered by Brandon Carr and the Eagles need to exploit this mismatch. Orlando Scandrick will cover Riley Cooper (44-796-8) on the other side and Sterling Moore will man the slot where Jason Avant or one of the Eagles TEs, Brent Celek and Zach Ertz will roam. Safety Barry Church leads the Cowboys in tackles, but it's never a good sign when a safety leads a team in tackles.
The Eagles offensive line didn't do a great job against the Cowboys front seven in the first meeting and now the Cowboys will have DeMarcus Ware back this time. Ware will be facing LT Jason Peters in a matchup that should be one of the determining factors in the game. The rest of the Cowboys defensive line is playing relatively well, as Jason Hatcher has 9 sacks and George Selvie has 7, but the team ranks only 31st in sacks, with 29. Their linebacking corps, however, is nothing without MLB Sean Lee. Last week against the Redskins, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin played mostly nickel packages, but they won't be able to do that against the Eagles.
That's because the Eagles lead the NFL in rushing offense (161.9 ypg). With Lee out with an injured hamstring, expect the Eagles to pound the rock right at the Cowboys 27th ranked run defense (127.9 ypg) to balance out the offense and keep the defense honest. That's good news for the NFL's leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, who has 1,476 yards rushing and is only 37 yards shy of breaking Wilbert Montgomery's single-season franchise record for rushing yards in a season. McCoy was held to only 55 yards on 18 carries in the first meeting, but Foles wasn't an established threat at QB back then. Now the Cowboys won't be able to stack the box all game to stop the run.
Which Dallas QB Gives the Eagles the Best Chance to Win?
Cowboys Offense Versus Eagles Defense
The biggest question in Big D is whether or not QB Tony Romo will play. There was a report that his season was over due to a herniated disc in his back, but that was refuted by Jerry Jones and everyone else in the Cowboys organization. Romo got an epidural this week, but hasn't practiced. I highly doubt Romo plays with such an injury, which would mean that backup Kyle Orton will step in to start for Dallas. That's the same Kyle Orton who hasn't started since he was benched for the immortal Tim Tebow in Denver back in 2011. Of course, Orton isn't bad. In fact, he quite good. He's got the arm to make any throws and he won't toss the killer interception like December Tony Romo always does. Heck, Eagles fans should hope that Romo plays. At least you know Romo will do something incredibly stupid in December to cause his team to lose the game. And if Eagles fans think that the game is in the bag because the Cowboys are starting a backup QB, I have two words for them. Matt Cassell. Cassell is the average-at-best backup QB who torched the Eagles defense and led the Minnesota Vikings to an upset win two weeks ago.
The one thing that Romo has that Orton lacks is mobility. Now the Eagles defense will know exactly where Orton will be in the pocket every play. DE Trent Cole is coming off a three-sack game against the Bears and will face average LT Tyron Smith. Conner Barwin drops into coverage quite a bit, but facing turnstile RT Doug Free might just convince the Eagles to let him loose on Orton more often this game. It will also be important for the defensive line of Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton to get some pressure up the middle. Without Romo, the statistics about the Cowboys passing game are almost irrelevant. But what is relevant is that the Eagles pass defense is a lowly 30th in the NFL (285.2 ypg).
If Orton gets time, he would be smart to look for Dez Bryant. Bryant has 85 receptions for 1,134 yards and 12 TDs and moves around the formation. That means that CBs Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams will have to deal with Bryant, along with slot corner Brandon Boykin. Hopefully defensive coordinator Billy Davis plays more press coverage, like he did against the Bears, and less of the bend but don't break, keep everything in front of them defense they played against the Vikings. The Cowboys don't have a big threat at their other receiver position, but they do have a great tight end in Jason Witten. Witten was always Romo's security blanket and Orton would be well served to look his way as well. Witten has 716 yards and 8 TDs this season, so he's far from over-the-hill in his 11th season in the NFL.
The Cowboys will certainly look to take pressure off Orton by running the ball often with DeMarco Murray. Murray's 5.4 yards per carry ranks 2nd in the NFL, so he is a capable back. It's just that the Cowboys sometimes forget about him, like they did in that 4th quarter loss to the Packers. The Cowboys are 24th running the ball (96.5 ypg) and the Eagles are 12th against the run (107.5 ypg), so this isn't where the game is going to be won or lost. Running the ball with Murray will just be a way to keep the Eagles defense honest and give Orton some time to find his receivers.
Dwayne Harris is a dangerous return man for the Cowboys and he has the Cowboys near the top of the league in kickoff and punt return standings as a result. The Eagles coverage units are a mixed bag. Most weeks they are terrific thanks to punter Donnie Jones. Then there are weeks where they allowed a return TD or two. The Eagles return teams are doing absolutely nothing this season, so the Cowboys have nothing to worry about. Kicker Alex Henery has improved after a rough patch earlier in the year, while Dallas kicker Dan Baily has converted 25 of 27 field goal attempts.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is on the hot seat, as any coach employed by Jerry Jones normally would be. He's come up short of the playoffs the last three years and the fans are getting a bit restless. Jones says he believes in his coach, but Jones has never been described as a patient man. Eagles coach Chip Kelly rebounded from the worst coaching performance in the history of the NFL in Week 15 against the Vikings to demolish the Bears last week. He seemed to remember that he has the NFL's leading rusher and not to squib kick every single kickoff, which is good. He's still horrible with the challenges, but Chipper is still a rookie himself.
After the Eagles crushed the Bears on Sunday night, the line in Las Vegas went from Dallas being favored by 2 1/2 to the Eagles being 2 1/2 point favorites. Then the line went up to 7 1/2 in favor of the Eagles when the news about Romo broke. I'm not a betting man, but I'm smart enough to know that the odds-makers know what they're doing. They seem to believe that Romo won't play and that means an easy Eagles win. I tend to agree.
Eagles 41 - Cowboys 27