A playoff-style atmosphere in Dallas with the NFC East on the line
The Dallas Cowboys have the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles on the ropes. A 13-10 surprise win over the New Orleans Saints last weekend knocked off one of the NFC’s top contenders and maintained the Cowboys' one-game lead in the NFC East race. It was a show of strength compared to the 48-7 shellacking the Eagles received from the Saints just two weeks earlier.
But Carson Wentz, new Eagles receiver Golden Tate and a revamped offense feel they can avoid the knockout punch as unlikely underdogs. Their 28-13 dismantling of the Washington Redskins on Monday night was just the second time this year they’ve scored 28 points or more. It also came with a devastating injury to Redskins backup-turned-starting quarterback, Colt McCoy. The Eagles' defense shut out replacement Mark Sanchez in the second half while providing some clarity to the division race: it’s Eagles vs. Cowboys the rest of the way.
A win by Dallas Sunday afternoon opens up the equivalent of a three-game lead in the division over Philadelphia with three to play as the Cowboys would own the head-to-head sweep. But an Eagles victory leaves the teams tied with Philadelphia owning the division tiebreaker.
It all adds up to a playoff-style atmosphere down in Dallas. Who will prevail?
Philadelphia at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 9 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Dallas defense stay dominant?
Much has been written about the Cowboys' defense in holding the Saints to 10 points, their fewest since 2015. The Saints entered that game averaging 37.2 points per game and hadn’t scored less than 21 all season with MVP candidate Drew Brees. Brees was downright awful, passing for just 127 yards. His 39 in the first half were his lowest total in the first two quarters of any game since 2004.
Every part of the defense was impressive. DeMarcus Lawrence led the defensive line with a forced fumble and a sack. Rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch had several key tackles as his Defensive Rookie of the Year bid gains steam. And cornerback Jourdan Lewis sealed the win with a Brees interception with two minutes, nine seconds left in the game. Jerry Jones was so impressed he called the group a “championship defense” just four weeks after a 3-5 record threatened to derail the Cowboys' season.
It’s the defense, indeed, fueling this four-game win streak as Dallas has allowed an average of 18 points a game. After two interceptions during their 3-5 start, they’ve got six picks during this stretch. No team has rushed for more than 80 yards against them; opponents are just four of nine in the red zone.
A repeat performance would obviously leave the Eagles down for the count. But Philadelphia's offense has had success against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. In two starts in Dallas, Carson Wentz has yet to throw a pick and dismantled them last November with a 37-9 pounding that sent the defending NFC East champs reeling from playoff contention.
Wentz also had success against this defense during the Cowboys' four-game win streak. He threw for a season-high 360 yards last month at Lincoln Financial Field with just one first-quarter interception. In fact, he had the team in position for a game-tying score only for Zach Ertz to come up short of the end zone as time expired. And the passing game was clicking on all cylinders then before the emergence of the Eagles' run game, developing the past month with undrafted free agent rookie Josh Adams.
So the Cowboys' defense will have to show up to play. But last Thursday night showcased what can happen if they do.
2. Who will control the line of scrimmage?
Both run games seem to be in solid position heading into Sunday’s game. A 10-day layoff will help Ezekiel Elliott immensely after his body appeared a bit worn down against the Saints. His 75-yard rushing effort there ended a remarkable three-game stretch of averaging 120-plus yards and a touchdown. That propelled him to 1,149 yards for the season, second in the NFL behind Todd Gurley. He’s also totaled 24 of his 53 receptions during this four-game win streak; it’s clear he, more than quarterback Dak Prescott, is the main cog in the Cowboys' offense.
Last month against the Eagles, Elliott totaled 187 yards of total offense against a “D” that’s been struggling with big-time running backs. Even during Monday night's victory, Philadephia gave up a 90-yard rushing touchdown to 33-year-old Adrian Peterson. Teams have rushed for 100 or more yards against the Eagles four straight weeks after doing that just once in the first eight games. Fletcher Cox has to anchor an Eagles renaissance for them to have a chance.
But the Eagles are also hopeful about their own run game. They’ve now rushed for 100-plus yards in back-to-back games for the first time all season. Josh Adams has emerged as a potential future lead back, running for a season-high 85 yards and 4.3 yards per carry against the Redskins.
They also enter Sunday’s game with a wild card: Darren Sproles. The future Hall of Famer finally returned Monday night from a hamstring injury that had sidelined him nearly three months. His 14-yard rushing touchdown offers hope that there’s still some magic left in the tank for this 35-year-old to provide an extra weapon in this retooled offense.
The running game is key for the Eagles as five of their six wins have come with a ratio of more runs than passes (the other was 28-29, hardly a tilt toward the passing game). A dominant night from the offensive line would open up opportunities for Wentz and his receiving weapons. On Monday night, Golden Tate scored his first touchdown since joining the team earlier this season in a trade with the Lions. He seems comfortable in an Eagles offense led by Ertz, who torched the Cowboys for a season-high 145 yards, 14 catches and two scores in their last meeting.
How offensive tackle Lane Johnson, who had perhaps his best game of the season Monday night, handles Lawrence will be key to their momentum. If there’s disruption early, leading to a first-quarter deficit, the Eagles will struggle on the road.
3. Can Dak Prescott come through?
The Cowboys' defense has done a great job the past four weeks taking the game out of Prescott’s hands. His stats have been impressive - four touchdowns, no interceptions – but have come paired with no 300-yard performances. Prescott has filled the role of game manager, doing just enough to ensure victory while Elliott drives the bus.
But you have to think Prescott will need to do more Sunday afternoon. It’s no secret the Eagles' secondary has been banged up; Brees torched them with their top cornerbacks downed by injury. Sidney Jones returned against the Redskins but they’re still seeking consistency at that position with Ronald Darby sitting on injured reserve.
The question is whether Prescott can make a difference if the Eagles stack the line against Elliott. Once Mark Sanchez came in Monday night, the Eagles' defense did an incredible job of putting pressure on him. Peterson had just eight additional yards on the ground beyond that 90-yard touchdown while they dared the Redskins to beat them through the air.
Great quarterbacks like Brees have been able to rise to the challenge against what’s become a beatable Eagles defense. Others, like Sanchez and Eli Manning two weeks ago, made crucial mistakes that changed the momentum of the game.
With contract talks looming beyond this season and a playoff berth hanging in the balance, what will happen if Prescott is in that position? Keep in mind that despite new weapon Amari Cooper's presence he hasn't thrown three touchdown passes in a game since December 2017. Sunday could serve as the make-or-break game of Prescott’s career.
On paper, the Cowboys should win easily. But I think the Eagles have a real shot. The reigning Super Bowl champions seemed to find their footing over a two-week stretch against inferior NFC East opponents. And while the Cowboys have a comfortable schedule the rest of the way (Colts, at Buccaneers, at Giants) the Eagles have matchups against the Rams and Texans. A victory Sunday would be just one hurdle to a division title that still seems out of reach.
That desperation mode might pay off in a close contest. The deciding factor, to me, really comes down to the third "Thing to Watch." Carson Wentz, despite his inconsistencies in returning from a torn ACL this season, has proven he can drive his team down the field in the fourth quarter. If the Eagles build a lead early, building on their first quarter scoring from last week, can Dak Prescott respond in quite the same way? If the answer is yes, then your Cowboys are NFC East champions. If not... we still have a division race on our hands.
Prediction: Eagles 27, Cowboys 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.