Sunday night's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys is a must-win... for both teams. Dallas limps into this important NFC East contest on a five-game losing streak. The Cowboys are drowning in a big way, and desperate for a win to have any chance at winning the division or securing a playoff spot.
This sounds a lot easier to accomplish than it may be. The Cowboys come into the game amidst tremendous controversy, as photos of DE Greg Hardy's alleged abusive situation were released. So in addition to trying to find answers to fix their offensive woes, the Cowboys must also block out the national noise of media and political women's groups calling for the head of Greg Hardy and Jerry Jones. This distraction could be enormous, especially if it gets into the head of their "one-year rental." Jones has already come out in full support of Hardy, but there is no way this is not having some effect on this team. So now, Dallas must make big plays on offense, slow down the Eagles' offense, and shut out the noise outside of their locker room. The only good thing is that the game is in AT&T Stadium so the boos may not be as bad.
The Eagles are well rested and well positioned to take advantage of the Cowboys. Coming of a bye week, the Eagles have had time to correct many of the mistakes they made in their first meeting. The Eagles were completely out of sync in the first game against the Cowboys. Highly touted (and former Dallas Cowboy) running back DeMarco Murray rushed for only two yards in the first game back in Week 2. As a a team, Philadelphia gained a total of seven yards on the ground. It is unlikely that the Eagles will repeat that performance Sunday night. The Eagles' defense also is healthier now, and in the absence of Tony Romo, should be able to make plays against the Cowboys' struggling offense.
Philadelphia at Dallas
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Philadelphia -5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Dallas Offense Must Make Plays and Score
The Cowboys are struggling to find the end zone. Last week, they kicked a field goal in each quarter in their 13-12 home loss to Seattle. The could have potentially been avoided if the Cowboys would have converted any of the numerous missed opportunities that were presented to them to score touchdowns. And that is the biggest problem with the current Cowboys offense. Neither backup quarterback has been able to make the critical plays needed to win games. Matt Cassel missed several chances to make plays vertically in the Cowboys offense. With Dez Bryant returning last week, the Cowboys have to attack the Eagles' defense vertically to have ANY chance to win this game. Head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan must come up with a game plan that fits Cassel's skill set and strengths and help him take advantage of the passing routes that he is most comfortable with. This also includes utilizing reliable tight end Jason Witten more.
2. The Eagles Are Going To Attack
In Week 2, because of the inefficiency of the Eagles' running game, they were not able to maximize their offensive attack against the Cowboys. Since that game, the Eagles have found the balance they were looking for, averaging around 138 yards rushing per game. The offense has still not found its total groove, but it's better then it was in Week 2. Look for head coach Chip Kelly to push the boundaries of this offense, and to try early to establish the run with a heavy combination of DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews. If the Eagles can create that balance, and keep quarterback Sam Bradford upright, then you will see a full onslaught passing attack against the Cowboys. The Cowboys' secondary can be attacked, and Bradford (when he is comfortable) is just good enough to find the holes in the defense.
3. The Greg Hardy Factor
The Greg Hardy controversy is no small thing. The release of the pictures of what Hardy did to his girlfriend by Deadspin has sent the Dallas Cowboys organization into a furious scramble to try and justify their actions to bring such a player into their facility. I believe, that this situation is quietly taking its toll on the other players as well. In particular, Witten, who is a strong advocate against domestic violence, has remained uncomfortably silent during this time. His silence sends a resonating message about the fracturing that a moment like this has on a team. Whether it is through organizational gag order, or personal decision, it would be very difficult for players like Witten to publicly or privately support Hardy, and there has to be a quiet tension. The challenge Sunday for the Cowboys will be to enter AT&T Stadium, past the picket signs, past the yelling advocate groups, and those who are deeply offended and disappointed, and come on to their field and play football together.
Sunday will be the most difficult game the Cowboys have played in a long time. When you have lost five games in a row, you want to focus on football only. But now the Cowboys not only have to show up on Sunday in hopes of getting back into the win column, but also deal with a split fan base that feels the team sacrificed some of its integrity for a desire to win at all costs. This will be a challenging thing because I am confident there are many in that locker room who are deeply frustrated by the Greg Hardy sideshow. The defense should be able to hold its own against the Eagles when they have the ball, but if the Cowboys cannot find their offensive game and they get behind early, ALL of the frustrations they are feeling will show up and we will watch this ticking time bomb explode. If the Eagles can stay focused on the task on hand, they should win this game with relative ease. If the Cowboys can somehow block out the distractions and score early, they may be able to find victory and hopefully return the focus, as least for a little while, back to what takes place on the field, not off of it. That's much easier said than done.
Prediction: Eagles 24, Cowboys 21
— Written by Lloyd H. Spence, Jr., who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Spence also has written for the Dallas Morning News, Yahoo!'s Rivals.com, and ESPN Louisville. Follow him on Twitter @TalkinNOIZ.