It’s been a few weeks since a primetime matchup has truly deserved a lot of hype in the NFL but the upcoming “Sunday Night Football” game has changed that equation in a big way by pitting two of the biggest surprises in the NFC against each other. Even if you don’t have a rooting interest in the NFC East, the upcoming clash between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys has plenty of potential to be a key contest down the road when it comes to playoff seeding.
The Eagles have put their struggles under former head coach Chip Kelly behind them and moved forward in impressive fashion under rookie head coach Doug Pederson. A big part of that has been a much-improved defensive unit under new coordinator Jim Schwartz and the un-rookie-like play of No. 2 overall draft pick Carson Wentz, who already has some huge wins under his belt and is looking for more.
Wentz’ opposite number, Dak Prescott, also has been a huge surprise for Dallas and perhaps the biggest storyline in the NFL so far. His play has been stellar behind that beast of an offensive line and fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing for a reason. Like their division rivals, the Cowboys’ defense has been way better than expected and that’s factoring in the loss of several key pass rushers too.
It should all make for a fantastic matchup under the lights at AT&T Stadium, where the visitors have won three straight coming in. Dallas does lead the overall series 64-50 but the two have split their two meetings the past three seasons.
Philadelphia at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 30 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Cowboys -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Signal-caller Showdown
Let’s face it, if you haven’t heard about how well Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz have been playing as rookies, you must be living under a rock. Both had remarkable streaks of interception-free play to begin their careers, with the Dallas quarterback setting an NFL record with 176 passes without a pick. He’s been a big reason why the Cowboys haven’t rushed Tony Romo back from an injury and a huge factor in the team’s 5-1 record that is tied for the best mark in the league. Wentz has been equally impressive, helping beat Minnesota last Sunday to get the Eagles knocking on the door of the NFC East lead. You keep thinking this level of play won’t keep holding up for the two young signal-callers but something says both have staying power in the NFL based on what they’ve shown so far.
2. Tailbacks Too
It’s wild that all the focus on both quarterbacks has overshadowed the two team’s tailbacks to this degree. Ezekiel Elliott, the No. 4 overall pick in the most recent draft, leads the league in rushing and is getting better with each game as an all-around threat. That great offensive line plays a part in his success for sure but the fact that he’s done it all without the threat of Dez Bryant to draw defenses’ attention is that much more impressive. Philly’s backfield also has been overshadowed by their rookie QB, with Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles and rookie Wendell Smallwood splitting carries. Sproles, not surprisingly, is once again a threat all over the field and is second on the team in receiving yards and touchdowns.
3. Defenses Stepping Up
As productive as the offenses have been for these two surprising teams, the real story behind their records has been the play of each defense. The Eagles are third in points allowed, fifth in yards allowed and third in the NFL in sacks. Fletcher Cox has been earning that big contract extension from earlier this year and they have other key guys playing well like Bennie Logan. They will need another big game against one of the best rushing offenses in the league and it should make for a fantastic matchup in the trenches. Likewise, Dallas has made strides under coordinator Rod Marinelli after a few seasons of iffy defensive play. Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens have been solid at linebacker and the team is getting back reinforcements along the defensive line too. Morris Claiborne is having a career year at corner as well but will be tested in this game by the Eagles’ wideouts.
The Eagles and Cowboys both owned top-five draft picks this past spring and were entering 2016 after posting a pair of losing seasons. Add in a coaching change in Philadelphia and an injury to starting quarterback Tony Romo and you can see why there weren’t a ton of high expectations for either club entering the season.
My how things have changed.
Dallas enters the week in line for home-field advantage in the playoffs and Philadelphia would be able to take the lead in the NFC East with a victory on Sunday night. Everybody will rightfully be focusing on the two quarterbacks involved in this one and it seems safe to say that whatever rookie makes the most mistakes will wind up losing. The Eagles’ Carson Wentz has not been quite as sharp the past two weeks as he was to begin the year but he could easily turn that around at AT&T Stadium. Just as important is how Philly’s defense performs against its stiffest test yet under coordinator Jim Schwartz.
The Cowboys have the edge though thanks to their ability to run the ball down opponents’ throats and make timely plays in the passing game with Dak Prescott. The defense can throw enough looks at Wentz to make like difficult for four quarters and it will probably be a low-scoring affair with both head coaches likely to play a little conservative given the stakes. In the end, the home team emerges with a big win to keep things rolling in Big D.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Eagles 23
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.