It's only Week 10 but it feels like an NFC East elimination game
The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles may be separated by just one game in the standings. But there might as well be an ocean between these two considering the way each team has played as of late.
The Eagles, despite a rocky start, come off their bye week 4-4 and remain, of course, the defending Super Bowl champs. The Cowboys, America’s Team, look more like America’s Chumps after a thumping at the hands of the Tennessee Titans. Their 3-5 record has imperiled the futures of head coach Jason Garrett and inconsistent starting quarterback Dak Prescott and resulted in heavy criticism of general manager (and team owner) Jerry Jones.
That leaves this team desperate and down heading to a showdown with its NFC East rival. A loss here would all but eliminate the Cowboys from both division and playoff contention.
But the game is just as important for the Eagles, who are looking to reassert themselves in the division. Their nonconference schedule is brutal in the second half, with games against the Saints, Rams and Texans. Should they lose all three, they may need to sweep their five remaining divisional games both to win the East and to sneak their way back into the postseason. Capturing this Cowboys game is a must with a trip down to New Orleans looming next on the horizon.
Dallas at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 10 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Eagles -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Which newly acquired receiver will make a bigger impact?
The first two drives of last week’s game for the Cowboys made it seem that Amari Cooper was primed for a breakout performance. He caught the first touchdown and was targeted three times, catching two of them for 15 yards.
But a second potential Cooper TD catch was intercepted by the Titans’ Kevin Byard early in the second quarter. After that, it felt like the trade pickup from the Raiders was never a part of the game in quite the same way. Five catches for 58 yards won’t make him the new Dez Bryant in Cowboy land, especially considering the first-round pick the team gave up for him. If anything, Cooper is even more of a focal point now after Bryant signed a one-year deal with the Saints this week.
Golden Tate, meanwhile, is under less pressure for Philadelphia as he eases into a talented receiving corps. Tight end Zach Ertz and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, both in the mix for potential Pro Bowl honors, should open up some lighter coverage for Tate. His 44 catches for 517 yards thus far this season could have him in line for a 1,000-yard season if chemistry with quarterback Carson Wentz sparks early.
“He’s a smart guy,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said. “One of the things that you see on film with him is his first-step quickness. We all know about the yards after catch [Tate has led the league in that category since 2014]. He’s strong.”
Most importantly, Tate’s speed should open up the field and potentially stretch the defense enough to help the Eagles run game. A beaten-up offensive line combined with the loss of Darren Sproles and Jay Ajayi to injuries has put the pressure all on Wentz. It would be good for Philly's offensive balance if a few deep catches by Tate open up some lanes for Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood to run.
2. Did the bye get some ailing Eagles healthy?
That’s what the team is hoping. Darren Sproles, despite suffering a setback in practice, is expected to play for the first time since the season opener. A nagging hamstring has dogged the future NFL Hall of Famer, and the Eagles have missed his explosiveness and change of pace in the running game, especially with Ajayi out for the season. Corey Clement, despite a midweek illness, is also expected to suit up. He’ll be better in a lesser role.
But the most important component to watch is the offensive line. Coach Doug Pederson claims that Lane Johnson will likely play despite a sprained MCL expected to keep him out a few more weeks. Pro Bowler Jason Peters has also had a bye week to recover from his biceps injury. Their struggles have led to an inconsistent, ever-changing line that has kept Wentz on the run a little too often this season.
On defense, cornerback Jalen Mills appears to be out for Sunday’s game, but considering his shoddy performance this season, perhaps it’s better if he sits one out. An Eagles secondary that has given up big plays will need to rein it in with Sidney Jones, Ronald Darby and the overachieving fourth-round pick Avonte Maddox.
3. Can Dallas do it with defense?
The last time the Cowboys came to Lincoln Financial Field, they put together a 6-0 shutout in the 2017 regular-season finale. Now, it was a meaningless game that simply caused Eagles fans to get antsy over Nick Foles starting for the team during the playoffs. (Turns out practice did make perfect.)
But the Cowboys showed strengths in that game that have carried over to 2018. They’re allowing just 18.9 points per game, best in the NFC, along with 317.0 yards allowed. Demarcus Lawrence has led the way with 6.5 sacks, and the front is limiting rushes to 3.55 yards per attempt, second in the NFL.
But where the Cowboys need to be better on defense is simple: takeaways, especially with an offense that’s been struggling to gain steam under Prescott. They have just eight takeaways all season and a turnover margin of minus-2, good for just 21st in the league.
The Eagles, who have 12 giveaways and a margin of minus-5, will provide ample opportunities. Their season has been defined by poor decisions in close games that have caused momentum-swinging turnovers.
Big plays on defense, especially early, could help catapult a Dallas offense that’s been the focal point for negative fan chatter. Ezekiel Elliott has just 94 yards in his last two games, averaging less than three yards per carry. Prescott, Cooper and the entire Cowboys receiving corps have been the lightning rods for criticism over this season-long slump. Giving them a lead to work with is imperative.
The Cowboys appeared to be reeling after the Titans game this week with Jerry Jones repeatedly answering questions surrounding the futures of Garrett, the rest of the coaching staff and even Prescott. It feels like a building distraction that this team doesn’t have the raw talent to overcome.
They’re also running into the buzzsaw of the Eagles coming off a bye, playing at home and recognizing that their margin for error is near zero if they hope to recapture the NFC East. It’s also given Wentz another week to recover from last season’s ACL injury that really hasn’t hampered him upon his NFL return. The last four games, he’s totaled 10 touchdowns and one interception, and his lowest QB rating in that span has been 115.3.
Add in Tate and Sproles, and a revitalized Eagles offense seems like too much to overcome. The Cowboys defense will only be able to do so much if their offense can’t score.
Prediction: Eagles 24, Cowboys 10
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.