That's the scenario for Sunday night. If the Eagles beat the Cowboys, Dallas stays home while the Eagles are NFC East champs and headed to the playoffs. This is a huge opportunity. It is also a sweet one.
Any time you can win the division title on the final day of the season, that's exciting. The chance to win the NFC East by beating Dallas? I'm not sure exactly how high that rates on the awesomeness scale, but it is very close to the top. There aren't many better feelings than knowing you stole a playoff spot from the Cowboys. You get the euphoria of winning. Seeing sad Jerry Jones is a great bonus.
Obviously, the headline story for the week is that Tony Romo had back surgery and is done for the season. That puts Kyle Orton in as the starting quarterback. Orton is a veteran player who is capable of leading the Cowboys to victory. He's only thrown five passes this year (in mop-up duty), but he has 69 career starts. He is 35-34 for his career as a starter. This isn't just some talentless hack off the bench. Orton might actually have started for a couple of other teams this year. I know he'd have been better than what Oakland put on the field. Maybe Jacksonville as well.
There isn't anything special about Orton physically. He's not going to throw rockets. He's not going to run around and make plays like Romo would. Orton is just a smart veteran who has good touch and makes accurate throws.
If Dallas needed Orton to carry the team, they would be in trouble. Lucky for their sake, they don't need that. Orton inherits a very good supporting cast. He doesn't need to be great. He just needs to get the ball to his weapons. You can bet that having Romo out will mean more touches for DeMarco Murray, one of the hottest running backs in the NFL. Murray has averaged just over 125 yards a game for the last three weeks. He is second in the NFL for the year in terms of yards per carry. He averages 5.4 yards on every run. That's really impressive.
Orton has plenty of good players to throw the ball to. Jason Witten is the workhorse tight end that we've hated dealing with for a decade. Dez Bryant is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Those guys have combined for 20 touchdown catches. Rookie wideout Terrance Williams is no slouch. He averages 16 yards per reception and has five touchdown catches of his own. Cole Beasley is a dangerous slot receiver. Miles Austin has been hurt by injuries this year (what's new?), but still has his moments.
Dallas has a solid offensive line. Left tackle Tyron Smith is having a great year. He is becoming one of the best left tackles in the NFL. Rookie Travis Frederick has stabilized the center position and is playing very well. The other players are a bit more up and down, but the overall line has had a good year.
I'm sure Bill Davis will focus on shutting down the Dallas running game. The Eagles have played great run defense in recent weeks. In the last four games, no one has run for more than 90 yards. Teams have averaged 27 rushes per game so this isn't a matter of them not trying. They just aren't finding space. Opponents are averaging 2.9 yards per carry in those four games. That is outstanding run defense.
Murray is a huge challenge because of his speed. If he finds a gap, Murray can explode through it and get to the secondary in a hurry. He is the fastest runner the Eagles will have faced in recent weeks. The defensive linemen need to control blockers and the linebackers need to flow to the ball. The entire team must tackle well.
Last week, Davis used safeties to help cover Bears tight ends. I could see him doing that against Witten as well. You bring the safety into the box as an eighth defender against the run. If it turns out to be a pass play, you have him cover Witten.
Covering the Dallas wide receivers is the biggest challenge. Bryant is a great player. He can make spectacular plays even if you have him covered. The good news is that the Eagles tend to play better against big receivers, which Bryant certainly is.
The Eagles defensive line is different now.
Davis did a lot of blitzing in the first game. I think some of that caught Dallas off-guard. They'll be prepared this time, but that doesn't mean they'll be able to completely stop it. Eagles linebackers have done a good job of getting to the quarterback in recent weeks.
Orton has enough weapons that he should be able to move the ball and score some points. Don't be surprised if he looks very good in the first half. You see plenty of games where a backup looks good early on and then starts to struggle as the defense adjusts and the pressure of the game gets to him.
The Eagles defense will do what they can to keep pressure on Orton, but the Eagles offense can also do their part. Every time the offense scores, that puts pressure on Orton to match it. Dallas would love this to somehow be a low scoring game where Orton could play it safe and pick his spots to be aggressive. The Eagles want this to be a shootout or a blowout.
The Dallas defense is awful. They are dead last in yards allowed, and it is one of the highest totals in NFL history. They are 25th in points allowed. Since the first Eagles meeting, Dallas is allowing 32 points per game.
Injuries are a huge factor. Sean Lee is one of the best linebackers in the NFL, but he's only played in 11 games. He will be out for Sunday and that's a huge loss. DeMarcus Ware missed the first game, but will play this time around. The problem is that his quad injury has taken away his explosiveness. Ware still plays hard and has his moments, but he can't fly off the ball and just take over games the way he could if healthy. He’s also dealing with an elbow injury which caused him to miss Friday’s practice.
The secondary is a train wreck. Dallas has individual talent in Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne. That should be a very good trio of cornerbacks. For some reason, the defensive backs do not seem to communicate well or work well together. You see receivers running around open way too often. Go back to the first Eagles game. Foles had guys open. He just didn't see them or didn't get them the ball.
Dallas really struggles with covering running backs. Expect the Eagles to exploit this in a couple of ways. First, look for screen passes. The Cowboys will play some eight-man fronts to try and shut down the running game. That means man coverage. The Eagles will then throw the ball to
My only concern for the Eagles offense is if they come into the game with too much of a chip on their shoulder. They didn't play well in the first game, but they need to let go of that and focus on Sunday night. This offense is very different right now. Foles is playing at an elite level. McCoy leads the league in rushing. Chip Kelly is mixing in new wrinkles every week that help the Eagles to get explosive plays. The Eagles are now very good in the red zone. This is a different offense.
I expect the Eagles to play well and have a good game. I think Foles is mature enough to live in the moment. I also think he's smart enough to understand that all he has to do is execute Kelly's plan. Foles doesn't have to carry the Eagles offense on his back. He's got great weapons to work with. I will be disappointed if the Eagles score fewer than 30 points.
Special teams could prove to be a key factor. Dwayne Harris is a huge threat on returns. He averages 14 yards per punt return and 31 yards per kickoff return. I certainly hope
Is it really possible Dallas could win this game? Absolutely. First, any time you play a division rival you don't know what is going to happen. Rivalry games can be weird. The other thing is that you can never predict when some Cowboys player will have the best game of his life or some Eagles player will have the worst game of his life. The Eagles didn't expect Foles to look awful in the first meeting, but he did. The Eagles sure didn't expect Matt Cassel to play great a couple of weeks back, but he did and won the game.
I'm confident, but not cocky as we head into Sunday night. The Eagles are the better team. The Eagles are the healthier team. But that's all the more reason to be wary of Dallas. You don't know what to expect. This is a game the Eagles should win. Let's hope they cap off a terrific 2013 season with a win in Dallas and a division title. That would be one great Christmas present.