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One Year Later, Picture Changes In Rivalry

Posted Dec 27, 2017

It was the first calendar day of 2017 and the Dallas Cowboys were in town, proudly playing the Eagles as the 2016 NFC East champions. Lincoln Financial Field was a strange place to be that day with Dallas, the new king of the division, and many Cowboys fans in the seats ...

It was the first calendar day of 2017 and the Dallas Cowboys were in town, proudly playing the Eagles as the 2016 NFC East champions. Lincoln Financial Field was a strange place to be that day with Dallas, the new king of the division, and many Cowboys fans in the seats.

“It was a sick feeling,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “We knew they would come and play as if they had arrived, and they were playing the next week in the playoffs and I was at home.”

“I wasn’t happy about it,” tight end Brent Celek said, “and I’m glad it’s flipped this year.”

This time around, Dallas comes to Lincoln Financial Field at 8-7 and out of the playoffs. The Eagles are the champs of the NFC East, a division that has not had consecutive winners since the Eagles of 2001-04.

So, a year later, everything is topsy-turvy.

That’s the way the league works, and it’s a reminder to never take a thing for granted. The NFL doesn’t exactly promise longevity in any regard.

“I think guys pick up on it pretty fast,” Celek said. “You see players coming and going all the time and you see that you aren’t guaranteed anything. So it’s that kind of world here. We get it. It can all change in an instant, so appreciate the position you’re in and make the most of it.

“For us, we have a lot of work to do. We are heading to the playoffs and we need to clean things up, especially on offense. So that’s our focus.”

In a single season, the entire complexion of the division has changed. The Giants went from a playoff team in 2016 to a two-win team a year later. New York heads into the offseason looking for a new general manager and a new head coach and with a quarterback position that could be overhauled for the first time since 2004. Washington was on the cusp of the postseason last year but hasn’t been close this season and the Redskins have a major quarterback question as well.

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The Eagles, after an aggressive offseason of improvement and some in-season additions to help overcome what could have been season-wrecking injuries, are the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and could very well play backups for most, if not all, of Sunday’s game.

Then there are the Cowboys, who a year ago were the darlings of the league riding the strength of rookies in the offensive backfield, running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott. They were the new stars of the league, and the Cowboys posted a 13-3 record.

But after a playoff loss to Green Bay, Dallas’ 2017 year unraveled beginning with an uninspiring offseason (offensive lineman Doug Free retired, another starter, Ronald Leary, left in free agency, and Elliott got into off-the-field trouble) and extended into the regular season. Elliott had a six-game suspension hanging over his head, and when he finally went to the sidelines, Prescott struggled. Prescott has 13 interceptions this year a season after throwing only four.

The offense hasn’t been as explosive or productive. The defense has had trouble getting off the field. And Dallas is out of the playoffs.

“It’s crazy the way things go in the NFL,” Cox said. “The things that we’ve overcome in this locker room from losing leaders, older vet guys and younger guys stepping in says a lot about this team.”

There is a lot of truth in that, and the Eagles deserve a ton of credit for the 13-2 season to date. But as Celek said, there is much more ahead. The Eagles are in a position they haven’t enjoyed since 2004 and may not see again for a very long time.

They want to make the most of home-field advantage in the playoffs. There is no sense that the Eagles have accomplished all of their goals.

“No chance of that,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Once you get into the playoffs, the next goal is to win in the playoffs. And that’s where we’re at.”

That’s the lesson for the players and the coaches. The lesson for all of us is to appreciate the moment and not get caught up in looking too far ahead. Nothing is a given. Thirteen-and-two in 2017 means what, exactly, for 2018?

As we’ve seen, the NFL changes quickly. Tomorrow can wait. The Eagles intend to maximize this moment.

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