DALLAS - An upbeat and energetic Eagles team landed in Dallas-Fort Worth on Saturday afternoon and reached its hotel, welcomed by fans eager to show their love. It is very simple what is ahead in Dallas: beat the Cowboys and take a four-game lead in the NFC East with six to play, and set sights on the bigger picture.
First things first, though. Dallas will play its most spirited game on Sunday night, knowing the perilous playoff picture in the NFC. The Cowboys are 5-4 in a conference full of 6-3 teams and Dallas can ill afford many more losses, certainly at home. Running back Ezekiel Elliott won't play. Left tackle Tyron Smith hasn't practiced in two weeks and is listed as questionable on the team's official injury report, but he is much more unlikely to play than he is questionable.
On defense, key linebacker Sean Lee is out. Safety Jeff Heath is in concussion protocol and isn't likely to go.
"Seeing all these fans is great. I love it," cornerback Jalen Mills said. "Right now, for me, it's about conserving energy for tomorrow night. The focus is here, for sure."
Indeed, the players appreciated seeing a lobby filled with Eagles fans, chanting "E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES" as the team looks for its eighth straight victory.
"It's awesome," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "Look at all these people. Woooo!"
Said running back Corey Clement: "Of course you feel it and appreciate it from the fans. It means a lot."
The hype and the hoopla ended as the players got into their rooms and made dinner plans and then planned on a great night's sleep before a day of meetings and final hours of preparation for Dallas. The rest is football, and how the Eagles will beat the Cowboys. Here are some matchups to consider.
OT LANE JOHNSON vs. DE DEMARCUS LAWRENCE
This is another great challenge for Lane Johnson, who has been playing, according to offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, "off the charts. At another level" this season. In Lawrence, Johnson faces the NFL's leading quarterback sacker, with 11.5. He's got speed off the edge, he turns it into power and Johnson will have to contend with that combination. Lawrence plays hard and is a serious threat, even if the national perspective doesn't include him in talks with players like Denver's Von Miller and Oakland's Khalil Mack.
The Dallas defensive line is the strength of the unit. The Eagles have to win this battle up front.
CB PATRICK ROBINSON vs. WR COLE BEASLEY
When the Eagles signed Patrick Robinson, I remember being told, "He gives us more quickness, a better chance to match up against somebody like Cole Beasley." So here we are. Now, Robinson has been a whole lot better than advertised with his play inside and outside. He's been a full-time standout for the Eagles.
Beasley is shifty and he's very quick in the short area. He and quarterback Dak Prescott have a good thing going. The Eagles must pressure Prescott and not give him time to look for Beasley.
"That's where it starts, up front," Robinson said. "They're good at the line of scrimmage and they have good receivers. Beasley is a very talented guy."
So is, we've learned, Robinson. Should be a great matchup.
DEs VINNY CURRY/DEREK BARNETT vs. OT BYRON BELL
Byron Bell is expected to replace Smith at left tackle, so the Eagles have an area to attack at the line of scrimmage, Prescott's blind side. Bell is an experienced player, in his seventh season. He played in 62 games with Carolina and then started all 16 games for Tennessee last season.
But Bell is not Smith. He is not an All-Pro. In fact, he was passed over for a start last week when the Cowboys started Chaz Green, who was destroyed by the Falcons. The Eagles have an advantage here. They have to win it.
EAGLES RUN GAME vs. LB JUSTIN DURANT
Here is the fallout from the Lee injury: middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens moves to the weak side and Justin Durant starts at middle linebacker. In his 11th season, Durant has played sparingly this season. The Dallas defense is just not the same without Lee, and the play of second-year man Jaylon Smith is still not quite 100 percent as he continues to work his way back from that devastating knee injury suffered in college.
will see Bryant, but the point is that Darby will see his first action since Week 1 and we'll all be watching to see what kind of impact he has on the secondary. Darby is the best athlete at cornerback and he should be around the football a lot. His return means a lot to this defense.
HC DOUG PEDERSON vs. HC JASON GARRETT
What kind of pre-game nuances has been added to the game plan? Who will win the in-game adjustments? It's a sideline battle that the Eagles wished last year they could have again after losing late at AT&T Stadium. Pederson's play calling has been outstanding this season, so he's got a lot of confidence going into this one.
QB CARSON WENTZ vs. QB DAK PRESCOTT
I know, I know: They aren't playing against each other. But you know what I mean. This is Year 2 of what is already a great and respect-filled rivalry between two excellent young quarterbacks. Last year, Prescott had the big offensive line and the great running game to help his transition into the NFL, while Wentz had to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the Eagles' offense.
This year, it's not quite the same. The Eagles have a diverse and explosive offense. The running game is really, really good. Wentz has a lot of help around him. Prescott, minus Elliott and Smith, has challenges. The Eagles have scored more than 25 points in seven consecutive games and, the truth is, the Eagles are only scratching the surface of what this offense can accomplish.