What happened in the regular season doesn't matter when the playoffs begin, right? Isn't that what the old NFL saying is, even if a butt-whupping is fresh on the minds of everyone gathered at the NovaCare Complex? The Eagles play the Cowboys on Saturday night. Winner goes on, loser goes home. Time to get it on ...
This is a most extraordinary circumstance for the Eagles, what with a 24-0 pasting lingering. Dallas took it to the Eagles, no doubt about it. It was one of those games during which Dallas did everything right, the Eagles did everything wrong and you just hope the tables are turned on Saturday night.
The playoffs are a new season, a new opportunity. Dallas has controlled the explosive Eagles offense in two victories this season, so Marty Mornhinweg and Andy Reid and the coaching staff have to work to do scheme wise this week. The defense gave up 311 passing yards to Tony Romo and a season-worst 179 rushing yards to the powerful Dallas ground game. Sean McDermott has to figure out how to pressure Romo without giving up big plays on the back end, and he has to free his linebackers to make plays in the running game.
It's hard to look ahead to Saturday without looking back on Sunday's debacle. The Eagles were thrashed and they know it. Some of the questions they need to get answers for in Cowboys Stadium on Saturday night ...
**CAN THE DEFENSE GET OFF THE FIELD?
It is the most important question. The defensive line was manhandled -- Dallas effectively double teamed Trent Cole and the rest of the line didn't pick up the slack -- and Dallas ran at Juqua Parker, Moise Fokou and Macho Harris with great success. McDermott did not call blitzes early and Romo stayed in the pocket and watched receivers come wide, wide open.
So something has to change. You can hope that McDermott comes up with some great scheme, but the fact is the Eagles need to win more one-on-one battles against the big, strong Dallas offensive line. If the Eagles think that simply by blitzing the whole defense is going to turn around, they are wrong. Romo is a star quarterback right now, not a kid trying to find his way in big games like he was a couple of years ago.
Other than Joselio Hanson, which defensive back has the timing, the speed and the experience to blitz effectively? Hanson, for his part, had a rough game in coverage and appeared to be replaced at one point by Dimitri Patterson. Nobody played very well in the secondary against Dallas.
The linebackers are a major concern. McDermott started Akeem Jordan in the middle and used Fokou at SAM and Will Witherspoon on the weak side. Later in the game, Jeremiah Trotter came in and the Cowboys promptly went right after him in the passing game.
This just isn't an easy fix. The Eagles may have to take some real chances and pressure the line of scrimmage on every play. Go for broke. The key is that the Eagles get off the field on third downs. Dallas converted 4 of its first 5 third downs in a dominating first half that completely took the Eagles out of the mix.
**HOW DO THE EAGLES ESTABLISH A RUNNING GAME?
They gave it an effort on their first series, down 7-0. A handoff to DeSean Jackson gained 6 yards. A Brian Westbrook run gained zilch. Then the Eagles tried to get their passing game going -- with a bit of success -- but never really went back to the run after the deficit mounted and it became obvious that they needed points in a hurry.
You can question the strategy of throwing so much, and that's fine, but the fact is the running game had nothing going from the very start on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium. And the Eagles are going to need a running game to win on Saturday night. No matter how you slice it, the Eagles have to gain some balance here.
Brian Westbrook showed very little in the loss. Oh, he made some catches and had a 4-yard gain or two. But the Eagles need him to make defenders miss. They need big plays from Westbrook. They need him to be a factor. They need him to be Brian Westbrook, or they must turn over the running game to LeSean McCoy, who had just one carry for 4 yards.
It is tough sledding for the Eagles, especially up front. Losing Jamaal Jackson clearly had an impact. Nick Cole doesn't have the experience at center, and Max Jean-Gilles is in a battle at right guard against the Cowboys' quickness.
It sure would help if the Eagles could scratch out a lead. You could argue that the turning point was when the Eagles lost the coin toss. Dallas started the game at its 20-yard line and marched right down the field, putting the Eagles in a hole. This team has not reacted well to early deficits, so the Eagles must find a way to take the lead and play with that advantage.
**DO THE COWBOYS HAVE DeSEAN JACKSON'S NUMBER?
He was so wide open on that "go" route and who knows what impact it would have made had Donovan McNabb hit Jackson for a touchdown early on Sunday. Maybe it would have loosened everything up. However, McNabb overthrew Jackson and the Cowboys kept Jackson out of the end zone and, well, without the home-run threat the Eagles offense was shut down. And shut out.
The Eagles ran crossing route after crossing route and found some openings, but a lack of execution catching the ball and, at times, delivering the ball accurately, stymied the passing game.
This much is true: The Eagles need Jackson to have a whole lot more than one carry (6 yards) and one catch (32 yards) in the first half of a game. Jackson finished with 3 receptions and wasn't much of a factor at all. Combine his lack of productivity with the tough game by Jeremy Maclin and the invisibility of Jason Avant and you understand how the Eagles were blanked.
Jackson is too good to keep down. The Eagles know he is going to be double teamed and they know he is going to attract attention, but they must force the football to him at times. He needs touches. He needs to break down the confidence of a Dallas defense that has registered back-to-back shutouts heading into the playoffs.
Other than tight end Brent Celek, the passing game was a struggle. Which brings us to ...
**CAN DONOVAN McNABB STEP UP AND BEAT DALLAS?
In a team game, too much credit and too much blame goes to the quarterback. I have no problem agreeing with that statement. But at the same time, the quarterback is the leader, the vital piece and the guy to whom the rest of the team looks for big plays. McNabb has a lot riding on his shoulders here. He knows Dallas is coming with the blitz and he knows his offensive line has some pieces missing. No matter. When the opportunity is there, McNabb has to make plays.
He misses his share on Sunday. Heck, everyone played and everyone took part in the loss and everyone shares in the defeat. McNabb, though, plays a larger part in leading this team to a win on Saturday night. He will have to make something out of nothing. He will have to be accurate and on time and stick the ball in the end zone and make plays with his legs.
McNabb is a big-time quarterback and this is a big-time spot. The playoffs are entirely different than the regular season. It is win or the season is over, and with the sting of the loss in Dallas so fresh, the Eagles need a total team turnaround to beat the Cowboys. It is McNabb, more than anyone, who must lead the way.