The Dallas Cowboys come to town on Sunday for the regular season finale, and this game has so many plot lines and story angles that it can make your head spin. Let's start with the most basic element – it's Cowboys vs. Eagles.
We all know what to expect when these two teams get together. There will be big plays and big hits. The games are always intense, especially when they go down to the wire like the Week 2 contest did – you could cut the tension in Texas Stadium with a knife. The Cowboys made a couple more big plays than the Eagles and won 41-37.
We don't yet know what this game will mean in terms of the playoffs. Both teams could have something at stake, depending on what happens in the Oakland/Tampa game. There would be no greater Christmas present than for the Raiders to pull off a big win and then have the Eagles clinch a playoff berth by beating Dallas. But, at the very least, it would be nice to beat the Cowboys and keep them from the postseason. I'd love to see Jerry Jones on the sidelines with an incredibly frustrated look on his face.
The Eagles are also looking to bounce back from last week's debacle against the Redskins, in which came up small in the biggest game of the year. I'm sure Andy Reid and the team will want to go out on a high note. Sunday's performance had to be incredibly frustrating to everyone involved with the team.
The season finale could also be the final game for some veteran stars, whether as Eagles or overall. Special players like Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are free agents. We've been spoiled with a pair of great bookend tackles for the last nine years. We don't know what the players want to do in the future or whether the Eagles are interested in bringing them back.
Brian Dawkins is a free agent after the season ends. Does he want to play next year? Is he part of the Eagles plans? We have to wait and see how this situation plays out for both sides. Just the thought that Sunday could be his final day as an Eagle is mind-blowing. Dawkins has been here since 1996 and for my money is the greatest Eagles player since Reggie White left for the Frozen Tundra in 1993. To paraphrase a quote from the Duke, ""A day without Dawk is like a day without sunshine.""
There will also be plenty of speculation about the futures of Donovan McNabb and Reid. I don't want to get into all of that. Both men have brought a tremendous amount of success to the Eagles, but fans are getting frustrated because of some bad games, and they start talking about change.
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As you can imagine there will probably be a lot of emotions involved in Sunday's game. That can be a good and bad thing. Football is an emotional game, but you need to have control of the emotion. If not, there will be too many peaks and valleys and you don't want to be down at the wrong part of the game.
Now let's talk about some matchup specifics from the game. The Dallas offense was machine-like early in the year. They had a ton of yards and points in the first game. But the Eagles' defense is playing lights out right now. They are third in the NFL in yards allowed. The last three opponents have combined for two offensive touchdowns. Washington got one after a turnover gave them the ball at the 18-yard line and the Giants scored one against the prevent defense. Teams just aren't driving down the field and getting into the endzone. The defense hasn't allowed big plays either.
There have been some changes since the earlier meeting. Akeem Jordan is now the starter at weakside linebacker, and he has played well since getting the job. He's been very good at taking on the fullback on lead runs, and he also has added some speed and athletic ability to the middle of the field.
The safeties have played extremely well the last month or so. Neither Quintin Mikell nor Dawkins had a good game in the first Dallas game. The Cowboys threw the ball over the middle of the field and exploited the lack of speed in that area. It will be very interesting to see how the guys handle this meeting. I will be really impressed if they are able to contain tight end Jason Witten and control the area between the seams.
The front seven got little to no pressure in the loss. The defensive line is doing a much better job of getting pressure these days. Victor Abiamiri is playing now and has added punch at left defensive end – but his foot sprain suffered against the Redskins will keep him out. It's a shame – he's also stood out rushing the passer from defensive tackle in the nickel defense. Trent Cole had one of his weaker outings in the first Dallas game. I know he will make it his personal mission to get to Romo this time around. I'm hoping Cole comes up with at least one sack. That would give him 10 for the year and make him the first Eagle to get double digits in consecutive years since William Fuller in 1995-96.
Chris Clemons wasn't playing early in the year, but he is now. Clemons could be a key guy on Sunday. The Ravens used delayed blitzes very effectively in beating Dallas last Saturday. I know Jim Johnson saw this and had to be thinking about what he wanted to do. The Ravens used Ray Lewis on delays up the middle and various guys on delays off the edge. I could see Johnson playing a lot of the Okie package where Clemons lines up at middle linebacker. He has excellent speed and can be effective blitzing or dropping into coverage. Clemons can also be used to spy Tony Romo. Should Romo start to run, Clemons can chase after him. He has the speed to get to Romo and either pressure or sack him.
Johnson was very passive with his scheme in Week 2. He played conservatively to try and limit big pass plays, especially to Terrell Owens. Johnson is being more aggressive with his blitzing in recent games. I hope that trend continues against Dallas. Nothing was worse than the first game when Romo sat in the pocket untouched, slicing and dicing the defense.
How will McNabb and the offense bounce back after the dreadful showing last week? That is the million dollar question. The offense scored 30 points and piled up a lot of yards in the first Cowboys game, but Dallas is much improved on defense since then. Don't assume that the offense will duplicate that success. The first order of business is to block well on pass plays. Dallas leads the NFL in sacks. DeMarcus Ware is having an amazing season – 20 sacks. If he gets three more, he'll beat Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5. You can bet backs and tight ends will spend extra time staying in to block this week.
Ideally, you'd like to run the ball. Brian Westbrook looked a little gimpy at the end of the game last week. That will be a concern. The Eagles also don't run as well against the 3-4 defense. I wouldn't count on the running game carrying the offense.
McNabb and the passing game will need to come alive this week. DeSean Jackson has got to catch the ball when McNabb gets it to him down the field. They will have opportunities to beat the Dallas secondary. You must make them pay. Short passes to the tight end have been effective against Dallas going back to 2006. They use their linebackers to rush off the edge and that will leave tight ends open at times. L.J. Smith and Brent Celek have each had nice gains against Dallas.
Philadelphia and Dallas have had a great rivalry for a long time. The two teams have never liked each other. Hopefully that will show on Sunday and we'll get another hard-fought classic. Ironically, the rematch of the 41-37 game could be a defensive struggle. Neither quarterback played all that great last week. Both defenses are playing well right now. That isn't a good combination for those who want a shootout.
I'm hoping the Eagles have a lead late in the game. Romo drops back to pass. Dawkins blitzes off the edge and nails him from behind. The ball comes loose. Dawkins scoops it up and returns it for a touchdown. Eagles win. That would be a great close to the regular season.