I am excited. Sunday's game with Dallas is huge. We can win the division and secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC. We can also send our bitter rival to the sixth seed and keep the heat on Jerry Jones, Wade Phillips and Tony Romo. You have to love opportunities like this.
Both teams are playing well heading into the game. Each team has a good quarterback. Each team has multiple Pro Bowl players. Both teams are highly ranked in key offensive and defensive categories. Are the Eagles the better team because they've got the better record? Are the Cowboys in a better situation since they're playing at home and they beat the Eagles in the first meeting?
The biggest key in this game is the Eagles' ability to control the line of scrimmage. In the first meeting, the Eagles had to shuffle the offensive line. Jason Peters got hurt in the game and missed the second quarter. Todd Herremans slid out to take his place. Stacy Andrews and Nick Cole were initially splitting time at right guard. Cole moved to left guard while Herremans was at tackle. The line didn't consistently give Donovan McNabb the time he needed.
There is a shift going on this meeting as well. Cole will play center in place of the injured Jamaal Jackson. Max Jean-Gilles will take over at right guard. There is a huge difference in this because the guys have been able to practice all week. Changing on the fly is infinitely more complicated. You could see last week that Cole was rusty as the center. He didn't play as much there in the summer and preseason has he'd done in the past. Now, Cole has had a whole week of snapping, making reads and making line calls. I expect him to have a good game. He has short area quickness and pretty good feet. Those are important traits at center. That was the primary position he was brought in to play. Jean-Gilles should be fine at right guard. He's got plenty of starts at that spot and he's played against Dallas in at least two prior games.
The Eagles must block well so that McNabb has time to throw the vertical routes that we like so much. In the first game, Jeremy Maclin got open deep for what should have been a touchdown, but DeMarcus Ware hit McNabb and that cost us seven points. Ware beat Herremans on that play. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff also had a strong showing against us in the first game. He especially got the best of Andrews. Jean-Gilles will need to have a strong day to keep Ratliff under control.
The Cowboys focused on taking away DeSean Jackson in the first meeting. That meant Maclin was going to have some chances to make plays. Unfortunately, Maclin had his worst game as a pro that week. A lot has changed since then. Maclin is playing really well right now. He has made some huge catches for us on game-winning drives. He doesn't look like a rookie at all. We need Maclin to come up big in this game. Dallas can't focus on shutting everyone down. With good protection, McNabb should be able to find Jackson or Maclin for sizeable gains.
Dallas has the third-ranked scoring defense in the league. Putting up points won't be easy, but it is critical. They are much more comfortable with a low scoring game than a shootout. Last time out, the Eagles scored 16 on them. I'd like to see more than that on the board at halftime.
The Cowboys are incredibly hard to score on in the first quarter. We are the top scoring team in the league in the first quarter. We like to jump out on people and get a lead. It will be very interesting to see which team is able to seize control of the game initially. In the first meeting, we opened up in the shotgun and threw three straight passes. Two fell incomplete. The third went off Maclin and was picked off. I'm sure most fans would say that the smart thing is to come out and run the ball early on. I'm not so sure. If we want to score on the opening drive, maybe we ought to stick with being aggressive.
Andy Reid, Marty Mornhinweg and Donovan McNabb have put together some great plans for the opening drive this year. They'll go with what seems likely to work and what felt good in practice. I wouldn't mind us coming out and running on Dallas from the start. We actually outgained Dallas on the ground in the first game.
Now let's talk about the Eagles defense. They have a big challenge in dealing with Romo, the Cowboys running backs and the receivers. The Eagles did a pretty good job in the first game, but must eliminate some mistakes. The lowlight of the first game was the third-down pass when Sheldon Brown jumped the route and then Sean Jones took a bad angle. Miles Austin was wide open for the catch and then had a pretty easy path to the end zone. That play cost us the game.
Macho Harris is back in the starting lineup at free safety. He doesn't make as many plays as Jones, but Harris doesn't get beat down the field. He will stay back and keep things in front of him. That is the primary job of a safety, especially the free safety. I don't care if he makes any plays as long as he doesn't let a receiver behind him.
Linebacker Moise Fokou had a pair of costly penalties in the first game with Dallas. He took away 50 yards of field position with an illegal block on an interception return by Brown. He also wiped out a kickoff return touchdown with an illegal block. Fokou will start this game. He's playing well right now, but can't make those kinds of mistakes. He's been better recently about controlling his aggressive play. Coaches want players to play fast, but also to stay under control. You hope rookies make mistakes early in the year so that they know what they're doing by late in the season when games become critical.
One key matchup for our defense is dealing with Jason Witten. He's had some big days against us. With Will Witherspoon and Fokou as the outside linebackers, the Eagles have a pair of athletic guys who should be solid in coverage. When Akeem Jordan is the middle linebacker, he can help in coverage. The one matchup we don't want to see is Jeremiah Trotter on Witten. That's a big advantage for Dallas. We could also mix in Harris on Witten. We did that against Tony Gonzalez in the Atlanta game and had some success.
Getting pressure on Romo is always crucial. I'm interested to see what Sean McDermott does in this game. We didn't blitz Romo a ton in the first game. When we did blitz, we mixed in some delay blitzes off the edge. We didn't attack the middle as much. I'm curious to see if McDermott has been saving anything special for this game. I wouldn't be surprised if the Eagles had a bunch of guys standing up and moving around prior to the snap on pass plays. The Giants did this against Dallas and had success. The blockers aren't sure who is coming where and it can be confusing. The down side is that you can leave yourself vulnerable to running plays.
The aspect of this game that has me the most nervous is them running against our nickel defense. Teams have done this successfully for the last month or so. The Eagles must get off blocks and find the ball when they do run. They must tackle well.
Dallas has only beaten us once this decade in the rematch game. That loss came in 2005 and we handed them the game. McNabb threw to the right side and Roy Williams picked it off and ran it back for the go-ahead score. Why have we had such success? We've generally been the better team. We generally play our best football late in the year. This trend doesn't really mean anything right now. This Dallas team feels different than some of the other groups we've faced. They're playing well and have a lot of confidence.
I still like our chances. We seem to find a way to win each week. We beat the Giants in a shootout. We built a big lead against Denver and then had to hold on for dear life. We had comeback wins against Washington and Chicago. This Eagles team is incredibly resilient.
One of the things I love about this group is the emergence of the role players. Tracy White is now a very good nickel linebacker for us. Darren Howard has played well in recent weeks as a pass rusher. Tight end Alex Smith is a good blocker. We've actually designed a play just for his blocking skills – the tight end trap. Joe Mays has become a good special teams player. Michael Vick is very effective for us in the Wildcat package in short-yardage and goal line situations.
I was nervous about this game early in the week, but the more I've thought about it the more relaxed I get. The Eagles aren't on a six-game winning streak because of luck or some fluke situations. We are getting contributions from all over the roster. We score a lot of points on offense. The Eagles have a tough, playmaking defense. We have weapons on special teams. Reid is one of the best head coaches in the NFL and the rest of the staff is outstanding as well. We don't need luck to win this game. We are the better team and as long as we go execute and limit mistakes Sunday should be a good day.