As the Eagles prepare to face their biggest rivals in Dallas this weekend, take a look at some of the key players they will have to contain in order to come home with a win.
There's been plenty of talk about NFL prime-time TV ratings dropping this season. Some say it's because the matchups haven't been as competitive or as compelling as they should.
That won't be a problem this week.
The NFC East as a whole has proven to be one of, if not the strongest division in the NFL from top to bottom. And this weekend, under the bright lights of AT&T Stadium, the top two teams in the division go head to head with first place on the line.
As if Eagles-Cowboys needed any more juice than the rivalry naturally has, the young quarterback factor makes this matchup completely different than it's been in years past. In fact, the Eagles and Cowboys have met 110 times during the storied rivalry and Sunday night's game will be the first time ever that the two teams face off with rookie quarterbacks at the reins. Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott have been the talk of the 2016 NFL season. The two rookies stepped in on Day 1 of the regular season and have not only led their teams to a combined 9-3 record, but have looked mature beyond their years in the process.
Without a doubt, the strength of the Cowboys' offense has been the offensive line, considered by many to be the best in the NFL. The five-man unit has given Prescott plenty of time to throw and has also opened up holes for No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott to race to the top of the league's rushing leaderboard. Don't for a second think that the Eagles' defensive line isn't tired of hearing about that though. They've had to answer questions about the Cowboys' line all week long, but just as it goes every time these teams have met the past few seasons, you can be sure that the Eagles' defense will come out fired up to prove that they can't be kept quiet.
The rookies Wentz, Prescott and Elliott will garner most of the attention on Sunday night, but this matchup features two of the most balanced teams in the conference, going at it with first place on the line.
It's going to be a fun one. Here's the preview ...
- Alex Smith
Last Time They Met
Eagles 33, Cowboys 27
*November 8, 2015 – AT&T Stadium *
The final Eagles-Cowboys meeting of 2015 couldn't have ended any more dramatically, but thankfully, it concluded with a 41-yard Jordan Matthews touchdown in overtime to seal the victory at AT&T Stadium for the Birds.
After dropping the first contest against their rival during the 2015 season, the Eagles were determined to end the Sunday night showdown in Dallas with a much different result. The entirety of the game was a back-and-forth contest, with both teams battling to even the scoring. Cole Beasley picked up the first points of the evening for Dallas, but Philadelphia mirrored the Cowboys' efforts when DeMarco Murray crossed into the end zone on a 1-yard touchdown run during the second quarter. Headed into the half, the NFC East teams were tied, 7-7.
By the end of the third quarter, Philadelphia and Dallas were still even. A Jordan Hicks 67-yard pick-six put the Eagles up by a touchdown shortly thereafter, but as was the theme of the matchup, the Cowboys came right back. At the conclusion of regulation the score stood at 27 apiece, after a late field goal by Dallas, which ensured overtime.
The Eagles won the toss and elected to receive. With 15 minutes on the clock, the Birds got to work. They moved down the field and into Dallas territory, but then it appeared disaster had struck. On a fourth-and-1, Ryan Mathews gained 2 yards, but the ball came loose. It was ruled as a fumble on the field and Dallas' ball. But, after reviewing the play, the call was reversed and the Eagles maintained possession.
The very next play ended the game. From the Cowboys' 41-yard line, quarterback Sam Bradford threw a pass deep right to Matthews. The receiver hauled it in and took off, finishing his run in the end zone and throwing the ball into the crowd out of excitement. With those six points, the Eagles won the game, 33-27. The victory helped the team move to an all-time 5-2 record when playing at AT&T Stadium.
- Julie Bacanskas
When The Eagles Have The Ball**
Carson Wentz is coming off of his first multi-interception performance as well as the lowest single-game quarterback rating of his young NFL career.
Wentz made enough plays and the Eagles' defense was outstanding in the win over Minnesota. And the Vikings have made some of the league's best quarterbacks look average this season. Dallas offers Wentz a chance to rebound. The big-profile names might be on the offensive side of the ball, but the Cowboys are playing good team defense.
The numbers won't pop off the screen, but the Cowboys rank seventh in scoring defense allowing just 17.8 points per game. Dallas has not allowed more than 17 points in a game since Week 2. Meanwhile, the Eagles have scored at least 20 points in eight straight games, which is tied for the second-longest streak in the NFL.
The Cowboys may allow teams to move the ball, but they are stingy near the goal line. Dallas ranks fourth in the NFL in goal-to-go defense. Dallas is also a sure-tackling team, as it ranks fourth in the league again, but this time in average yards after the catch per reception.
A year ago, the Cowboys had a trio of talented pass rushers in Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence. Hardy is gone, Gregory is suspended and Lawrence is battling a back injury. Dallas ranks 24th in the NFL with 11 sacks. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will need to determine whether or not to blitz the rookie quarterback. The Cowboys have the sixth-worst passer rating when they blitz this season. Meanwhile, Wentz has the fourth-highest passer rating when seeing extra pass rushers.
The two players to watch for Dallas are linebacker Sean Lee and safety Byron Jones. These back seven playmakers allow Marinelli so much flexibility. Lee has battled injuries over the years, but is an outstanding coverage linebacker when healthy. He has 12 interceptions since entering the league in 2010 which is tied for the most out of any player at his position in the league. For the season, Lee has a team-high 71 tackles, two tackles for loss and two pass breakups. Jones, a first-round pick in 2015, is moved all around the field. He can play the deep middle when the Cowboys are in Cover 1. He covers tight ends and running backs. Jones will also be used around the line of scrimmage. He leads the team with five pass breakups this season, and has also posted 28 tackles with a forced fumble.
- Chris McPherson
When The Cowboys Have The Ball**
Coming off their Week 6 bye, the Cowboys are roaring to get their impressive offense back onto the field. Leading the way for Dallas in 2016 has been its rookie class. Expectations for the No. 4 overall pick, running back Ezekiel Elliott, were high coming into the season and to this point he hasn't disappointed. However, what most were not anticipating was rookie quarterback Dak Prescott's rise.
When Tony Romo went down with a back injury during the preseason, Prescott stepped up and has been flashing his talent ever since. Through six games, the rookie has a 103.9 quarterback rating, the fifth best in the NFL. He also has thrown only one interception and broke Tom Brady's record for most pass attempts without a pick to start a career. He attempted 176 passes before turning the ball over.
Prescott has led the Cowboys to a 5-1 record to start 2016 and this week he'll most likely get back one of the team's top receiving weapons in Dez Bryant. The receiver suffered a knee injury in Week 3 and hasn't played since, but his skill level cannot be argued. During Bryant's absence, Cole Beasley picked up much of the workload and currently leads Dallas with 390 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He made the Eagles pay in the last meeting between these teams as he racked up 112 yards against them last November.
Nevertheless, where the Cowboys have truly excelled is their run game. The team has the most rushing yards per game in the NFL with an average of 161.2. Elliott is the leading rusher in the league with 703 yards on the ground, a 5.1 yards per carry average and five touchdowns. Stopping Elliott and the Cowboys' run game will be the real challenge for Philadelphia.
Headed into this matchup, the Eagles have had success, but defending the run has been problematic at times. They have allowed on average 102.7 yards on the ground each week, which is ranked 14th in the NFL. In terms of the pass, the defense is ranked 5th, allowing only 204.3 passing yards per game.
The Eagles also lead the NFL in sacks per game (3.3) and sacks per pass attempt (10.1 percent), which will be very beneficial going up against Prescott. The quarterback has been sacked nine times this season, but with pressure from the Eagles' defensive line, that number could very well go up on Sunday night.
Where the defense has been at its best is the most important category in the game though. The Eagles are allowing only 14.7 points per outing, which is the third best in the league. Obviously, keeping the opponent off the scoreboard is what ultimately leads to wins. If the defense can continue that trend against a talented Dallas offense, it'll give itself a chance to take down the NFC East rival.
- Julie Bacanskas
1. S Malcolm Jenkins vs. WR Cole Beasley
With Ron Brooks on Injured Reserve, the plan is to move Malcolm Jenkins into the slot in the defensive subpackages. The former first-round pick was drafted as a cornerback, and he played the same role a year ago. Beasley is a slippery receiver who caught nine passes for 112 yards (both career highs) and scored two touchdowns in the second meeting between these teams last season. In eight career games against the Eagles, Beasley has 30 receptions for 285 yards and two touchdowns.
2. LB Jordan Hicks vs. RB Ezekiel Elliott
The league's leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott, has rushed for at least 134 yards in each of the last four games. For the season, the No. 4 overall pick has 703 yards, at 5.1 yards per carry, and five touchdowns. Jordan Hicks had two of his best games as a rookie against the Cowboys in 2015. He recorded his first-career sack in the Week 2 matchup. Quarterback Tony Romo was injured on the play, which altered the future of the franchise as well as the State of the NFC East. In the rematch in Dallas, Hicks scored his first-career touchdown on a pick-six. He also incurred the season-ending pectoral injury in that game. The Cowboys' mission is to control the clock with the run game, and take pressure off of quarterback Dak Prescott. Limiting Elliott's impact will go a long way toward winning this game for the Eagles.
3. RB Ryan Mathews vs. LB Sean Lee
Sean Lee has been a thorn in the Eagles' side for years. In the Week 2 matchup a year ago, Lee had 14 tackles, two for loss and an interception in the Dallas win. The Eagles didn't score an offensive touchdown and gained just 7 yards rushing in the contest. Lee earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance. The Eagles had a much easier time in the second battle churning out 172 yards on the ground (4.9 yards per carry) and scoring two rushing scores in the overtime win. Ryan Mathews has been an effective runner this season, but hasn't had a breakout game. Plus, the late-game fumbles are something to watch. The Eagles will need to help keep their defense off the field, and Mathews can be a big component of that.
4. WR Dorial Green-Beckham vs. CB Morris Claiborne
The second-year wide receiver caught his first touchdown pass as an Eagle in last week's win over Minnesota. Dorial Green-Beckham's immense size (6-5, 237 pounds) has created problems for opposing defenses. Green-Beckham is tough to bring down with the ball in his hands as he can push would-be tacklers away. He also drew a pass interference penalty on a third-down attempt last week. Cornerback Morris Claiborne is enjoying a career-best season, according to Pro Football Focus. The former No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft struggled in his first four seasons, but thus far in 2016 is fifth on the team with 31 tackles, tied for second with four pass breakups and has an interception and fumble recovery on his résumé.
- Chris McPherson
Trends To Watch
The Eagles have gone 5-2 at AT&T Stadium since it opened in 2009, marking the best winning percentage (.714) of any Cowboys' opponent (min. three games).
Sunday Night Live
Since 2010, the Eagles have won four of their last six Sunday Night Football matchups against Dallas, including the last two games in Dallas. Last season, the Eagles came away with a 33-27 overtime victory in Arlington, Texas.
The Eagles have outscored opponents 86-26 in the second half of games this season. In the third quarter alone, the Eagles have held opponents to a total of just six points, while scoring 60 points in the process.
Locking Down The Red Zone
The Eagles lead the NFL in opponent red zone scoring efficiency (65.0 percent), allowing opponents to score (touchdown or field goal) on just 13-of-20 red zone opportunities.
- Alex Smith