Eagles-Cowboys is always a big rivalry game. This year, the first meeting will also have a huge impact on the standings. Dallas is in first place and the Eagles are right behind. The Eagles have a monumental opportunity on Sunday night when they go down to Dallas. A win puts Philly in first place in the NFC East. It puts the Eagles three games above .500 and helps the team to build some momentum heading into the heart of the season.
A loss would drop the Eagles to 4-3 and the team could possibly be in last place in the division. That's quite a difference in outcomes. I think you can see why this is such an important game.
There is no such thing as a "must-win game" in October and I'm not trying to imply that's the case here. A win doesn't guarantee the Eagles anything long term and a loss doesn't mean the season is over. This game is important because it affects the next month or so. 5-2 gives you breathing room. 4-3 means your back is against the wall.
The Eagles have some tough games ahead of them. It would really help to go into that stretch with some cushion in the standings and some confidence on the field. If not, every third down, red zone trip and field goal attempt is going to feel like a huge play. Pressure like that can bring out the best in some teams, but the Eagles have a rookie quarterback, rookie head coach and new schemes. This feels like the kind of team that is best when it is loose and comfortable.
The 2008 Eagles had Andy Reid, Jim Johnson, Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and Brian Dawkins. They hovered around .500 until December and that pressure made things really hard on them. They didn't clinch a playoff berth until winning the season finale in the epic 44-6 beatdown of Dallas (always fun to sneak that into a story). A veteran team like that was able to handle the pressure of a long, grinding season.
While Dallas is hot (five wins in a row) and playing well, this is a winnable game. The Eagles have won five of the last six games in Dallas. Different coaches, quarterbacks and players have all been a part of that. There is just something about that giant star on the field that seems to bring out the best in the Eagles. Many Eagles remain from last year's dramatic 33-27 overtime win in a Sunday night showdown. Jordan Hicks and Ronald Darby each made huge plays in that game. Both guys are playing at a high level this year.
All the hype in this game will be on Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz, but the real focus should be the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys are built around their run game. It opens up the passing game. It keeps pressure off Prescott. It protects an average defense. This isn't a new formula. Dallas used it back in 2014 when it went 12-4 and won the division. The idea is simple. Finding the right people to build a dominant run game is the trick.
The Cowboys have found success using a combination of star runner Ezekiel Elliott and a terrific offensive line. The Cowboys' line has been together for a few years. The Eagles' front seven has battled these guys, winning some and losing some battles. The new guy is Elliott, a dynamic rookie runner. His smooth running style makes it look easy, but don't be fooled. It is rare to find a player with his combination of vision, size, strength, speed and footwork. There is a reason that in the age when running backs are devalued, Elliott was a top-five pick. He is special.
Defensive tackle Bennie Logan is out, but Fletcher Cox is good enough to make impact plays and control the middle of the line. Beau Allen has done a nice job of stepping up with Logan out. Allen is a good run defender. He's more stout than disruptive, but will shoot gaps and make some plays in the backfield. The ends have to do a good job of setting the edge. Brandon Graham is really good at that. As crazy as it sounds, Marcus Smith has done a good job this year of playing the run. He holds his ground, and occasionally sheds the block to make the tackle himself.
Linebacker play will be huge in this game. Those guys have to be in the right gaps and have to tackle well. It is easy to get out of position when facing the Dallas zone running attack. You have to ignore the flow and play your gap. If not, Elliott can cut to the back side and will have a huge hole to run through. The Eagles' linebackers played their worst game of the year at Washington and then followed that with their best game of the year against the Vikings. Hicks was amazing. He flew all over the field, making his impact felt on run and pass plays. Twenty-five years ago, we had Byron Evans against Emmitt Smith. Now we have Hicks against Elliott. I can't wait to see how Hicks does in this game.
Dallas hasn't faced a defense playing as well as the Eagles this year. Jim Schwartz and his unit will be a huge challenge for the Cowboys. The Eagles have playmakers all over the defense so this isn't as simple as blocking Cox and then running wild. Prescott has played with the lead for most of the year and has only thrown more than 32 passes in a game once. The Eagles are tied for first in sacks per game in the NFL. Prescott hasn't faced any other team in the top five. This pass rush will be something he's just not used to.
Cole Beasley and Jason Witten are the team's leading receivers. They do a great job of working the middle of the field. The safeties and linebackers will have to work together to shut them down. Dez Bryant will be back on the outside. When healthy, he's one of the best receivers in the league. The Eagles would love to double him, but there will be times when Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll have to handle him by themselves.
One of the reasons the Eagles have had so much success in Dallas recently is that they have averaged 29 points per game down there since 2011. That stretch includes different coaches, quarterbacks, runners and receivers. The one constant has been a good offensive line, led by Jason Peters. The O-line has opened holes for the runners and given all those different quarterbacks time to throw.
I'm interested to see how Doug Pederson decides to attack Dallas. The Cowboys have faced the third-fewest plays of any team in the NFL. It would be interesting to come out there and go no-huddle in an attempt to wear them down. The Eagles started slow in road games against Detroit and Washington. They can't afford a slow start on Sunday night. That would play right into the Cowboys' hands. The Eagles must be able to move the chains and keep the ball away from Elliott.
Wentz should have more time to throw than he did the last couple of weeks. If that happens, he needs to get back to making some big plays in the passing game. The Eagles have tried to get chunk plays in recent games, but something has been off, whether it's the throw, catch or blocking. This is a game where there should be some plays available. Wentz needs to be smart and then make accurate throws. He was very good in the second half last week after a wildly up and down opening 30 minutes. When it mattered, Wentz came through with clutch throws and big plays.
Tight ends have had big games against Dallas this year. Maybe this is the week that Zach Ertz breaks out. Or maybe Brent Celek will have his best game of the year. Dallas likes to play some zone coverage and tight ends can sometimes find the soft spots and give their quarterbacks a big target. One question is whether or not the tight ends can go out on pass routes or if they need to stay in and help block. Halapoulivaati Vaitai played better last week. Was that enough to earn the coaches trust or will they still feel the need to give him some help on pass plays? It should be noted that Big V is a captain tonight. The Dallas defense is nothing like the Vikings so this might be the game to take some chances.
The Eagles have played two "big games" this year, beating both the Steelers and Vikings. The Eagles' defense only allowed one late touchdown in those two games combined. Dallas has a far better offensive line than either of those teams, but the Eagles' defense can still have a huge game and lead the team to a win. Wentz and the offense have been up and down in recent weeks. This is a game where they need to get going and score touchdowns.
A win for the Eagles will put them atop the NFC East. It won't guarantee anything long term, but it would put the team in good position as the Eagles head into the middle of the season. Beyond that, it is just fun to watch the Eagles go down to Dallas and beat on the Cowboys. Jerry Jones might pay the rent on that place, but based on results, the Eagles actually own the field. Let's hope four of five turns into five of six and the Eagles come away with a huge win tonight.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.
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