In the loss on November 8, the one that hurt so much and that left such a nasty taste in the Eagles' mouths, the Dallas Cowboys did enough good things to capture a 20-16 victory. They forced turnovers, converted critical third downs and bottled up the Eagles in short-yardage situations. On one side of the ball, the Cowboys looked good. On the other, the Eagles missed some chances, made some mistakes and did just enough to lose a critical NFC East game.
So what changes do the Eagles have to make to turn around and win on Sunday? Let's look at some of the issues from the first game and see how they apply now ...
**DALLAS SACKS McNABB THREE TIMES
Going in to this game, how well the Eagles protect quarterback Donovan McNabb and how well they block for the running game is probably at the top of the to-do list. The offensive line has been re-shuffled with the loss of center Jamaal Jackson, who is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Now Nick Cole, who has been starting at right guard, starts at center for the first time in his NFL career. Max Jean-Gilles comes off the sidelines to start at right guard.
The Eagles have worked hard all week on their timing, on the silent count and on playing against a great Dallas front seven. They are as prepared as they can be heading into the hostile environment of Dallas against a super-fast and very powerful Cowboys defense.
What makes Dallas so dangerous is the pass-rushing weapons they have inside and out. Tackle Jay Ratliff recorded a pair of sacks in the first meeting and is a true force. So is DeMarcus Ware, who comes from the outside. On the other side, Anthony Spencer has been very productive as a pass-rushing threat.
Dallas runs a lot of stunts and games up front, and when you combine the scheme with the quickness, the Cowboys have as tough a group on the line of scrimmage as there is in the NFL. They pressured McNabb in the passing game and stymied the Eagles in short-yardage situations.
This time around, the Eagles have to make sure they are OK inside with Cole and Jean-Gilles. They have to keep the Cowboys honest by running the football. McNabb has to be aware of Ware on his blind side -- Jason Peters is healthy now, after battle the ankle/knee injury in the first game -- and the backs have to be stout in pass protection. This is a huge spot for Leonard Weaver, who carried 8 times for 33 yards.
**WESTBROOK HEALTHY, READY TO GO
The impact of running back Brian Westbrook remains to be seen, but remember that he didn't play in the first game. In Westbrook's absence in November, rookie LeSean McCoy ran for 54 yards on 13 carries and caught 5 passes for 61 yards. Good job by the rookie. But Westbrook, at his best, is a totally different animal. He changes games. Defenses must account for him on every play, no matter where he is in the formation.
Westbrook has not been "at his best" for most of this season, but he sure looked good for his first game back last week against Denver. Perhaps the Eagles will call Westbrook's number more here on the fast turf. Westbrook is fresh and his instincts are there and, boy, wouldn't it change everything if the Eagles got a vintage Westbrook performance on Sunday?
The Eagles need to create good matchups with Westbrook, whether that means getting the ball to him in space in the passing game or moving him in motion and clearing out space for the wide receivers. Westbrook is going to help in pass protection and in doing the little things, and if the Eagles can get him involved in the screen game, it could open up other things down the field.
Westbrook is an X-factor here, no question about it. Remember that in that first game he practiced all week and appeared ready to play until suffering a headache on the Friday before the game. This time, Westbrook has practiced without any complications and is on course to play a team against whom he has had a lot of success in the past.
**GET THE BALL TO DeSEAN JACKSON EARLY AND OFTEN
Jackson's line in the first meeting was, well, underwhelming. He was thrown to only 5 times and had just 2 catches for 29 yards and one punt return for 9 yards. Throwing the ball just five times to Jackson? Doesn't really help the offense, that's for sure.
So a key for the offense will be working the ball to the explosive Jackson. Dallas' cornerbacks like to play physical football and bump at the line of scrimmage, so the Eagles may need to put Jackson in motion and free him up for some catch-and-run opportunities. No doubt Dallas will pay a lot of attention to Jackson -- cornerback Mike Jenkins has a lot of confidence and is playing excellent football -- but if the offensive line gives McNabb some time, it is very difficult for any defense to contain Jackson.
He needs his touches, for sure. There is a reason why Jackson was voted to the Pro Bowl as a starter.
**MAKE TONY ROMO RUSH HIS THROWS
Yeah, the Eagles recorded four sacks against Tony Romo earlier, but they didn't hurry him as often as they wanted. Romo threw the one interception to Sheldon Brown, but Romo otherwise played a spectacular game. He completed 21 of 34 passes for 307 yards and a touchdown. The Cowboys converted 7 of their 15 third downs. Romo completed just one pass to Miles Austin, but it was on a third-and-14 play and it produced a touchdown to give the Cowboys their winning points.
The Eagles must first stop the run as the Cowboys want to punish the defense with their big offensive line, and they also have to stifle Romo. Sure, the Eagles must contain the Pro Bowl wide receiver Austin, and the Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, but Romo moved the ball around well in November. Roy Williams caught 5 passes for 75 yards. Kevin Ogletree caught 2 big screens, one for 21 yards. Romo completed passes to seven receivers.
Romo has had a Pro Bowl-caliber season. He has reduced his turnovers and mental mistakes. The Eagles need to get him off his game, contain his scrambles and throws on the run and apply constant pressure.
**DEFENSE NEEDS TO TACKLE BETTER
There were far too many missed tackles in that first game. What is different now about the defense? Well, Will Witherspoon knows a whole lot more about the scheme. Moise Fokou has a much larger role at SAM linebacker and should be improved in coverage against Witten. Rookie Macho Harris is going to take some significant snaps at free safety.
Players like Juqua Paker -- against right tackle Doug Free -- must step up and make some big plays. Parker had a sack in the first game working against Marc Colombo. The Eagles have to combat the size of Dallas' blocking wall by using their quickness.
And they can't let the big play get them. Austin's touchdown was a killer, a 49-yard strike against Brown. A quick throw to Patrick Crayton against a blitz gained 64 yards and led to a field goal. Roy Williams caught a 22-yard pass. The Eagles just can't give up so many big plays to this Dallas offense.
**EAGLES MUST WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
Few times this season have the Eagles opened a game offensively as poorly as they did against Dallas. McNabb's pass on third down bounced off of Jeremy Maclin's facemask and Dallas caught the deflection and turned it into an instant lead. McNabb threw two interceptions and Romo threw only one. The historical numbers suggest the teams that win the turnover battle win the war on the scoreboard.
The Eagles need to take the football away from Dallas. They can't let the Cowboys play ball-control offense, and they can't allow the Dallas offense to get that play-action passing game going.
At the same time, the Eagles have to give McNabb plenty of protection, and they have to wrap up and keep control of the football. Win the turnover battle and we'll see who wins the scoreboard war. Every facet of their game needs to improve to beat Dallas in Cowboys Stadium. The emotional edge could very well determine the winner. Special teams are huge here, and the weather forecast says it will be a good day to kick the football.
Really, the Eagles need to play an all-around better game than they did in November. It wasn't a crisp effort. The Eagles just didn't have "it." To win the NFC East, to earn a bye week and the No. 2 seed in the conference playoffs and to have a chance to host at least one playoff game, the Eagles have to play their very, very best game of the season and defeat Dallas in every area of the game.