There is far too much season remaining to declare the winner of Sunday night's Cowboys-Eagles game the NFC East champion. We know, of course, that the stakes are very, very high for Round 2 of this rivalry.
Sunday night represents the final home game in the regular season for the Eagles, who then play at Washington (on a short week) and at New York. Closing the regular season with the gauntlet of games in the division is not a cakewalk, no matter the records of struggling Washington and New York.
Dallas hosts Indianapolis, a playoff-bound team with a lot at stake, next Sunday and then finishes the regular season at Washington. Tough sledding for the Cowboys.
The main course is Sunday night for both teams. So let's get into some of the nuances of this matchup, shall we?
- The Eagles must improve their third-down performance after the 1-of-11 showing on Sunday in the 24-14 loss to the Seahawks. The average to-go was 8.7 yards and the offense just didn't keep the sticks moving. The Eagles ran just 45 plays on offense. "It wasn't nearly good enough and we know that," left guard Evan Mathis said. "We have to be better on first and second downs, too. It all adds up to third down." The Eagles rank 12th in the NFL on first downs, averaging 5.69 yards per play.
- Inside linebackers coach Rick Minter has lost Najee Goode, DeMeco Ryans and Travis Long from his preseason plans. Mychal Kendricks missed time with a calf injury. And the Eagles have still had productivity from the group, including using cornerback Nolan Carroll III as a quasi-linebacker in the dime personnel (six defensive backs) package.
"It's the fun of coaching. Aside from being a head coach and a coordinator down through the years, no matter what you call yourself, the reason you got into the game is you think you're a teacher," Minter said. "This exudes well for me. I just say, 'Hey, the next guy, whoever I have, whoever they give me, I'm going to coach.' I bring passion to the table, they bring passion to the table, we meet as often as we can. I enjoy all these guys; no matter the numbers or the names on the jerseys, I'm just going to keep coaching them hard. I like being around these guys, being part of the troops. Our motto is next man up, and Nolan is part of that motto. He seized the moment of taking his opportunity."
- Good numbers from the Eagles wide receivers to date. The top three receivers -- in this case Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Jordan Matthews -- rank fourth in the NFL among top three receivers on each team in total receptions (176), fifth in touchdowns (18) and seventh in receiving yards (2,288). Only Denver and Green Bay rank ahead of the Eagles' top 3 in each of those categories. With three games to play, Maclin, Cooper and Matthews have 9 more catches and are 326 yards and one touchdown short of the entire output from DeSean Jackson, Cooper and Jason Avant in 16 games in 2013.
- Safety Chris Prosinski has made an immediate impact since the Eagles signed him on November 3. He has 6 total special teams tackles -- three against Tennesssee and three against Seattle -- as a core member of Dave Fipp's group. Prosinski, in his fourth NFL season, was waived by Jacksonville after suffering an elbow/triceps injury and the Eagles jumped at the chance to sign him when he was healthy. "The transition coming in here is a lot easier than I expected and it's because of the culture here and how they take guys in, and the leadership. All of that has been a positive," Prosinski. "The special teams here is special. There is accountability and focus. It's a big deal to guys. We take it seriously. It's a different level here and I like that. We have starters involved who want to be on the teams and it hasn't always been like that from my experience."
- Bryan Braman is part of a punt return team that has blocked three punts this season -- not including a partial punt block against the Giants -- and Braman received credit for one against Green Bay. He's around the football and he goes for the punt block. It's quite an art form.
"Really, it's just seven steps, being able to confuse the opponent's protection, guys getting off the ball," Braman said. "Quick operation times make it hard to get to the block point, but we're always trying. I've always been pretty good at it since high school."
Braman actually has excellent pass-rushing skills and it pays off as he lines up on the wing, over the long snapper, anywhere the Eagles feel they can win a matchup. Braman estimates he's blocked "almost 30 punts" in his high school, college and NFL career combined. And it's just not about being the one to get to the ball. Drawing a double team and freeing someone else, or teaming up with another player, counts as well.
"It's definitely a group deal," Braman said. "We're all united in our effort."
- How can the offense get rolling early? The blueprint is there from the Thanksgiving Day game when the Eagles had touchdown drives of 9 plays and 80 yards and 7 plays and 88 yards to take a 14-0 advantage. Run/pass ratio? Kind of surprising, looking back. The Eagles had 5 runs and 11 passes, including six straight passes on the second drive, the final of which was a 27-yard touchdown pass from Mark Sanchez to Jordan Matthews.
- Keep an eye on tight end Jason Witten. He caught just one pass on Thanksgiving and then had two receptions in Chicago in the Cowboys' win. Is it time for him to become more involved in the passing game for quarterback Tony Romo? Witten has averaged more than 6 receptions per game against the Eagles in his career. "We know he's a big part of what they do," linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. "We're very aware of him."
- How big is touchdown efficiency in the red zone on Sunday night? Huuuuuge. Dallas is second in the NFC and fifth in the NFL with a 65 percent touchdown efficiency inside opponents' 20-yard lines. The Cowboys have 26 touchdowns and 10 field goals in 40 possessions. "They run well and they have big receivers and a good offensive line," linebacker Casey Matthews said. "We have to limit their chances."