GRAPEVINE, Texas -- It was a wild scene when the team arrived here on Saturday afternoon, with hundreds of fans celebrating the arrival, with the players feeling the intensity of the game from the huge crowd that somehow found out the team's hotel accommodations.
"Hearing this," wide receiver DeSean Jackson said, "makes you want to go out there and play. I'm ready!"
Good thing, because the Eagles need to be ready for a Dallas team that is dangerous for many reasons, one of which is that the Cowboys have nothing to lose. The Cowboys have a lot on the line as far as jobs and pride and all of those intangibles, but they aren't feeling the playoff race pressure. I'm not sure that makes a difference one way or the other, but it is a factor.
Dallas has a good team, is playing at home, on national television and the Cowboys have gotten their act straight. They have speed and they have great talent. And what they have, and what beat the Eagles three times last season, is a "physical" factor at the line of scrimmage.
To win, the Eagles have to be more physical than Dallas. They have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. They have to tackle well. They have to blast away in the red zone on offense and on defense, or this is going to be a long, long night at Cowboys Stadium.
Here are some of my keys to the game, a huge one with playoff implications ...
Get Vick Into Early Comfort Zone
What is the best way to play this dazzling quarterback? I think that maybe Detroit did the best job, going after Michael Vick with a heavy blitz package and forcing him to beat the defense with his arm. Vick was up to the challenge as he ran and passed and led the Eagles to a win that changed the season's fortunes. After that game, it was impossible to keep Vick off the field. He was that good.
But he was that good because Detroit made him play that way. He had to be a superhuman player that day. And while the Giants and the Bears had moments of success, they didn't hit him as much as did the Lions and they didn't make the Eagles offense step up to such great heights.
I think Dallas will come after Vick, and rely on their secondary in man-to-man coverage behind the pass rush. The Cowboys know they can't lay back and let Vick carve them up from the pocket. They also know that the Eagles can max protect and help against the base pass rush. So I expect something very creative from Dallas with the intention on making the Eagles hurry up their tempo.
The Eagles need to get Vick into an early groove. Maybe they order up a screen or two, or get tight end Brent Celek into things early, or even run the football heavily in the first quarter. Philadelphia needs to back the Cowboys off, needs to get some catch-and-run plays and has to put Dallas on its heels.
As the Eagles found out last season, there is nothing worse than having the Cowboys tee off on the backfield. The Cowboys have too much speed and power in the front seven to allow that to happen.
Defense Has To Be Aggressive
Without Asante Samuel, the Cowboys are going to pick and choose and throw the football. The numbers with Samuel in the lineup and without him are so dramatically different that is impossible to ignore. Dallas will run slants and screens and test the Eagles in the short- and intermediate-passing game. Why risk Jon Kitna with seven-step drops when he has been so good getting the football out quickly? There is a reason Kitna is completing such a high percentage of his passes (69 percent) in the last month of play.
So what do the Eagles do? They challenge Dallas at the line of scrimmage. Get the cornerbacks up in the receivers' faces. Don't let Dallas catch the short pass. Mix up the looks and work for takeaways.
Look, I think there are going to be a lot of points scored in this game. I just do. Dallas is humming offensively, as are the Eagles. This is a game built for speed, and both teams have it. The Eagles need, maybe, to give a little to get some. They have to order up the blitzes and get in the backfield and watch for the screens and the dumps and the safety valves that Kitna has at his disposal.
In the red zone, let's see some nasty stuff. Beat up on the Cowboys. Press them at the line of scrimmage. Don't let Miles Austin and Roy Williams have free releases. Jam Jason Witten. Do anything possible to take the Cowboys off of their timing game.
Get The Swagger In Jackson's Game
I want to see a DeSean Jackson show. The popular theme has been to discuss his drop-off in numbers this season, but did you know that Jackson had 44 catches, 769 yards and 6 touchdowns last year through 12 games, and this year he has 38 catches, 762 yards and 5 touchdowns. Maybe we need to evaluate the numbers and understand that Jackson has still been productive, but others have stepped up and stolen some of the numbers, too.
Anyway, this is the perfect stage for Jackson. He is in the national spotlight against a team that has handled him pretty well of late. When Jackson goes, this offense is so, so explosive. So dynamic. I want to see the Eagles get the ball in his hands early and often, no matter how.
For whatever reason, the Cowboys have struggled in the secondary at times this season. The Eagles need to hit them with a quick one and then dictate the rest of the way. It would be a surprise to see the Cowboys allow Jackson to get behind the coverage, so why not use Jackson on screens and slants and those shallow crosses that are great catch-and-run plays?
Defensive Front Four Needs A Big Game
Juqua Parker returns and he will play with great energy and intensity. He has to win the battle on that side of the line of scrimmage and force the Cowboys to take some of the attention away from Trent Cole. Dallas will give left tackle Doug Free all kinds of help to keep Cole at bay and the Eagles need others to step up.
Big test for the D line. They were beaten soundly against Dallas last year, so this is the game to show just how far the group has come. Having the size and power of Antonio Dixon inside helps. There is a lot of depth. I want to see Brandon Graham's quickness against the size of Dallas' offensive linemen. The Cowboys are running the ball really well, with a lot of power and force.
The line has to establish itself early and win up front. Or it will be tough on the back seven to keep the Cowboys down.
Big Focus On Stewart Bradley
He didn't play last year, of course, but Bradley has helped this defense a great deal. His play against the run has been strong. Bradley is also a big, fast linebacker who covers well down the field. He has to come up big in this game and make plays against Felix Jones and Tashard Choice and keep an eye on Witten in the passing game.
The Eagles ask a lot of Bradley, so this is a spot for him. The linebackers have been so improved this season, but this game is their biggest test, their yardstick to see how far they have really come. Dallas will try to run the ball early and establish that phase of the offense and then the play-action game will look down the field.
Bradley has to stop the run. He has to play in the Dallas backfield. He has to be the difference maker the Eagles lacked last year against the Cowboys.