For 14 games now, we've searched for an identity that the Philadelphia Eagles can lean on for games like the one they're playing on Sunday against Dallas, a win-or-no-playoffs showdown that is, factually for the first time this season, a must-win game. What is that identity? What can the Eagles rely upon in this battle for NFC East supremacy?
Offensively, it's much easier to define. The Eagles have some bread and butter, so to speak. They can load up and run the football – they've gone over 100 yards rushing in 10 games this season, including the last two – and rookie Miles Sanders is peaking. He's been a force in the running game and he is a weapon in the passing game.
Want to beat the Cowboys? Run the ball. Control the time of possession. The Eagles have worked hard to score points all season, and in doing so, they've been able to stay patient offensively. Going on some long, time-consuming drives on Sunday will not only help establish the line of scrimmage, but it keeps the Dallas offense off the field.
It's also going to be important that the offense secures the football. The Eagles have turned the ball over four times in their seven victories. Carson Wentz has not thrown an interception in any of the seven wins.
This is pretty simple, then: Play smart, ball-control offense – mixing in throws to the tight ends and the running backs, which Dallas has had trouble with all season – and secure the football. That's the formula. That's the personality of the offense. That's the go-to part of things.
Defensively? It's not so simple. Just when the Eagles thought they had righted things on that side of the football during an impressive four-game stretch against Buffalo, Chicago, New England, and Seattle – the defense has gone the other way in the most recent three weeks. The Eagles allowed scores on six straight possessions to Miami. Then the Eagles returned home and promptly gave up big plays down the field in the first half against the Giants before shutting New York down in the second half.
At Washington on Sunday, the Eagles never took control until late in the fourth quarter when they held the Redskins to a field goal after an Eagles offensive giveaway and then iced the game with a last-play blitz from cornerback Avonte Maddox that reached quarterback Dwayne Haskins for a strip-sack and a fumble recovery and return by linebacker Nigel Bradham for a touchdown.
Other than that, it was a major struggle.
What are the Eagles doing well on defense to make you think they rise up and stop Dallas? Well, the Eagles are third in the NFL against the run, and that's where it starts against Dallas. The Eagles know that they've got to tangle with running back Ezekiel Elliott, a premier player in the league. He runs behind a big, athletic, strong, and cohesive offensive line. The Eagles have stressed all week the importance of all 11 defenders running to the ball and corral Elliott.
"He runs behind his pads and he's always falling forward," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We have to do it as a group effort. Elliott is our first priority. We can't let him get it going."
So, the Eagles have to win up front. They have to beat the Dallas offensive line. Fletcher Cox has to dominate inside. Brandon Graham has to lead the charge off the edge. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz can't let the Cowboys come to his defense; he needs to go after the Dallas offense.
"I think the best thing we can do," Jenkins said, "is just to do what we do. We just have to do it well and play our best football. I think the emotion is going to be there. We have to dictate the action."
The defense has played worlds better at home this season than on the road, really only struggling in spots against Washington in the opener and New York in the first half. Other than that, the defense has been solid. The Eagles must slow Elliott and not giving anything over the top in the passing game – which has been a challenge all season.
What we have ahead is an NFC East slugfest. The Eagles are a smashmouth offense – that's just what they have to work with right now. The defense must win up front – that's the strength on that side of the ball. Line up the strengths and that is what the Eagles have – Wentz operating the offense at a high efficiency and a running game that can be relied upon, and the defense needing the front seven to dominate.
In a week of injury stories and rivalry recollections, it's coming down to playing to the strengths of your team. The Eagles have found something on offense. They know they've got something on defense, starting along the line of scrimmage.
There isn't much mystery, then. While it may not be an artistic beauty, the Eagles need to win on Sunday playing the game their way.