IRVING, TX -- Texas Stadium is buzzing. The players and coaches are ready after a long, long week. The first real ""showdown"" of the season is here, and we are all the better for it.
How good are the Eagles? This night won't provide the definitive answer, because each week within the season does that. But it will give us all a much more accurate idea of how the Eagles will perform in big games, under the bright lights and against a team that is every bit as talented and with equal expectations.
The Eagles are going to win this game. There is too much confidence here, too many good players, too much of a ""team"" feeling for anyone to think otherwise. There are keys to beating Dallas in the last visit to Texas Stadium, of course. The Eagles have to play the kind of game I know they can play.
Last week doesn't matter any longer. The Eagles will beat Dallas if ….
- The defense finds a way to contain Jason Witten. Yeah, I'm making him a bigger priority than Terrell Owens. No lack of respect to Owens, who is a great player, but the Eagles have come up with schemes in the past to slow him. They have not done much against Witten. Dallas wants Witten running routes against linebacker Chris Gocong or a single safety. The Eagles want to counter that. I say the Eagles can get creative in the secondary here, maybe use a different combination of defensive backs. Can the Eagles use three cornerbacks and three safeties? That way they don't give up too much against the run, and still have an extra cover man on the field. Can they match up man to man against Owens and double team Witten? Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson knows what he has to do. He has to contain Witten, first and foremost.
- Brian Westbrook gains more than 100 yards from the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys are going to be all over Westbrook. They're going to use a combination of coverages against Westbrook when he goes out on pass routes – it wouldn't surprise me to see Dallas blitz when they Westbrook in a single-back set, just to force him to stay in and help protect Donovan McNabb – and they're going to surround Westbrook in the running game. You can love DeSean Jackson all you want. We all do. But Westbrook remains the key figure in this offense along with McNabb.
- They are able to isolate safety Roy Williams in coverage. I think there are times when the Eagles will spread the field and try to match up speed against Williams. Dallas knows this. Maybe they will keep Williams at the line of scrimmage in run support and to blitz McNabb. Maybe they will play a lot of zone and limit Williams' coverage responsibilities. It is going to be a chess match. The Eagles want one look. Dallas wants another look.
- Wide receivers Jackson, Jason Avant and Greg Lewis can work the middle of the field and force linebacker Zach Thomas to run sideline to sideline in coverage. Thomas is going to be active tonight. He plays downhill and is around the ball a lot in the running game. But the Eagles need to see if he can still cover in the passing game. Remember how Jeremiah Trotter's game started to falter? He could still play the run, but he had trouble covering. I want Thomas to prove tonight that he can cover.
- Cornerbacks Asante Samuel, Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown take the football away at least twice. That's total, not each. The Cowboys are going to look to hit the Eagles early with the running game and then go up top with some play-action passing. The coverage has to be tight on Owens and Patrick Crayton and, of course, Witten. I need two takeaways by the defensive backs.
- The Eagles shut down Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Dallas has a massive, powerful offensive line. The Cowboys can play smash-mouth football and they are going to try to stuff it down the Eagles' throats. This is a big game for a defensive line group that the Eagles really like. This is the kind of game during which you learn a lot about units like the defensive line. The tackles, Mike Patterson, Brodrick Bunkley, Trevor Laws and Dan Klecko, have to come up big.
- Tony Hunt can recognize, react and stunt the Dallas blitz. If I'm Dallas, I'm coming after Hunt. I'm going make him try to figure out where the blitzer is, and then step up and block him. Big game for Hunt, in his second regular season game as a fullback.
- McNabb is as good as we think he is right now. This is the kind of game that can catapult him back into the national spotlight. Yeah, everybody was impressed by last week's performance against the Rams, but it seems like a lot of quarterbacks are going to have big days against that defense. This one here is a superb test for McNabb, and for the weapons on this current Kevin Curtis-less offense.
- Trent Cole handles Flozell Adams. Big matchup. Cole is one of the best, and so is Adams. The Eagles must pressure Tony Romo. Cole needs to lead the way.
- Rory Segrest's special teams win the battle. Keep track of the hidden yardage on the exchange of possessions. If the Eagles come out on top in that category, they have a great chance to win this game.
- Jackson makes one big play. Maybe it will be a punt return. Maybe he is going to beat Dallas down the field in the passing game. The kid has to change the game once tonight.
- They play with discipline and desire. Keep the penalties down. Catch the football. Don't turn it over. Tackle well. Take advantage of chances to take the football away, or to score seven points in the red zone, not three. This a game between two good teams. This is a game where the winner will be the team that plays the best game. It won't mean that one team is necessarily better than the other in the big picture. It will mean that the team that wins stepped up on its initial "big-game" moment of the season.