It's Dallas Week, something special unto itself. The Eagles still have playoff aspirations, remarkable for a 4-9-1 team, but that's the reality of the 2020 NFC East. Rookie Jalen Hurts makes his third NFL start on Sunday in Arlington, Texas and, lo and behold, the roster Philadelphia has down the stretch is covered with kids, which means exactly … what? … for the remainder of this season and in the big picture?
Let's have a look as Week 16 beckons amid Christmas and an ongoing global pandemic. Oh, what a strange year it has been in every way …
1. Welcome to Dallas Week!
This time, it isn't Ben DiNucci starting at quarterback for the Cowboys. It's Andy Dalton, and he has thrown four touchdown passes and zero interceptions in this two-game winning streak that has the Cowboys now at 5-9 with visions of the NFC East title dancing in their heads. Dallas has won two consecutive games for a host of reasons – Dalton, running back Tony Pollard filling in well for Ezekiel Elliott and contributing 69 rushing yards and 63 receiving yards in the win over the 49ers – but the main one is the takeaway rampage Dallas has been on in wins over Cincinnati and San Francisco. The Cowboys have a plus-7 in turnover differential in those two games.
Turnovers played a gigantic part in the Eagles' win the first time these teams met – Carson Wentz threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles, and Rodney McLeod scooped up a DiNucci fumble forced by linebacker T.J. Edwards and glided in for a late-game touchdown to ice it for the Eagles – and they are likely to mean something on Sunday. Hurts had a fumble late in the win over New Orleans and a late-game interception at Green Bay, but he has a good track record from his college days of protecting the football.
That this game has meaning in the standings is a bonus for two teams so far under .500. We've got something to look forward to at AT&T Stadium. Should be a great game.
2. Playoffs? We're talking playoffs? Here's why …
In case you aren't aware, the Eagles can make the postseason by … A) winning their two remaining games, at Dallas (5-9) and home against Washington (6-8); B) having Washington lose this weekend to Carolina, and C) having New York (5-9) lose to either Baltimore or Dallas. The Eagles can win the division at 6-9-1, remarkably. But they have to take care of their own business first and it won't be easy against Dallas and Washington, two teams that are playing solid football in late December.
"I've never been around a season where with a team that has four or five wins and maybe six wins is going to win your division," Head Coach Doug Pederson said. "I've never been a part of that. To sit here today with two games to go and still everything right in front of us. Do we need help? Yeah, we need some help. But we control – when I talked to the guys this past week, it's we control sort of our destiny right now, and we've got to find a way to make it through these next couple of weeks. It's going to be tough. It's two division opponents, Dallas and Washington, and it's never easy with our division. As crazy as it sounds, it gives the guys a little bit of hope moving forward here in the next couple of weeks."
3. Jalen Hurts, a no-brainer, starts for a third consecutive week
Pederson made official on Monday what everyone expected as the Arizona game on Sunday continued and Hurts made play after play and accounted for four touchdowns and 401 yards of total offense in the loss to the Cardinals – that the rookie would start in Dallas, his third consecutive week as the quarterback. Hurts made strides on Sunday with just about everything – route recognition, timing of his drop, commanding the huddle, and, of course, helping the team reverse course after Arizona jumped out to a 16-0 lead in the first quarter.
"He just ran the offense. He did what Jalen can do," Pederson said of Hurts' performance against the Cardinals. "We protected the football, and I'll tell you this, as I said this morning (on SportsRadio 94WIP), too, the guys around him have played better. They've elevated their game, as well, and they're improving each week. That's all part of I think Jalen's success, too, is having the guys around him play better. But yeah, he led the team.
"He played mentally and physically tough, which was good to see. He obviously extended plays with his legs. He had to throw probably more from the pocket yesterday because of the nature of the game and getting behind early in the football game. But yeah, he – I guess the biggest thing is just leading the team and keeping the guys engaged for the entire game and gave us a chance there at the end."
The next step for Hurts? Winning that kind of game. He led the Eagles on two drives late in the fourth quarter and had shots into the end zone, but they came up empty. The fourth-quarter comeback win is next in the young quarterback's development. He continues to make great progress, showing skills in and out of the pocket, using his mobility to his advantage, and displaying great poise and awareness under pressure.
4. With so many injuries, young players are forced into the fold
The silver lining in this very tough 4-9-1 season is that so many young players are seeing meaningful snaps and, as Pederson explained to me after his Monday press conference, understanding the moment is not too big for them. Look at the starting lineup from Sunday – only tight end Zach Ertz and center Jason Kelce from the offensive side have been in the league longer than five seasons, and on defense that list included defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, along with cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.
This is something to consider in the big picture here. The Eagles wanted to get younger and faster for the 2020 season, and while injuries required them to add a veteran like Jason Peters, they've largely been able to – and very quietly – turn over the roster at key spots. It's wonderful that Alshon Jeffery is providing meaningful reps and big catches in the last few weeks, but it's also exciting to see players like Jalen Reagor, Quez Watkins, and Travis Fulgham step up. The offensive line has gotten major contributions from players like Jordan Mailata, Nate Herbig, Matt Pryor, and Jack Driscoll, and when you consider that right tackle Lane Johnson will be 100 percent next season and that right guard Brandon Brooks will be healed from his injuries and that left tackle Andre Dillard will be healthy, the Eagles have the makings of a very strong offensive line. There are still going to be needs on this roster, but the Eagles have an opportunity here to evaluate some of their young players – on defense, there are a bunch of them playing – to give them a real understanding of what they have for the rest of this regular season and into next year.
5. The injury update
Not much to monitor on the Eagles' side of things other than cornerback Darius Slay, who missed Sunday's game in Arizona with a concussion, and defensive end Josh Sweat, who left the game early with a wrist injury. Oh, there's also punter Cameron Johnston, who did not return after being evaluated with a head injury.
Dallas is keeping its eyes on running back Ezekiel Elliott, who missed the first game of his career on Sunday because of an injury (calf). Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch suffered an ankle injury against the 49ers and was in a walking boot following the win.
It's Eagles-Cowboys Week! And it means something for both teams as they vie for the playoffs in this NFC East. Hurts is the big story, of course, but there is a whole lot more going on with the Eagles, as we'll explore throughout the week ahead.