NFL Preview - Philadelphia (11-4) at Dallas (10-5)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - There's always plenty at stake whenever the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys square off on the gridiron. And with a division title and a possible first-round playoff bye on the line, not to mention an opportunity to exact revenge on both sides, this latest edition of one of the NFL's fiercest rivalries shapes up as one of the most pivotal and intriguing games of the final week of the 2009 regular season.
This winner-take-all showdown for the NFC East crown could provide the victor of Sunday's test the advantage of skipping next weekend's Wild Card round of the conference playoffs, while the loser will have a tough road ahead in its quest to reach the Super Bowl. Philadelphia, which enters this colossal clash owning a slim one-game edge on the Cowboys for the division's top spot, would clinch the NFC's No. 2 overall seed and an opening-round bye with a win.
On the other hand, a Dallas victory would give the Cowboys, who dealt the Eagles a 20-16 defeat in Philadelphia on November 8, the division championship by virtue of a season sweep and an outside shot at the second seed. For that to occur, both NFC North winner Minnesota and NFC West titlist Arizona would have to lose on Sunday. The Vikings host the New York Giants in their finale, while the Cardinals face Green Bay in a battle of playoff-bound clubs.
The possibility also exists that these two foes will hold a rematch in Arlington during next week's Wild Card Playoffs. That scenario unfolds if Dallas prevails on Sunday and both the Vikings and Cardinals win their games, with the Cowboys then garnering the NFC's fourth seed and the Eagles bracketed fifth as the top Wild Card.
If Philadelphia comes up short in this game, it will be either the fifth or sixth seed depending on the outcome of the Arizona-Green Bay tilt, with the Eagles earning the higher number if the Cardinals win. Dallas would be locked into the NFC's last remaining playoff spot with a loss, regardless of the result of any other games.
The Cowboys were able to secure a postseason berth by besting fellow NFC East inhabitant Washington last Sunday, getting another strong showing on defense in a 17-0 blanking of the punchless Redskins. That effort followed an impressive performance that helped produce a 24-17 triumph over then-unbeaten New Orleans, with Dallas rendering the high-powered Saints to season-lows in both points and total yards (336).
Dallas' sturdy stop unit figures to be challenged by a dangerous Philadelphia attack that put up nearly 400 yards on a well-regarded Denver defense in this past week's 30-27 verdict over the Broncos, which extended the team's current win streak to six consecutive games. The Eagles wound up needing every one of those yards, as well as a last-second field goal by trusty kicker David Akers that accounted for the deciding margin, after Denver scored 17 straight points to rally from a 27-10 deficit.
Philadelphia, which hasn't won seven in a row since a 7-0 start to its NFC Championship campaign of 2004, will be hoping for a repeat of what transpired when these two teams met at Lincoln Financial Field in the 2008 regular-season finale. The Eagles handed Dallas its most lopsided loss in the history of this series in that encounter, a 44-6 obliteration that propelled Philly into the playoffs and shattered the Cowboys' dreams of reaching the postseason.
Dallas got a measure of payback with its four-point decision in Week 9, with quarterback Tony Romo leading the way by throwing for 307 yards and connecting with Pro Bowl wideout Miles Austin for a tie-breaking 49-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys hold a 54-43 advantage in their all-time regular season series with the Eagles, including the aforementioned 20-16 victory when the teams met at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 9. The clubs embarked on a conventional split of last year's home-and-home, with Dallas winning a 41-37 home thriller in Week 2 and the Eagles answering with the previously-noted 44-6 home rout to score a playoff berth in Week 17. Philadelphia last won in Dallas in 2007, earning a 10-6 win at Texas Stadium.
In addition to their regular season advantage, the Cowboys have a 2-1 edge in the postseason series. The Eagles were 20-7 winners in the 1980 NFC Championship, while Dallas won NFC Divisional Playoff games over Philadelphia following the 1992 and 1995 seasons.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid has a career record of 14-7 against the Cowboys. Dallas' Wade Phillips is 4-2 all-time against both Philadelphia and Reid all- time, with the first of those wins coming in the form of a 26-0 rout for Phillips' Bills over the Eagles in 1999.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia's pass-oriented offense boasts an enviable array of playmakers at the skill positions, as evidenced in last week's narrow win over the Broncos. Denver was successfully able to keep dynamic wideout DeSean Jackson (60 receptions, 1120 yards, 12 total TD) in check, but that opened up the field for fellow receiver Jeremy Maclin (52 receptions, 4 TD) and tight end Brent Celek (69 receptions, 8 TD), both of whom had big days as the primary targets of accomplished quarterback Donovan McNabb (3330 passing yards, 22 TD, 10 INT). The pair combined for 213 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches, with Celek amassing a season-best 121 on only four grabs. The game also marked the return of running back Brian Westbrook (257 rushing yards, 21 receptions, 2 total TD) from a serious concussion that kept the two-time Pro Bowl participant out of action for a total of seven weeks, and he contributed 32 yards on nine attempts while sharing backfield duties with rookie LeSean McCoy (633 rushing yards, 4 TD, 38 receptions) and valued fullback Leonard Weaver (321 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 4 total TD). The Eagles did suffer a costly loss to their front line in the Denver game, with steady center Jamaal Jackson sustaining an ACL tear to his right knee that will end his season. The injury could impact the team's protection of McNabb, who was sacked three times in the loss to the Cowboys earlier this year.
Dallas enters this critical game tied for third in the NFL in scoring defense (16.7 ppg) and fifth against the run (94.1 ypg), and did a very good job of containing the explosive Eagles back in November. The Cowboys held Philadelphia to 297 total yards and were consistently able to get McNabb out of rhythm, with the veteran triggerman hitting on just 16-of-30 passes and throwing interceptions to promising young cornerback Mike Jenkins (48 tackles, 5 INT, 16 PD) and strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh (60 tackles, 1 INT). Nose tackle Jay Ratliff (39 tackles, 6 sacks), named to a second straight Pro Bowl on Tuesday, had two of the team's four sacks of McNabb that night, and the fifth-year pro works with the quality inside linebacker duo of Keith Brooking (106 tackles, 3 sacks) and Bradie James (108 tackles, 1 sack) to give Dallas a strong interior core. The Cowboys are also quite good along the edges, where perennial All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware (56 tackles, 11 sacks) is one of the league's most feared pass rushers and the unheralded Anthony Spencer (62 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) has quietly turned in a good year in his first season as a starter.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas has compiled the third-most yards (394.5 ypg) in the league this season and can hurt the opposition both through the air and on the ground, ranking sixth overall in passing offense (266.1 ypg) and eighth in rushing (128.3 ypg). The Cowboys are also adept at taking care of the football, with Romo (4172 passing yards, 24 TD, 8 INT) having committed just two turnovers over the last six games in addition to surpassing the 4,000-yard mark for the second time in his career. Much like McNabb did last week, the standout signal-caller showed off his resourcefulness when these teams faced off in midseason, utilizing the talents of tight end and top pass-catcher Jason Witten (88 receptions, 954 yards, 1 TD) and wide receiver Roy Williams (38 receptions, 7 TD) with the game-breaking Austin (74 receptions, 1230 yards, 11 TD) often drawing double-teams. The Witten/Williams tandem posted 118 yards on 12 receptions, with Austin's key touchdown catch his only grab of the night. A deep cast of running backs offers both power and speed when the Cowboys run the ball, with the bruising Marion Barber (841 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 7 TD) able to churn out yards behind Pro Bowl interior linemen Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis and speedster Felix Jones (594 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 2 TD) averaging nearly six yards per carry as a change of pace.
Romo's recent knack for keeping mistakes to a minimum will be tested by an opportunistic Philadelphia defense that has racked up 37 takeaways, the second-most in the league this season, and is tied for third with 37 sacks. Flashy cornerback Asante Samuel (40 tackles, 15 PD), the NFL's co-individual leader with nine picks in 2009, was awarded a third career Pro Bowl nod this week, while many insiders believed counterpart Sheldon Brown (51 tackles, 5 INT, 17 PD) deserved the same recognition for his work on the opposite side. End Trent Cole (54 tackles, 12.5 sacks), who's notched at least a half-sack in all but four games this year, was also honored on Tuesday, and along with veteran linemen Juqua Parker (32 tackles, 7 sack) and Darren Howard (24 tackles, 6.5 sacks), will be counted on to bring the heat upon Romo this week. Tackle Brodrick Bunkley (36 tackles, 1 sack) is the top stopper up front for a group that limited the Cowboys to a non-threatening 76 rushing yards back in Week 9 and stands eighth overall in rushing defense (99.7 ypg). The Eagles were able to take down Romo four times in that earlier meeting, but managed to induce only one turnover.
These two teams engaged in a competitive defensive struggle that had a negative impact on the numbers of a few high-level fantasy performers previously this season, and a similar plot could very well unfold this time around as well. Austin was able to salvage an otherwise invisible night with his late touchdown catch, but it would be unwise to stash the breakthrough receiver on the bench based only on that one game. Same goes for Jackson, who could only record 29 yards on a pair of grabs in the first matchup. Witten and Celek make for excellent choices at the tight end position, with the Eagles' Maclin and Dallas' Williams worthy of consideration as flex players. Be wary of Philadelphia's crowded situation in the backfield, although it would be no surprise if Reid finally signs off on giving Westbrook a heavy workload in such an important game. Barber is a solid but unspectacular play on the Dallas side, while both Romo and McNabb have strong credentials that bode well for success even in a tough assignment. Start Akers, who booted three field goals of over 40 yards in the November loss to Dallas, and each defense gets a thumbs-up here as well.
History says a Philadelphia team with a track record of late-season success under Reid stands a strong chance of enhancing Dallas' unwanted reputation of coming up short on the big stage, especially since this edition hasn't lost a game in more than six weeks. These aren't the crumbling Cowboys of past years, however, and their strong fundamental play down the stretch should serve them well against an Eagles' squad that thrives on forcing the opposition into mistakes. If Romo is able to outplay McNabb like he did back in November, there's reason to believe the suddenly resilient Cowboys can come out on top in much the same fashion as when these bitter rivals last opposed one another.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 20, Eagles 16
12/30 16:28:45 ET