NFL Preview - Dallas (5-10) at Philadelphia (10-5)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles faced one another in the 2009 regular-season finale, an NFC East title was on the line.
There's far less fanfare in regards to this year's Week 17 matchup between the longtime division foes that will take place Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, with a pair of backup quarterbacks set to lead their respective offenses, one team playing out the string and other likely to hold out several key performers in preparation for an upcoming playoff game.
The NFC East champion Eagles will be the third seed for the conference playoffs regardless of Sunday's outcome, thanks to a startling 24-14 home defeat to non- contending Minnesota this past Tuesday in a contest that was pushed back a couple of days due to a winter storm. With a short period of rest and nothing to play for, head coach Andy Reid hinted that a number of banged-up players, including quarterback Michael Vick, would likely be rested to heal up for next weekend's Wild Card round.
Vick sustained a bruised quadriceps early on in Tuesday's matchup and played through the injury, though the MVP candidate wasn't overly effective in a three-turnover performance that contributed to the loss. He'll give way to understudy Kevin Kolb, the team's opening week starter who was displaced by his more dynamic counterpart after getting hurt in a setback to Green Bay to begin the 2010 campaign.
Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who's dealing with a sore foot, is also expected to be inactive for Philadelphia, while top cornerback Asante Samuel (knee), offensive tackle Winston Justice (knee) and linebacker Stewart Bradley (elbow) are also candidates to sit.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, look to be down to their third-string signal-caller after veteran Jon Kitna strained his oblique during the club's one-point loss at Arizona on Christmas Day. The 38-year-old, who had taken over following regular triggerman Tony Romo's season-ending fractured collarbone in late October, wasn't available for midweek practices and is considered doubtful for Sunday's tilt.
That means second-year man Stephen McGee is on track make his first career NFL start under center for the disappointing Cowboys, who will be trying to avoid their first 5-11 finish since 2002. The 2009 fourth-round draft choice made his pro debut against the Cardinals and completed 11-of-17 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown after replacing Kitna.
McGee engineered an eight-play, 80-yard drive capped by a 37-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Miles Austin that gave Dallas a two-point lead with 1:41 left, but kicker David Buehler missed the ensuing extra-point try and Arizona subsequently marched into range for a Jay Feely field goal in the final seconds that lifted the Cards to a 27-26 triumph.
The loss dropped the Cowboys to 4-3 since interim head coach Jason Garrett supplanted the fired Wade Phillips at midseason. One of those defeats came to Philadelphia on Dec. 12, with the high-powered Eagles piling up 429 total yards to register a 30-27 verdict.
Jackson torched Dallas' troublesome defense in that game for a career-best 210 receiving yards on only four catches, including a 91-yard hookup with Vick for a touchdown that broke a 20-20 deadlock early in the fourth quarter.
Sunday's showdown will be the third consecutive home game for Philadelphia, which will host either Green Bay, the New York Giants or Tampa Bay in next week's opening round of the NFC Playoffs.
The Cowboys hold a 55-44 advantage in their all-time regular-season series with the Eagles and defeated Philadelphia a total of three times in 2009, notching a 20-16 win at Lincoln Financial Field during November of last year and coming through with a 24-0 home rout in Week 17. The bitter rivals then met the following week in the NFC Wild Card Playoffs, with Dallas advancing with a 34-14 victory at Cowboys Stadium. The Eagles atoned for those losses with the aforementioned three-point win three weeks back and will be shooting for their first home-and-home sweep of Dallas since 2006. The Cowboys have prevailed in three of their last five trips to Philadelphia.
Dallas has a 3-1 edge in postseason games against the Eagles, including last year's humbling of Philadelphia in the Wild Card round. Philadelphia was a 20-7 winner over the Cowboys in the 1980 NFC Championship, while Dallas won NFC Divisional Playoff games over Philadelphia following the 1992 and 1995 seasons.
Reid has a career record of 15-9 against the Cowboys, including the postseason loss, while Dallas' December's loss to Philadelphia marked Garrett's first-ever head-to-head meeting with Reid and the Eagles as a head coach.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
McGee acquitted himself well after being pressed into service for his first NFL regular-season action, displaying solid decision-making and a good grasp of the playbook, and the lightly-tested youngster will have the benefit of two excellent receivers to throw to in Austin (67 receptions, 979 yards, 7 TD) and ultra-reliable tight end Jason Witten (90 receptions, 956 yards, 8 TD). Austin burned the Cardinals for 115 yards on six catches last week and rates as the top deep threat of an offense that's totaled the fourth-most passing yards in the league (261.9 ypg), while Witten has five touchdown grabs over the past four games and was named to his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl on Tuesday. With a rookie taking snaps on Sunday, the pass-oriented Cowboys may show a greater commitment to running the football behind their backfield tandem of the speedy Felix Jones (719 rushing yards, 47 receptions, 2 total TD) and the physical Marion Barber (371 rushing yards, 11 receptions). The duo combined for 135 yards on 24 carries against Arizona, and Dallas' overall sum of 183 rushing yards for the game was its second-highest amount of the season. The Cowboys have averaged 31.2 points per week with Garrett in charge and have scored at least 26 in every game following the coaching switch.
A Philadelphia defense that's one of the best in the business at forcing turnovers could be salivating at the prospect of going against the unproven McGee, though the unit won't be operating at full strength. The playmaking Samuel (26 tackles, 7 INT, 14 PD) seems destined to sit out to rest his sore knee, while Bradley (60 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) hasn't played since the last meeting with the Cowboys and the team lost rookie free safety Nate Allen to a season-ending knee injury in its miracle win over the Giants two weeks ago. Rookie Jamar Chaney (42 tackles) has impressed subbing for Bradley at middle linebacker, however, with the seventh-round draft choice racking up 16 tackles against the Giants in Week 15, while two other first-year players -- cornerback Trevard Lindley (17 tackles, 1 INT) and safety Kurt Coleman (36 tackles, 1 INT) -- will also be called upon to hold down important roles on Sunday. Pro Bowl snub Trent Cole (65 tackles, 10 sacks) heads up a potent pass rush that will be coming hard after McGee from his end spot, with Chaney and tackles Mike Patterson (37 tackles, 2 sacks) and Antonio Dixon (30 tackles, 2 sacks) leading an interior group that will be out to improve upon the 161 rushing yards the Eagles surrendered to Minnesota last week.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia comes into the finale atop the NFL in total yards (399.1 ypg) and second in scoring (28.4 ypg), largely due to the remarkable play of Vick (3018 passing yards, 21 TD, 6 INT) in his comeback season. Don't expect the offense to crawl to a halt just because the dual-threat quarterback won't be present, however, as Kolb (1035 passing yards, 6 TD, 4 INT) is both accurate and well- versed in Reid's offense and guided the team to a pair of wins when Vick missed time with a rib injury in October. The capable backup should have plenty of support around him as well, as running back LeSean McCoy (1080 rushing yards, 78 receptions, 9 TD) is dangerous as both a runner and receiver and fellow sophomore Jeremy Maclin (70 receptions, 964 yards, 10 TD) has also put forth a tremendous season as one of the Eagles' primary receivers. Slotman Jason Avant (50 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Brent Celek (42 receptions, 4 TD) are also quality targets, though neither possesses the game-breaking ability of the dazzling Jackson (47 receptions, 1056 yards, 6 TD). McCoy can come up with the big play as well, as the Cowboys found out when the versatile back piled up 149 rushing yards on only 16 carries in the Week 14 clash.
The Cowboys had trouble slowing down Philadelphia's high-octane attack a few weeks back, and plenty of other opponents have also found success on a defense that's permitted the second-most points in the NFL (28.2 ypg). Dallas has particularly struggled against the pass, having given up a league-worst 32 touchdowns and 251.4 yards per game through the air (27th overall), with cornerbacks Terence Newman (73 tackles, 3 INT) and Mike Jenkins (53 tackles, 1 INT, 9 PD) each turning in down seasons after both made the Pro Bowl last year. One Dallas defender who's lived up to his reputation is outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (61 tackles, 12.5 sacks), with the devastating pass rusher reaching double digits in sacks for a fifth straight year and earning a spot on the NFC Pro Bowl roster along with tenacious nose tackle Jay Ratliff (29 tackles, 3.5 sacks). Inside linebackers Bradie James (111 tackles, 1 INT) and Keith Brooking (89 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) key a run defense that's held the opposition under 100 yards on the ground in all but one of the Cowboys' last six games, but Philadelphia (171 yards) was the one team to break that barrier over that span.
Many of Philadelphia's fantasy standouts either won't play or should see their roles reduced this week, so it's therefore hard to predict just what to expect from the Eagles' usually productive offense. Vick and Jackson are definite sits and McCoy would be a candidate for fewer touches, but Kolb's worth picking up for this week with a juicy matchup against a shaky Dallas defense. Maclin's probably less in danger of missing time, so roll with him and Celek -- a Kolb favorite in the past -- as well. McGee is an unknown commodity who could be a feast or famine option, but he's still not worth the gamble in what may be a championship week in some leagues. Witten is always a strong play at tight end, however, and both Austin and Jones merit starting consideration on the Dallas side. As for the kickers, Eagles Pro Bowler David Akers is a must-use but Buehler carries considerable risk.
It's possible the Eagles could just lay down here with their focus solely on next week, but Tuesday's poor performance may have Reid seeking to regain some momentum for the postseason. Philadelphia is still good enough with Kolb replacing Vick to have its way with a Dallas defense that gives up points by the truckload, and it's hard to expect McGee to come out and spark an offensive outburst in his first NFL start. The Cowboys will compete, as they've done so in every game since Garrett took over, but their defensive flaws will still be exposed by an Eagles offense that's still a dangerous outfit even with a number of substitutes in place.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 30, Cowboys 24
12/31 15:10:46 ET