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NFL Preview - Philadelphia (6-8) at Dallas (8-6)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Whether it's a tactic of reverse psychology or just a statement of truth, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones revealed his fear of the Philadelphia Eagles in an interview this week.
Jones' trepidation could have been built after the Cowboys took one on the chin at Philadelphia back in a 34-7 loss on October 30. The Cowboys now have a chance to knock the NFC East-rival Eagles out of playoff contention with a victory Saturday in the billion-dollar house that Jones built.
Cowboys Stadium will be rocking for sure because Dallas' postseason hopes are also on the line even though it has a one-game lead over the New York Giants for NFC East bragging rights. The Cowboys stumbled a bit with consecutive losses before getting back into the win column with last Saturday's 31-15 blowout of the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tony Romo became the first quarterback in Cowboys history to throw for three touchdowns and run for another in the first half of a game.
The pressure will be on Romo the next two weeks against the Eagles and Giants, and Dallas can capture its first division title since 2009 with a win Saturday, coupled by a Giants loss. Having control of one's destiny is a nice pet to have, but it doesn't guarantee a single thing in this league. Romo understands what's at stake and knows the Eagles will be a tough out.
"We obviously took a tough loss to the Eagles last time, so we know that this team is dangerous and we have to play a great games," Romo said. "I'm excited about the opportunity."
Romo added that this weekend is only about the Cowboys and scoreboard watching has no relevance on this upcoming game. The Giants and Jets play earlier in the day and a loss by the Giants could make things interesting in the battle for a division title. Romo said the Cowboys can only control what they do against Philadelphia and must come out and play cohesively. Dallas has done that in winning five of its last seven games and another victory will push the team towards its goal of winning a division title.
In order for the Eagles to capture their second straight NFC East crown, a lot of scenarios must fall into place. Playing with house money is what Philadelphia is currently doing right now and a slow start for the "Dream Team" certainly made it a tough climb back into the playoff picture.
At 6-8 on the season, Philadelphia must beat the Cowboys on the road and defeat Washington at home on Jan. 1. It will also need the Giants to lose to the Jets this weekend, then beat Dallas in their last game at the Meadowlands. One player who has lifted the spirits of fans in the City of Brotherly Love has been running back LeSean McCoy. McCoy has enjoyed a Pro-Bowl type season and shared his thoughts on the Eagles' fight to the finish line.
"We're still alive," said McCoy, who already set the franchise record for total touchdowns and rushing touchdowns in a season. "It shows the type of fight this team has. We're fighting to get in. We have to win these last two games to even have a shot."
Philadelphia has won two in a row and three of five games, and handed the Jets a 45-19 loss on Sunday from Lincoln Financial Field. The defense has been playing much better over the past few weeks with more blitz packages, better coverage and forcing turnovers. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, a pin cushion to criticism much of the year after his switch from offensive line coach, has found a scheme all the defenders seem to agree with. A few pieces were out of place at first, but now the unit appears more confident and aware.
Saturday's game will display several weapons from both teams and it's a matter of who executes the gameplan first in coming out on top. The Eagles will be playing for pride if the Giants top the local Jets earlier in the day.
Dallas holds a 56-45 advantage in its all-time regular-season series with Philadelphia but as previously mentioned, was routed by the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field back in Week 8. Philadelphia also edged its longtime rival by a 30-27 count during its 2010 visit to Cowboys Stadium and has left with a victory in three of its last five regular-season trips to Texas. Dallas did sweep its 2009 home-and-home set with the Eagles, which included a 24-0 shutout in Arlington during Week 17 of that year, and came up with a 14-13 decision in Philadelphia in last year's regular-season finale. The Eagles last beat the Cowboys twice in a campaign in 2006.
Dallas has a 3-1 edge in postseason games against the Eagles, with the most recent playoff matchup between the clubs taking place at Cowboys Stadium in the 2009 NFC Wild Card round. The Cowboys claimed a 34-14 triumph in that contest and also came out on top in NFC Divisional Playoff tilts with Philadelphia following the 1992 and 1995 seasons, while the Eagles were a 20-7 home winner over Dallas in the 1980 NFC Championship.
Including the postseason, Eagles head coach Andy Reid has a career record of 16-10 against the Cowboys, while Dallas' Jason Garrett is 1-2 against both the Eagles and Reid as a head man.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
The Eagles made Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan eat his words when he dubbed Philadelphia as the "all-hype team" during the preseason. The Eagles racked up 495 yards of offense in the first meeting and McCoy was a big part of that. McCoy (1,274 yards, 17 TD) had 185 yards and two scores on 30 carries in that October matchup. He has an NFL-best 20 total TDs on the season thanks to three receiving scores and passed Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren for the most touchdowns in a season by an Eagle. McCoy has scored in 13 of his last 14 games, and ran for three scores against the Jets last week. He leads the NFL with 100 first downs, 82 of which have come on the ground. Quarterback Michael Vick (2,675 yards, 13 TD, 13 INT) threw for 279 yards and a pair of touchdown passes against the Cowboys in the first meeting, but has been criticized for reverting back to his old Atlanta ways of running first before taking what the defense gives you. Vick is still dealing with fractured ribs and completed 15 of his 22 passes for 274 yards with a TD and an interception last week.
Since the Cowboys were run over by McCoy in that October showdown at Lincoln Financial Field, they have tightened up their run defense. They are 11th in rushing yards allowed (119.8) and suffocated Tampa Bay's offense to the tune of 190 total yards, 58 of which were gained on the ground. Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount had only 21 yards on nine rushes and immobile quarterback Josh Freeman led the team in rushing with 37 yards. Dallas can ill-afford to let Vick go wild with his legs because he can do just that. All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware (49 tackles, 16 sacks) kept Vick honest with four sacks in the first meeting and can change offensive coordinator's gameplans each week. Ware is one of the most dangerous linebackers in the game and has recorded a sack in four of the past six weeks. Ware is a lock for his sixth straight trip to the Pro Bowl and owns seven sacks in the past two meetings with Philadelphia. The Cowboys will need a lot of help from their front line and linebackers if the Eagles opt to center their offense around McCoy. DE Anthony Spencer (56 tackles, 6 sacks) and linebacker Sean Lee (88 tackles, 4 INT) are expected to produce at a high level Saturday. Lee and veteran cornerback Terrence Newman (43 tackles) lead the team with four interceptions apiece.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Romo (3,895 yards, 29 TD, 9 INT) passed for 203 yards with a touchdown pass to wideout Laurent Robinson and an interception in the first meeting with the Eagles. Romo was under plenty of pressure that day with four sacks and is hoping to get some protection Saturday against an improved defense. Romo is 3-0 in the past three home tilts with the Eagles, including the playoffs, and owns 867 yards with seven TDs and two INTs over that time. He needs 105 more passing yards to reach the 4,000-yard mark for the third time in his career and could do that by halftime. Romo has been sacked at least twice in each of the past three games and 15 times in the previous five weeks. Cowboys running back Felix Jones (521 yards, TD) did not play against the Eagles in October due to injury and was replaced by rookie RB DeMarco Murray. Murray is lost for the season with a leg injury and Jones has been nursing a hamstring problem this week. Running backs coach Skip Peete is optimistic Jones will be ready to go this weekend. Sammy Morris (53 yards) is Dallas' only reliable option if Jones can't shake the injury. Tight end Jason Witten (849 yards, 5 TDs) has four TD grabs in last four games against Philly, while Robinson (792 yards) and Dez Bryant (796 yards) lead the Cowboys with nine touchdown grabs apiece.
The only score the Eagles gave up in the first meeting with Dallas was a 70- yard touchdown pass from Romo to Robinson in the fourth quarter. The Eagles held the Cowboys to 267 yards and were able to contain Murray, who posted 74 yards on eight carries. Defensive end Jason Babin (38 tackles, 18 sacks) had two of Philadelphia's four sacks on the night and leads the league with a career-best 18 through 13 games played in 2011. Babin has recorded three sacks in each of the last two games and aims for double-digits in that category for a fourth consecutive game (8 in last 3). Trent Cole (37 tackles, 9 sacks) will be applying pressure from the other end spot and owns six career sacks in 11 games played against the Cowboys. It's unknown how the Cowboys will attack the Eagles, who are 10th against the pass and 17th in run defense. The Jets enjoy pounding the football and were held 94 total yards on the ground last week. Defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins (35 tackles, 6 sacks) and Mike Patterson (31 tackles, 3 sacks) must play well up front to disrupt Dallas' offense. The linebackers could be exposed by Witten, while cornerbacks Asante Samuel (34 tackles, 3 INT) and Nnamdi Asomugha (29 tackles, 3 INT) have to be on their game. Samuel is dealing with a hamstring issue, but should be ready to go.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How much will McCoy and WR/PR DeSean Jackson contribute on Christmas Eve? McCoy is benefiting from solid play from the offensive line and hasn't been shut down too much this season. The Cowboys are 11th against the rush and even better in pass defense, sitting seventh in the league (270.9 ypg). Jackson has enjoyed success against Dallas and posted 210 yards on four catches, including a 91-yard score, in his last appearance in Big D.
The Cowboys will have their own weapons on display in Jones (if healthy), Witten, Bryant and Robinson. Eagles linebacker Jamar Chaney said Witten is probably the best tight end he's played against in his two years in the league. Philadelphia LB Brian Rolle added that he's the best at his position outside of Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez. Those are very flattering remarks for Witten, especially since Gonzalez is most likely headed to the Hall of Fame.
Romo has a tendency of exposing defenses and will try to do that against Castillo's unit. He is mobile in the pocket and can throw with accuracy on the run, an aspect of his game that could lead to problems for the Eagles. When plays break down, Romo has the senses to find an open receiver and it's usually Witten, who leads tight ends with 433 receptions for 4,978 yards since the start of the 2007 campaign.
Focusing on the task at hand and controlling your own business were some of the insights Garrett discharged during his press conference leading up to Saturday's game. Unfortunately for the Eagles, having to rely on what other teams do was the hand they were dealt this late in the season. It's uncertain which Philadelphia team will show up in Dallas since playoff hopes can be a lost cause if the Giants beat the Jets earlier in the day. The Jets should handle their business and remain focused towards the AFC playoffs, giving the Eagles some hope for a postseason run of their own.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 27, Cowboys 20
12/22 14:48:10 ET