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NFL Preview - Philadelphia (8-4) at Dallas (4-8)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Dallas Cowboys had the Philadelphia Eagles' number in 2009, winning all three meetings between the longtime NFC East rivals that included a convincing playoff victory.
Plenty has changed on both sides since that last encounter, however.
While the Eagles remain a top contender for the division crown entering Sunday's showdown at Cowboys Stadium, defending NFC East champion Dallas has been reduced to the role of spoiler -- albeit a dangerous one -- for this high-profile matchup.
The Cowboys essentially had all hopes for a repeat trip to the postseason dashed after losing seven of their first eight games of 2010, with that awful start triggering the dismissal of head coach Wade Phillips and the elevation of offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to take over those duties on an interim basis.
Under Garrett, Dallas has bore more of a resemblance to the team that ended Philadelphia's 2009 campaign with a 34-14 pasting in January's NFC Wild Card Playoffs, one week after the Cowboys dominated the Eagles by a 20-0 count to capture the division title.
The Dallas defense put forth a notable effort as well in its most recent outing, intercepting Peyton Manning four times in a wild 38-35 overtime win at Indianapolis this past Sunday. Two of those picks were returned for touchdowns, while the final one set up kicker David Buehler's deciding 38-yard field goal in the extra session.
That hard-fought triumph improved the Cowboys to 3-1 since Garrett was handed the reins to owner Jerry Jones' empire, with the lone blemish a three-point setback to 2009 Super Bowl winner New Orleans on Thanksgiving in which the Saints went ahead with under two minutes to go.
While Dallas will have a different leader on the sidelines than the last time it faced the Eagles, neither quarterback that started those two late-season battles between the clubs from the previous season will be on the field for Sunday's tilt as well.
Philadelphia traded longtime field general Donovan McNabb to Washington three months after its frustrating playoff loss to the Cowboys, while Dallas triggerman Tony Romo is still recovering from a broken collarbone he suffered at midseason and won't be available for this week's clash.
The Eagles haven't been hurt by McNabb's departure, with successor Michael Vick having put together an MVP-caliber season in the once-disgraced signal- caller's first venture as a full-time starter since 2006. His remarkable resurgence has been a big reason why Philadelphia heads into the Week 14 slate with an 8-4 record that's tied with the New York Giants for first place in the NFC East.
Vick made his presence felt once again in the Eagles' last game, with the dynamic playmaker throwing for 302 yards and accounting for three scores (two passing, one rushing) while orchestrating two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to rally Philadelphia to a 34-24 decision over Houston on Dec. 2.
The Eagles are 6-1 this season in games that Vick, who missed three straight tests in October with a rib injury, has started and finished and have won four of their last five assignments.
Dallas, meanwhile, will go with Jon Kitna under center for a seventh consecutive time with Romo still on the mend from the fracture he sustained in a home loss to the Giants back in Week 7.
The Cowboys hold a 55-43 advantage in their all-time regular-season series with the Eagles, including the aforementioned home-and-home sweep during the 2009 regular season. Dallas notched a 20-16 victory when the teams met at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 9, and finished the sweep with a 24-0 rout in Week 17. The clubs embarked on a conventional split of the 2008 home-and- home, with Dallas winning a 41-37 home thriller in Week 2 and the Eagles answering with a 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.
The Cowboys have 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 Dallas in the 1980 NFC Championship, while the Cowboys won NFC Divisional Playoff games over Philadelphia following the 1992 and 1995 seasons.
Dallas' three-game winning streak over Philadelphia (regular season and playoffs) is its longest against the Birds since 1992-95, when the Cowboys had a seven-game run that included a playoff win.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid has a career record of 14-9 against the Cowboys, including the postseason loss. Garrett will be opposing both Reid and Philadelphia for the first time since taking over in his present position.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia is going to get the ball in the hands of Vick (2243 passing yards, 15 TD, 2 INT) as much as possible to take advantage of his extraordinary dual-threat abilities. Still a deadly runner who leads all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards (467) and rushing touchdowns (6), the 30-year- old has made tremendous strides as a passer in his comeback season, having completed nearly 64 percent of his throws that's easily the best mark of his eight-year career and tossing a mere two interceptions in nine games. There are a host of other outstanding weapons on an offense that's averaging a league-best 400.7 yards per game and ranks second in scoring (26.7 ppg) that the Cowboys must prepare for, however. Young running back LeSean McCoy (823 rushing yards, 67 receptions, 9 total TD) has been both an effective runner and an excellent receiver out of the backfield, while flashy wideout DeSean Jackson (38 receptions, 762 yards, 6 total TD) is a bona fide home-run threat who's averaging 20.1 yards per catch. He and second-year standout Jeremy Maclin (56 receptions, 820 yards, 8 TD) provide Vick with two explosive outside targets, with slot man Jason Avant (42 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Brent Celek (30 receptions, 3 TD) both reliable options inside. The Eagles come in fifth overall in rushing (144.0 yds) and have prevailed in each of their last three bouts with Dallas in which they've surpassed 100 yards on the ground.
Vick and his deep cast of receivers will be taking aim at a vulnerable Dallas secondary that's surrendered an average of 254.1 passing yards per game (28th overall) and was torched for 365 yards by Manning a week ago. The Cowboys were able to compensate with big plays, as nickel back Orlando Scandrick (34 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT) and rookie linebacker Sean Lee (24 tackles, 2 INT) both took back interceptions for touchdowns, and the team has produced an impressive 11 takeaways in Garrett's four games after coming up with only 10 in eight contests under Phillips. The Cowboys have been tough against the run as of late, having yielded a scant 65.3 rushing yards and 3.4 yards per carry in a three-game span prior to Sunday's meeting, and the anticipated return from veteran inside linebacker Keith Brooking (83 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), out last week with a sprained foot, to his post alongside leading tackler Bradie James (94 tackles) figures to keep them sound in that area. Pressuring the passer has been an issue, however, although All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (48 tackles, 9.5 sacks) has continued to excel in that aspect. No other Cowboys player has more than three sacks this season, and the club has totaled a modest 22 as a group.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Though Kitna (1703 passing yards, 11 TD, 8 INT) has been a quite capable fill- in for the ailing Romo, Dallas' recent surge has coincided with the rediscovery of a running game that was often underutilized in the early portion of this campaign. After compiling what was then a season-high 144 rushing yards against the Saints on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys shattered that mark by racking up 217 yards on the ground in last week's verdict over Indianapolis. Seldom-used running back Tashard Choice (138 rushing yards, 2 TD, 9 receptions) came through with 100 yards and a touchdown on only 19 attempts in the win, and he'll likely again split touches with primary carrier Felix Jones (531 rushing yards, 40 receptions, 1 TD) with power back Marion Barber set to miss a second straight week with a strained calf. Dallas may have a much tougher time replacing wide receiver Dez Bryant (45 receptions, 6 TD), however. The talented rookie fractured his fibula in the Indianapolis game and will be lost for the rest of the season, meaning the maligned Roy Williams (34 receptions, 5 TD) will need to step up his play and provide a quality complement to big-play wideout Miles Austin (56 receptions, 804 yards, 5 TD) and tight end Jason Witten (65 receptions, 4 TD) and keep the Cowboys' fifth-ranked passing attack (265.9 ypg) humming along. Kitna has done his part by hitting on 65.5 percent of his attempts since taking over as the starter and committing just two turnovers over the past four weeks.
Kitna's judicious play will be tested by a Philadelphia defense that tops the NFL in interceptions and is second overall in takeaways, and is hopeful to have its best ball-hawk in cornerback Asante Samuel (23 tackles, 7 INT, 12 PD) back from a knee sprain that sidelined him for the last two games. The Eagles struggled without their All-Pro coverman available, with Chicago's Jay Cutler throwing four touchdown passes in a Nov. 28 victory over Philly and Houston wideout Andre Johnson netting 149 yards on six catches in last week's skirmish. End Juqua Parker (15 tackles, 5 sacks), who's also missed the team's last two games with a hip pointer, is expected to resume his post opposite feared pass- rusher Trent Cole (52 tackles, 9 sacks) in coordinator Sean McDermott's aggressive scheme, one which has generated a respectable 32 sacks on the year. The Eagles did a decent job in containing the league's leading rusher in Week 13, with the Texans' Arian Foster held to 83 yards on 22 carries by a contingent headed up by middle linebacker Stewart Bradley (57 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and strong safety Quentin Mikell (66 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT).
With a pair of offenses fully capable of lighting up the scoreboard and two defenses that both have their faults, this one has the makings of a shootout with a wealth of worthwhile options on hand. Vick has molded himself into a viable fantasy quarterback as well as one in the real world, and the Eagles' catalyst should make for a strong start against a shaky Dallas secondary. McCoy is the must-use list as well, and both Jackson and Maclin certainly warrant lineup spots as Vick's primary outlets. The Cowboys also have a pair of starting locks in Austin and Witten, two players that have done their share of damage against the Eagles in the past, and Bryant's injury adds a boost to the value of the inconsistent Williams. Kitna's more of a bye-week fill-in at this stage of his career, however, and Dallas' backfield situation has become a bit tricky with Choice emerging as a threat to Felix Jones' workload. A projected split between the two would make both better used as flex alternatives. Avoid either defense in this potentially high-scoring affair, but give a definite go- ahead to Philadelphia kicker David Akers, second in the league with 26 made field goals.
Dallas has been a different team since making the switch over to Garrett, but the same can be said about the Eagles in comparison to the one that the Cowboys had their way with a season ago. Few have been successful in attempting to slow down Vick and his arsenal of speedy skill players, and a Dallas defense that's been the club's soft underbelly over the course of this year doesn't look equipped to handle the considerable challenge it will be presented with this week. Philadelphia's got a tough task at hand as well, because the Cowboys can put up points and have stood toe-to-toe with others on the Eagles' level during the brief Garrett era. This one could easily come down to the wire as well, but Dallas may not give quite enough ammunition to outgun a prolific Philadelphia outfit.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 33, Cowboys 31
12/10 12:03:39 ET