Breaking down Sunday's Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles game (8:20 p.m., NBC)...
1. Big Game Tony? Hardly. It's no myth: Tony Romo pretty much stinks in important games. Consider these numbers: Since becoming a starter in October 2006, he's 8-10 with a pedestrian touchdown-interception ratio of 1.6:1 against teams that have finished their season above .500 (and using current records for 2009 opponents). Against the league's patsies, he's a whopping 24-4, with a 2.24:1 ratio.
The guy has eight touchdowns against the combination of Tampa, K.C. and Seattle this year -- big whoop. Look at the three biggest games of his career. In two playoff games, against Seattle in 2007 and the Giants in '08, Romo averaged less than 200 yards passing with just two touchdowns. He sealed the former with a fumble, the latter with an interception. And in his shot at redemption, in the '09 finale against Philly with a playoff berth on the line, he coughed the football up three times, one of which was returned for a score. You get the idea.
Could we see something to the contrary Sunday night? Perhaps. Romo is on a relative tear (consider the competition), with three straight interception-less games. He recently said, "I'm seeing things. It's as simple as that. I'm not throwing and hoping." Add to the equation this simple fact: he hasn't lost a game in November since 2006, in his second career start.
Alas, Romo's facing an uphill battle against a Philadelphia secondary that -- despite dramatic changes in the past 11 months -- has harassed opposing quarterbacks into a cumulative passer rating of 68.5 (fifth best among NFL secondaries) while limiting huge plays. The Cowboys have pulled off eight 40-plus yard plays all season; the Eagles have only allowed one. Something's gotta give.
2. These Eagles are equally familiar with the big play. Through seven games. Andy Reid's offense has scored on what STATS.com describes as "big plays" (plays of 20 yards or more) 12 times already. Projected out over 16 games, these Eagles are on pace to notch 27 such big-play scores this season. To put that into perspective, no Andy Reid-coached team has ever scored on big plays more than 18 times in a season. (His 2004 NFC champs only did it 13 times.) And only one team, the '00 Vikings, has scored on even 22 such plays this decade.
All of which goes to suggest that, yes, Donovan McNabb finally has some weapons. The majority of those big plays -- nine of 12 -- have come off the arm of McNabb. Four went through DeSean Jackson. And three through Jeremy Maclin, who wasn't even seeing balls coming his way in bunches until Week 3. (In other words, don't write in Percy Harvin as Rookie of the Year just yet.)
Matchup-wise, keep an eye on Jackson against his likely draw, fellow NFL sophomore Mike Jenkins; and Maclin against the Cowboys' Terence Newman. While it's conceivable that each of these upper-tier corners could deliver a lockdown game, Reid's aerial attack is hardly limited to his two burner receivers. Tight end Brent Celek leads the team in receptions, and running backs Brian Westbrook (presumed healthy this week) and LeSean McCoy have both been contributors out of the backfield. Combined, that threesome has already accounted for 69 catches, 679 yards and four touchdowns.
3. ...But none of that matters if Donovan McNabb can't stay upright. The Eagles' line has been a spotty bunch, keeping a clean sheet in wins against Carolina and K.C., but allowing 14 sacks over the past four weeks. Six of those came in Week 6 against the Raiders, perhaps offering a template for stifling the Eagles' offensive juggernaut. In that game, Oakland gave a spirited defensive performance early, smothering Philly's first quarter running game, and then dropped its secondary into zone coverage while releasing reckless blitzes to take advantage of the absence of left tackle Jason Peters, who exited that game early with a knee injury.
Can Dallas pull off the same trick? They certainly have the pass rushers to rattle McNabb. The Cowboys have logged nearly a sack per quarter over their last 4.5 games, including five in the last three games from 2008 sack-leader DeMarcus Ware. And the return of Peters (who'll see plenty of Ware) won't resolve all of the team's offensive line woes. In '09, the former All-Pro Peters has already allowed four sacks, and he's conceded 15.5 in his last 20 games, dating to his time in Buffalo.
The bigger question is, Can Dallas scuttle Philly's running game, forcing the sort of pass-pass-pass attack that Ware can do the best damage against? With Westbrook healthy and McCoy in relief, I don't like the chances.
Every week, I lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 9 matchup:
Miles Austin -- You want big plays? Try Austin, who leads the league with five 20-plus-yard scores. If Dallas goes down early, which I predict, Romo will be eyeing Austin on their trademark deep ball.
Brian Westbrook -- Lost amidst the aerial assault against the Giants was Philly's rushing attack. The offensive line appeared to have found its footing, to the tune of 180 yards on just 24 carries. Re-insert Westbrook, who sat last week following a concussion, and you've got a winning combo.
Marion Barber -- After Wednesday's practice, coach Wade Phillips said he'd observed "a little more juice" in Barber, who's been hampered by a quad injury. That's not enough for a guy who hasn't topped 68 all-purpose yards since Week 2 and who's never topped 63 rushing yards in any of seven career games against Philly. It also hurts that Felix Jones, Dallas's other runner, is getting back to full speed.
Roy Williams -- Take it from someone who's learned through experience, the Roy Williams era ain't coming any time soon. If it finally creeps up, you'll know. Until then, no sense waiting in vain. Only start Williams, who averages less than 2.5 grabs a game, in the most dire of situations.
What a mess the NFC East has become. Some might believe there are three playoff contenders in the bunch. I'd argue there might not even be two. By whipping the Giants last week, Philly made the first claim to legitimate division dominance -- tallest midget in the room I say -- and I don't see the Cowboys being able to prove otherwise. Romo's three biggest games came against Tampa, Kansas City, Seattle and against an Atlanta secondary that was, and still is, hurting. Yards won't come in such bunches against the Eagles, who can make Dallas abandon its running game very quickly with some quick-strike points. And when that happens, it's over. Eagles are the pick, 30-17.
Overall record: 5-3
(Week 1 prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20. Result: Packers 21, Bears 15). (Week 2 prediction: Cowboys 23, Giants 10. Result: Giants 33, Cowboys 31).(Week 3 prediction: Vikings 23, Niners 20. Result: Vikings 27, Niners 24).(Week 4 prediction: Saints 31, Jets 24. Result: Saints 24, Jets 10). (Week 5 prediction: Ravens 38, Bengals 20. Result: Bengals 17, Ravens 14).(Week 6 prediction: Ravens 31, Vikings 17. Result: Vikings 33, Ravens 31.)(Week 7 prediction: Bengals 24, Bears 17. Result: Bengals 45, Bears 10.)(Week 8 prediction: Ravens 24, Broncos 20. Result: Ravens 30, Broncos 7.)