Breaking down the NFC wild-card matchup, Eagles at Cowboys, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC
1. The rivalry and rich plotlines infuse this game with a natural, powerful appeal.Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb have never lost a first-round playoff game. Wade Phillips and Tony Romo have never won any playoff game. The winning team will soothe a loyal and restless fan base -- for a day or two. The losing team will stumble into an offseason of unpleasantness and upheaval. These are the stakes in the NFC East, where intensity and impatience reign. (While the Eagles and Cowboys crammed for their rematch, the Redskins fired their coach, the Giants their defensive coordinator).
While Reid signed a contract extension during the season, Phillips could be coaching for his future Saturday. Following the Cowboys' 24-0, season-ending win over the Eagles, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would not commit to bringing Phillips back. Instead, he wandered into corporate-speak, talking about "upticks" and such. While the talent pool of available coaches got smaller when Mike Shanahan signed a five-year deal with the Redskins, there are still attractive coaching free agents floating around. And while Romo is a lock to return, can you ever really be sure about McNabb? It seems nutty to even ask after one of the league's best quarterbacks weaved comeback victories and schooled a young, talented receiving corps in 2009. But that's a question being asked out loud and often on the streets of Philadelphia, a snapshot of the NFC East.
2. You'd have trouble finding two tight ends more integrated into a team's offense -- and integral to a team's success -- than the Cowboys' Jason Witten and the Eagles' Brent Celek. Only Tony Gonzalez (602) has more catches at the tight end position since 2003 than Witten (523), who led all Cowboys receivers with 91 catches this season. Too often in Week 17, the Eagles failed to jam Witten at the line of scrimmage, and he punished them with six catches (Romo targeted him seven times) for 76 yards and a 10-yard touchdown. Expect the Eagles to try to cover him with more pressure at the line, but attention to Witten could leave holes elsewhere.
The Eagles rewarded the 24-year-old Celek to a long-term contract this year, and he has established himself as a key part in a varied, talented offense. Like Witten, Celek led his team in catches, with 76, and provided McNabb both a safety valve deep in a progression and a primary target down the middle of the field. While Celek has battled drops at times -- he played through a hand injury this season -- he clearly has become a player McNabb leans on when the pocket breaks down. McNabb looked for him nine times in Week 17, and Celek responded with seven catches for 96 yards. Similar numbers Saturday are all but a given.
3. Sean McDermott, in his first season as Eagles defensive coordinator, accepted the blame for Philadelphia's lack of pressure in Week 17. "We blitzed on one of the first or second runs ... and didn't execute the blitz the right way," he said. "Then we backed off the blitz a little bit, which I take responsibility for. I should not have done that. There are always going to be blitzes in every game plan just by situation. We're just not going to go out and blitz carelessly or aimlessly. We're blitzing with a purpose and remaining fundamentally sound within and around that blitz."
The Eagles failed to put consistent pressure on Romo, who was only sacked twice (compared to McNabb's four times). Even when the Eagles got arms and hands in his face, Romo stood tall in the pocket, hit his hot reads and moved the Dallas offense down the field. All phases of the Cowboys' attack (both Marion Barber and Felix Jones averaged more than six yards a carry) stayed in rhythm. "I give them credit like I did after the game," McDermott said of the Cowboys. "They played well. They executed. They came out and made plays and we didn't make enough plays. They won one-on-one battles, we didn't win one-on-one battles and we're going to look to change that this week."
A defensive player who faced Tony Romo earlier this season talks about the difficulty corralling the calmer, more patient, more mature Cowboys quarterback:
"I think Tony Romo does a great job of reading defenses. He sees what he sees and he makes quick adjustments. He likes to bring the play clock down so you don't really have time to adjust out of what he's giving you. And he gets the ball out really fast. He's a gunslinger. I'd say he's right behind the Saints [Drew Brees] in terms of quarterback caliber. He's crafty. He spins out and that's how he gets away from people, spinning out, dipping and dunking."
It's hard to imagine the Eagles playing a worse game than they did in Week 17, but it's even harder to see them returning to Dallas in such a quick turnaround and winning this game. Styles make fights, and the Cowboys match up well in most areas against the Eagles, especially offensively, where Romo has limited his turnovers and played steady against a heavy rush. Just as the Steelers defeated the Ravens three times last season, the Cowboys will pull off the sweep this season. Cowboys 23, Eagles 13.