Playoffs Start Early for Eagles and Cowboys

Everyone still has a chance in the NFC East but that all changes after Week 16
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PHILADELPHIA - Maybe it’s apropos that everyone still has a chance in the NFC East heading into Week 16 of the NFL season, including the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, who will square off at AT&T Stadium Sunday afternoon.

The Eagles and Cowboys face stiffer odds than the Washington Football Team and the New York Giants, however.

Both Philadelphia and Dallas need to win out and hope the WFT loses out to win the NFC East. In the Eagles case, they play Washington in Week 17 so they have to root for Carolina to beat the WFT on Sunday and beat the Cowboys to set up a meaningful Week 17 showdown.

Philadelphia also needs the Giants to lose once over the final two weeks, either at Baltimore or at home in Week 17 against the Cowboys.

For the Cowboys, it’s run the table and count on Carolina and the Eagles in Week 17, a scenario where Philadelphia would have nothing to play for other than playing the role of spoiler to the WFT.

The Giants, meanwhile, actually hold the tiebreaker over Washington so if they win out Big Blue earns the bragging rights.

Whew.

Got all that?

The NFL flexed Washington-Carolina from 1 p.m. to 4:05 p.m. Sunday to ensure meaning to the Eagles-Dallas affair at 4:25 p.m. Had the league left the WFT game at 1 p.m., Philadelphia and Dallas could have been eliminated before kickoff.

The Giants, meanwhile, could still be waxed if they drop their 1 p.m. kickoff against the win-needy and talented Ravens.

“I think that’s something you have to black out,” Eagles linebacker Alex Singleton said of potential scoreboard watching. “These games are hard to win as it is. Whether, even if you’re an undefeated team, it’s hard to go out and beat the next team. The NFL is a tough league to play in. Any team can beat anybody on any given night and if you’re not 100 percent focused on beating that team it’s going to be the hardest game you’re going to play that year.

“And so if guys want to use it … you know, hopefully, it just brings good energy and the Panthers are winning the whole time so guys on our, you know, sideline are just fired up. I know I’m going to ignore it.”

Much like the Eagles, Dallas had had a disappointing campaign but will present a much more difficult hurdle than the last time Philadelphia saw the Cowboys when rookie Ben DiNucci was under center in a 23-9 Philadelphia win. In fact, both teams will because it was Carson Wentz against DiNucci and this time it's Eagles rookie Jalen Hurts vs. veteran Andy Dalton.

Dalton isn't going to scare people but he's at least competent and can be more than that with receivers like Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Cee Dee Lamb making big plays down the field against a banged-up Philadelphia secondary.

“When you’re talking about Cowboys week, I think you know regardless of crowd noise or not, rookie quarterback or not, when you get drafted to the Philadelphia Eagles, this rivalry, you’ve accepted this rivalry,” Safety Jalen Mills said. “ Regardless of the record, regardless of anything, it’s always a must-win for this city and for the team.”

OFFENSIVE SCHEME: As you might imagine with their receivers and a head coach in Mike McCarthy not known for many bells and whistles, the Cowboys play 11 personnel (three receivers) the majority of the time (71 percent) and are one of only seven teams that crack the 70 percent barrier. When you factor in 11 and 12 personnel (two tight ends), that’s 93 percent of the Cowboys’ offense. From there, it’s a total of 72 offensive snaps in other personnel groupings so this is as simple as it gets for Jim Schwartz when it comes to just lining up and playing.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME: The Cowboys dress up the traditional 4-3 look under Mike Nolan with a DPR (defensive pass rusher) designation for veteran Aldon Smith. The group as a whole has been ineffective and it starts with the inability to stop the run where Dallas is dead last in the NFL, allowing 161.8 yards per game.

The sum has not matched the parts on the defensive side and it’s hard to imagine that changing over the final two weeks.

STRENGTH: The Cowboys receivers - Cooper, Lamb, and Gallup are talented and matched up against an Eagles secondary that is still banged up even though Darius Slay will be back.

Undrafted free agent Mike Jacquet will likely handle the outside CB position opposite Slay and Marcus Epps will again get most of the snaps as the single-high safety in place of Rodney McLeod.

Cooper has 82 catches or 952 yards and five touchdowns to lead the Cowboys in 2020. Lamb ranks behind only Minnesota star Justin Jefferson when it comes to rookies, snaring 66 receptions for 827 receiving yards.

WEAK LINK: The obvious pick is the run defense but much like the Eagles the Cowboys are playing with an offensive line ravaged by injuries with typical stalwarts Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, and La’el Collins all out of the picture.

The biggest mismatch might be Eagles' left defensive end Brandon Graham against Dallas RT Terrence Steele, who seems to really struggle with power rushers. The fact that right ends Derek Barnett (calf) and Josh Sweat (wrist) are out could calm down some of the issues with LT Brandon Knight.

UNDER THE RADAR: Running back Ezekiel Elliott is the sizzle but monstrous touch seasons have taken a lot away from the former All-Pro and change-of-pack back Tony Pollard is the much more dangerous option for Dallas these days.

After averaging just 2.6 carries-per-game in the first five weeks, Pollard’s workload has increased to 8.2 carries-per-contest and he’s been the big-play guy, leading the Cowboys with four runs of 20-plus yards this season.

Two of those runs have resulted in touchdowns, which is tied for the fourth-most rushing touchdowns in the NFL of 20 yards or more during 2020 and Pollard is averaging 4.7 yards-per-carry over the last eight games.

“I think one of the things you're seeing with the offense, you're seeing a little bit more of the RPO variety run game,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “Not as much of the downhill, power football game, run game that the Cowboys have used in the past. It's a little more mid zone, RPO, the advantage throws. Things like that where they're using Pollard. Plus, they're using him obviously in the passing game a little bit more.

“So he's really done a nice job. He's had some really nice games here lately. And he's been a really good back for the time that Zeke's been out.”

MATCHUP TO WATCH: The Eagles running game vs. the Cowboys run defense. Where the Eagles should have an advantage is in the running game especially now that the dual-threat Hurts is at QB. As mentioned the Cowboys are No. 32 in the league - deal last - in stopping the run, allowing 161.8 per game on the ground. Over his two starts Hurts has gashed much better defenses in New Orleans and Arizona for a combined 169 yards on just 29 carries. Add in a revitalized Miles Sanders, who has run for 179 yards on 31 carries since Hurts has taken over and there's your recipe for the win.

“The running game's very important, just getting it started and getting it rolling,” said Sanders. “It's gonna open up a lot of stuff for us as a team, and having a quarterback like Jalen where he can use his feet and pull it when he needs to pull it, just attacking the defense, staying on them, being aggressive in the run game I think is going to help us regardless, whatever we want to do, but it's still a great team over there, still a good football team, still got NFL players on the team, so nothing's gonna be easy despite the stats and whatever it is.

“We just got to control what we can control and go out there and dominate play after play.”

OUTLOOK: Running the football isn't Pederson's default setting, of course, but it should be too easy and too effective to get lost in the wash. Add in Hurts' big-play ability throwing it while extending plays as a supplement plus DeSean Jackson returning from injury and figure on the Eagles winning a shootout this time after losing the same kind of game against the better-equipped Cardinals last week.

“It's something that I've reminded the guys this week about. Just not only the importance of this game but just the history and the tradition (of the rivalry),” Pederson said. “And I can think about the times that I've played in this rivalry. And it's just a great game. It's an exciting game. It's a physical game. And there's a lot to this game Sunday for both teams.”

Final Score:

JOHN MCMULLEN: Eagles 30, Cowboys 27 (8-5-1 on the season, 9-5 vs. the spread)

ED KRACZ: Eagles 27, Cowboys 24 (7-6-1 on the season, 7-7 vs. the spread)

John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Tuesday and Thursday on "The Middle" with Eytan Shander, Harry Mayes, and Barrett Brooks on SportsMap Radio and PhillyVoice.com. He’s also the host of Extending the Play on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

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