The Eagles earned an NFC East showdown with Dallas, but is their secondary good enough to win it?
The Cowboys' array of weapons will tax a group that has struggled against lesser offenses.
The Eagles have battled injury and inconsistency all season to get to where they stand today. They can take the NFC East lead with a Sunday victory over Dallas at Lincoln Financial Field, and will win the division and host a playoff game if they follow that triumph with another at the Giants on Dec. 29.
They might be where they hoped to be when the season began, more or less, but they certainly haven’t arrived here in any sort of hoped-for shape.
They are 2-point home underdogs to a team with a 7-7 record, just like theirs, and a quarterback who couldn’t practice all week because of an injury to his passing shoulder. Dak Prescott aside, if you look at the healthy talent available to each team, the game looks like a mismatch.
Nowhere does the weight of that realization fall heavier than in the Eagles’ secondary, ranked 23rd in the NFL against the pass by Pro Football Focus. PFF ranks Dallas’ passing offense sixth. The NFL, which ranks offenses and defenses officially by yards, ranks the Dallas offense No. 1 overall and the Cowboys’ passing game second overall. The Eagles’ defense ranks ninth and 18th, respectively. The Eagles have given up an average of 26.66 points per game the past three weeks.
After 14 games, you know who you are. You can talk about the importance of being able to refocus quickly after a bad play, but when the Eagles’ secondary lines up Sunday opposite Amari Cooper (71 catches, 1,073 yards, 8 touchdowns), Jason Witten (57 catches, 491 yards, 4 TDs), Michael Gallup (56 catches, 911 yards, 3 TDs) and Randall Cobb (45 catches, 674 yards, 3 TDs), it will be in survival mode.
“It might not look pretty, but as long as you get the job done, that’s all that really matters, at the end of the day,” nickel corner Avonte Maddox said during the week. Maddox suddenly cropped up as “questionable” Friday on the final injury report, with a knee issue.
Maddox didn’t mention his knee as he accentuated the positive from last week’s 37-27 victory at Washington, in which, for the second week in a row, late stops mitigated horrendous play through a long stretch of the game. Maddox’s missed tackle turned a 15-yard Terry McLaurin gain into a 75-yard touchdown.
“We get off the field at the end, [are] able to get the ball back to our offense, which we did. [The offense] came down and made great plays. It doesn’t matter how it gets done, as long as it gets done, that’s what we say,” Maddox said.
Oddly enough, you won’t find that slogan emblazoned upon any walls at NovaCare, though there is a doorway adorned with thoughts about how you are what you repeatedly do, the intended point being that excellence is a habit. Apparently, so is mediocrity.
But “move past the mistakes and keep scrambling for a foothold” is indeed the rallying cry for a secondary that has allowed 26 passing touchdowns overall, seven in the past three games.
Safety and leader of the back end Malcolm Jenkins first sounded this theme after the Washington game, when he told reporters: “We’re not out here trying to be the 2000 Ravens or the  Bears or anything like that. We are the 2019 Philadelphia Eagles, and right now we’ve just got to show up and be good enough to give our team a chance to win. And we’ve done that these last two weeks.
“We don’t have the luxury of being the defensive team that’s going to be super, super stingy, and the offense only needs to get a certain amount of points.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz talked this week about the defense needing to complement the offense. The Eagles, digging deep into their practice squad for weapons, have a grind-it-out offense that often needs 10 plays or more to score. Schwartz’s defense has given up scoring passes of 75, 35, 55, and 43 yards the past three weeks.
Starting corner Jalen Mills was asked if it gets hard to rebound, when week after week you find yourself chasing receivers in vain, being outrun, outfaked or outjumped.
“No. This is a team who has always fought through adversity, whether it’s offense, defense, or special teams,” Mills said. “Everything can’t go your way … the great thing about this team is, we have always fought through adversity. It hasn’t always gone our way. We always seem to find a way to get it done.”
The 7-7 record would seem at odds with the contention that they “always” find a way, but certainly, the Eagles have done so the past two weeks, against the three-win Giants and Redskins.
This will be a tougher task. Much hinges on the health of Prescott, who was not listed as questionable on the final injury report. He will play, but whether he is able to sling the ball the length of the field to Cooper or Gallup is unknown.
“I’ve been playing against Dak since college,” said Mills, who played at LSU when Prescott was at Mississippi State. “He’s a guy who’s always fought through injury. Knowing him, knowing the Cowboys, we both know what’s on the line, as far as trying to take their No. 1 spot. … He’s going to play in the game.”
The Eagles haven’t made much of Prescott’s injury, for a couple of reasons. One is, you prepare for him being at his best. If he isn’t, you don’t need to make some radical, complicated adjustment, you just move the safeties down and focus more on Ezekiel Elliott (270 carries, 1,188 yards, 11 TDs.)
The Eagles are planning on focusing on Elliott anyway, because he has had more to do with beating them the past three seasons than Prescott.
“Stopping the run,” safety Rodney McLeod said, when asked what he felt the defense needed to do differently this time, in the wake of the 37-10 loss to Dallas on Oct. 20. “That was a problem for us. That’s something they do very well. They’ve been very effective the last few weeks, particularly in this last game, both Ezekiel and the rookie [Tony Pollard]. It’s going to be imperative that we’re good stopping the run, making them one-dimensional, and then getting them behind the sticks early on first, second down. That’s going to be key.”
The Eagles talked a lot this week about the importance of the home crowd, even though the Cowboys have won six of the last seven Linc meetings. The defense has been much better at home, giving up only 14.2 points per game in the last five outings.
“Everyone is saying it will be a wild, packed game, so I’m looking forward to it. There’ll be a ton of energy in the stadium,” Maddox said.
“You don’t want to be embarrassed at home.”