The first-place Eagles. Roll that around on your tongue for a couple of seconds and see how it tastes.
Their 2-4-1 record isn’t going to win them many beauty contests. It would put them closer to the bottom than the top of every other division in the NFL. But they’re in the NFC East, and 2-4-1 puts them in the pole position for the playoffs right now.
They have an opportunity to secure their hold on first place Sunday night when they face the flailing 2-5 Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field.
Here is my breakdown of the game:
When the Eagles run
Miles Sanders is expected to miss his second straight game (knee), which means Boston Scott, Corey Clement, and Jason Huntley will split the running back duties. Scott played 56 of 81 snaps against the Giants, rushing for 46 yards on a team-high 12 carries. The Eagles are 18th in rushing (118.6 yards per game) and seventh in rush average (5.0). But their rush average has been largely influenced by a pair of 74-yard runs by Sanders in Weeks 5 and 6.
The Eagles' offensive line has been ravaged by injuries. Right tackle Lane Johnson has been hobbled by ankle and knee injuries and played just 60 of 81 snaps against the Giants. If he can’t go Sunday, it would once again leave centerJason Kelce as the Eagles' only healthy O-line starter. Quarterback Carson Wentz has been an important part of the run game. He has 18 rushing first downs and a career-high five rushing TDs. The only quarterbacks in the league with more rushing first downs are Kyler Murray (28), Cam Newton (22), and Josh Allen (21).
The Eagles failed to convert two third-and-1′s against the Giants. The week before, against Ravens, they failed to convert a fourth-and-1 and a third-and-2. The Eagles are 31st in first-down rush average (3.3). But Dallas' defense has been just as inept at stopping the run on first down (5.1, 29th).
The Cowboys are last in the league in run defense (178.3), and tied for last in opponent rush average (5.2). In their last two games, they gave up 469 rush yards and 23 rushing first downs. In Week 4, Cleveland gouged them for 307 rushing yards. They’ve allowed 34 runs of 10 yards or more, the most in the NFL.
When the Eagles throw
The Eagles' patchwork offensive line has struggled mightily to protect Carson Wentz. He’s been sacked an NFL-high 28 times. He’s been under pressure on 118 drop-backs, more than any passer in the league. Wentz is 29th in passing (74.3), 31st in completion percentage (58.6), and his 10 interceptions are three more than he threw last year. But he had an impressive 118.2 fourth-quarter passer rating in the Eagles' last two games, and threw just one interception in those two games.
Young wide receivers Travis Fulgham, Greg Ward, and rookie John Hightower all are playing well. Ward is tied for ninth in the league in both third-down catches (11) and third-down catches for first downs (9). Fulgham has 23 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns in four games since being promoted from the practice squad.
And Hightower had 59- and 50-yard catches in the last two games. Hightower was targeted by Wentz on half (10 of 20) of his 20-plus-yard throws in the last three games.
The Cowboys have just 13 sacks, and traded one of their best pass-rushers, Eversen Griffen, this week. Aldon Smith leads the team in sacks with four. But all of them came in the Cowboys' first three games. He hasn’t had any since Week 3. The Cowboys' secondary has struggled. Dallas has allowed 16 touchdown passes, the fourth-most in the league, and has a league-low one interception. The Cowboys have allowed 22 pass plays of 20 yards or more, seventh-most in the league.
When the Cowboys run
The Cowboys, like the Eagles, have had their offensive line decimated by injuries. Just one of their five starters – left guard Connor Williams – was able to play in last Sunday’s loss to Washington. They are expected to get All-Pro right guard Zack Martin back this week, which will help. But both of their starting tackles – Tyron Smith and La’el Collins – are out for the season. Center Joe Looney also is out.
The Cowboys, who finished fifth, 10th, and second in rushing the last three years, currently are 25th (101.9 per game). They are 23rd in rush average (4.0). Zeke Elliott, who averaged 96.5 rushing yards per game in his first four seasons, is averaging just 65.4 this year. He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in the Cowboys' last two games, losses to Arizona and Washington. He still is looking for his first 100-yard game and already has fumbled five times. He has never fumbled more than six times in a season. Tony Pollard, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry as a rookie last year, is averaging just 3.5 this season.
The Eagles have done a good job against opposing running backs, holding them to 3.3 yards per carry. Yet they are 24th in run defense, giving up 130.4 yards per game, the most by an Eagles defense since 2015. How? Well, 42.9% of the rushing yards given up by the Eagles have been to quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends. Quarterbacks are averaging 7.6 yards per carry. wideouts and tight ends are averaging 10.3. The Eagles are 24th in first-down rush average by opponents (5.0).
When the Cowboys throw
Dak Prescott was having an MVP-caliber season before he got hurt in Week 5. He was averaging a league-high 371.2 passing yards per game and 8.4 yards per attempt (5th). His replacement, Andy Dalton, has 135 career starts. But he threw 37 interceptions in his final three years in Cincinnati, and threw three in his first two starts with the Cowboys before suffering a concussion last week against Washington.
If Dalton can’t play Sunday, seventh-round rookie Ben DiNucci (James Madison) will make his first NFL start. He threw just three passes after Dalton got hurt last week. The Cowboys have one of the best wide receiver groups in the league in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and rookie CeeDee Lamb. But whether it’s Dalton or DeNucci behind center, they’re going to need time to throw. And they’ll be going up against one of the league’s best pass rushes.
The Eagles are fourth in sacks with 24. Defensive end Brandon Graham is having the best season of his career. He’s third in sacks (6), third in tackles for losses (10), and sixth among edge-rushers in total quarterback pressures (29). He will be going against an undrafted rookie right tacke, Terence Steele. Steele has given up a team-high 21 QB pressures, including four sacks.
With the addition of cornerback Darius Slay, the Eagles have played primarily man coverage this season. But that may change against the Cowboys, given the matchup problems their receiving corps presents.
Jake Elliott has missed three of his last four field goal attempts, including a 29-yarder in the come-from-behind win over the Giants. It was Elliott’s first miss in 21 attempts from 30 yards or less. A week earlier, Elliott missed a 52-yard attempt in a two-point loss to Baltimore.
Punter Cam Johnston is second in the NFL in gross average (50.9) and third in net (45.3). He’s had 21 of his 32 punts returned (65.6%). His return percentage is up considerably from last year (41.1%), but it hasn’t impacted his net average. The Eagles are 15th in punt coverage (6.8) but allowed 8.8 in the last two games. They are hoping to get their top punt gunner, Rudy Ford, back this week, which should help.
Cowboys punt returner CeeDee Lamb is a home run threat. He’s averaging 7.1 yards on 12 returns. Eagles punt returnerGreg Ward has an NFL-high 11 fair catches. He’s averaging just 5.6 yards on nine returns. Greg Zuerlein, who spent eight seasons with the Rams, is now the Cowboys' kicker. He’s 10-for-12 in the first 7 games. His two misses were from 58 and 53 yards. Zuerlein has a 63.9 touchback percentage on kickoffs, so the Eagles will get some return opportunities. Probably not so much on punts. The Cowboys' Chris Jones, who is 14th in net average (41.4), has had just four of his 21 attempts returned. The Cowboys are first in the league in punt coverage (3.8).
The Eagles have yet to lose a pre-bye week game under Doug Pederson. They’re 4-0. The Cowboys are 0-3 on the road this season and have been outscored in their last two games by 50 points.
Eagles 31, Cowboys 20
Eagles DE Brandon Graham vs. Cowboys RT Terence Steele: Graham is among the league leaders in sacks, pressures, and tackles for losses. Steele, an undrafted rookie, has allowed 21 QB pressures, including four sacks. ADVANTAGE: Eagles
Eagles LBs Nate Gerry, Duke Riley, T.J. Edwards vs. Ezekiel Elliott: The Eagles struggled to neutralize Elliott in previous meetings. They can’t allow the Cowboys many third-and-shorts. ADVANTAGE: Cowboys
Eagles WRs Greg Ward, Travis Fulgham, and John Hightower vs. Cowboys CBs Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis: The Cowboys have given up 16 TD passes, the fourth-most in the NFL. They’ve allowed the seventh-most pass plays of 20 yards or more (22). ADVANTAGE: Eagles
Keys to the game
Third down. The Eagles were 4-for-13 on third down against the Giants. They were 3-for-12 the week before against the Ravens. The Cowboys are 27th in third-down defense. Opponents have a 50.5 third-down success rate against them.
Stop Zeke: Ezekiel Elliott has averaged 103.5 rushing yards per game vs. the Eagles in his career. But he has struggled behind the Cowboys' injured offensive line. He rushed for just 94 yards on 24 carries the last twtwo games. He’s lost 4 fumbles, including two against Arizona in Week 6.
Seize the lead. The Cowboys wereoutscored in the first half by 76 points in their first seven games. They’ve led at halftime only twice, and once in the last six games. The Eagles have led at halftime in four of their seven games, including both of their wins and their tie with the Bengals.