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What to watch for in Eagles-Cowboys Week 16 matchup | Early Birds

Breaking down the biggest storylines and matchups going into the Eagles’ Week 16 game vs. Dallas.

Jalen Hurts throws up the Omega Psi Phi fraternity sign while acknowledging a couple of fans in the stadium after a loss to the Cardinals. Can Hurts beat the Cowboys?
Jalen Hurts throws up the Omega Psi Phi fraternity sign while acknowledging a couple of fans in the stadium after a loss to the Cardinals. Can Hurts beat the Cowboys?Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Good morning, Eagles fans. Merry Christmas Eve! This will be the last time we grace your inbox before Christmas, so please allow me to wish you and your family all the best on behalf of everyone here at The Inquirer. Because there won’t be a traditional Friday morning newsletter, our present for you will be the Eagles-Cowboys game preview a whole day early. You’re welcome!

For those of you reading this early Thursday morning, Doug Pederson will speak with reporters shortly. The team will practice around 1 p.m. and players should be available shortly after. The Eagles won’t have any availability on Christmas, so feel free to unplug for the holiday.

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Keys to the game

1. Can Jalen Hurts keep it going? The rookie quarterback has passed every test presented to him in his first two starts, but the real question is how consistent he can be. Two promising performances is an excellent start, but the making of a franchise quarterback takes much longer than that. Hurts’ 338 passing yards against the Cardinals showed he’s capable of leading an explosive passing attack to go along with the threat he poses in the running game. Considering the quality of the defenses Hurts has faced so far, Sunday should be a solid opportunity for him to turn in more encouraging signs. The Cowboys are ranked 23rd in passing defense by Football Outsiders, who rank the Saints third and the Cardinals ninth.

Dallas has been even worse with running quarterbacks, too. Lamar Jackson ran for 94 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts against them in Week 13, while Kyler Murray had 74 rushing yards and a touchdown in Week 6. If Hurts can continue to lead the Eagles’ offense with a combination of big-time throws and effective runs, the calls for him to start next season will grow even louder than they already are.

2. The scoreboard. Let’s be honest, arguably the most pressing thing about this game will be the scoreboard that tells those at AT&T Stadium the result of the Washington Football Team’s game. If Washington loses to the Carolina Panthers, and the Giants lose to the Ravens, the Eagles are back in control of their own destiny. A Washington win ends the Eagles’ playoff hopes and makes the Dallas game no more than an opportunity to learn about younger players and keep veterans healthy for next year.

The NFL flexed the Washington game from a 1 p.m. start to 4:05 p.m. likely with the hopes of keeping the Eagles game interesting for those planning on tuning in. Some Eagles players have conceded they’ll periodically check the scoreboard, while others have said they’re planning on staying focused on their own game. Truth be told, it’ll be hard for the team to ignore it, and it will be nearly impossible for those watching from home.

3. Brandon Graham hit one of his major preseason goals with his Pro Bowl nod Tuesday, but he’s got two games to hit another. Graham has seven sacks, leaving him three shy of reaching double-digit sacks in a season for the first time in his 11-year career. Graham’s been in a sack drought, with his last one coming against Dallas in Week 8. But he should have a solid opportunity to wreak havoc on Andy Dalton. Cowboys right tackle Terence Steele has been a liability on the edge this season, allowing eight sacks and 41 pressures. Fresh off being named to the Pro Bowl, Graham could be in for a celebratory performance against the Cowboys.

4. Miles Sanders also has a favorable matchup coming this weekend. Dallas has given up the most rushing yards in the league and is ranked 25th by Football Outsiders against the run. Dallas gave up 294 rushing yards to the Ravens and haven’t held a team to fewer than 100 yards since Week 9.

Sanders has been the beneficiary of Hurts’ presence in each of the last two weeks and could eclipse the 100-yard mark for the third time this season. The second-year back had the 82-yard run against the Saints but has otherwise struggled in the yards-per-attempt category recently. Against the Cardinals, he averaged 3.76 yards per carry. Against the Cowboys, it could be much higher.

5. Matt Pryor was the offensive line’s weakest link against the Cardinals, giving up two sacks and seven pressures. With Cowboys edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence expected to frequently line up over him this weekend, it’s not going to get any easier for Pryor. Lawrence has 5.5 sacks this season and 32 hurries, which is tied with Brandon Graham for eighth in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The Eagles’ offensive line had one of its best games against the Saints two weeks ago but surrendered six sacks against the Cardinals. Hurts wasn’t nearly as poised under pressure last weekend as he was in his first start, so it will be important for the Eagles to figure out a way to keep Lawrence from wrecking the game.

6. Darius Slay and Michael Jacquet are expected to start at outside corner for the rest of the regular season, and Sunday will be a stiff test. Slay has been battling several injuries for nearly a month but has cleared the concussion protocol and is ready for the challenge of containing Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb. The Cowboys offense hasn’t been very good this year, but their wide receiving corps is still good enough to take advantage of the banged-up secondary, which should feature Marcus Epps and Jalen Mills at safety. Jacquet struggled in coverage but still made plays against Arizona, forcing one fumble and having a sack that led to another. It will be interesting to see how the undrafted rookie comes along in these final weeks of the season.

7. Andy Dalton has returned to the lineup since the Eagles’ Week 8 win over the Ben DiNucci-led Cowboys, and he’s played pretty well in the last few weeks. The Cowboys are winners of two straight, albeit against the hobbled Bengals and 49ers, largely because Dalton has been efficient. He threw two touchdowns in each of those games and no interceptions, completing 62.5% of his passes. The Cowboys offense with Dalton behind center will be much better than the group the Birds saw earlier in the season.

8. Can Quez Watkins continue to progress? The team’s sixth-round rookie receiver scored his first career touchdown against the Cardinals and is getting more playing time because of his familiarity with Hurts dating back to when the two trained together before the scouting combine last spring. Watkins showed serious speed on his 32-yard score off a screen pass, and it will be interesting to see if he’s rewarded with more opportunities.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. As mentioned earlier, Brandon Graham is headed to his first Pro Bowl. Les Bowen writes about the defensive leader’s reaction to finally achieving one of his goals.

  2. Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said Jalen Hurts’ similarities to Dak Prescott were something his team noticed and discussed going into the NFL draft.

  3. Jalen Reagor has flashed his ability at times this season, but, as Jeff McLane points out, the film shows he’s progressing slower than some other rookies.

  4. Doug Pederson once again gave Carson Wentz credit for the way he’s handled his demotion during Pederson’s Wednesday news conference. Paul Domowitch recapped what the head coach said here.

  5. Who should come back after this losing season? Marcus Hayes’ answer may surprise you.

From the mailbag

What happened [to] the screen to the RB play with this offense? It’s supposed to be a staple of the offense. — From Matt (@MrxBoyd) on Twitter.

Good question, Matt. The Eagles’ screen game has been awful all season, although there has been some success in the last few weeks. You’re right. It’s typically a major part of Doug Pederson’s offense, and the absence of effective screens this year is one of the major reasons the season has gone so poorly.

The biggest thing hurting the screen game is the instability on the offensive line combined with the personnel. The lack of continuity has certainly hurt the chemistry between the guys up front and the timing in general. It’s also worth noting the backups who have filled in are less athletic than the typical starters. Even at 335 pounds last season, Brandon Brooks could move in space as well as many smaller guards. Lane Johnson has also been a pretty good athlete. When you swap the trio of Brooks, Johnson, and Jason Kelce out for Kelce, Nate Herbig, and Matt Pryor, it’s easy to understand why you don’t see as many linemen barreling into the second level and surfacing blocks quickly enough for screens to work.