Even before it was reported that Tony Romo would miss Sunday's game with a herniated disk, the feeling here was that the Eagles would go into Dallas and beat the Cowboys to win the NFC East. Despite the inevitable fretting from Eagles fans about facing a "dangerous" backup quarterback and how the loss of Romo will make the Cowboys a more balanced offense, there remains little reason to believe the Eagles will leave Texas without a victory. Will they pummel the Cowboys as they did the Bears? It's certainly possible. I think Dallas will hang around into the second half, but its defense is too depleted to keep Chip Kelly's offense out of the end zone for very long.
I could reel out many reasons why the Eagles will win this game. And I'll get to those. The more difficult task is finding ways they could blow it. There's one – They could blow it. When Romo and now linebacker Sean Lee were reported to be out for the game, the weight of pressure shifted mainly on the Birds. It's their game to lose. We haven't seen them in this position before. They could struggle because of that. But I don't think they will. It's difficult to envision the collective team folding. Maybe Nick Foles allows the situation to get to him. He has yet to play in a game as big. Turnovers, as always, will be a factor. The Eagles have only four turnovers in their last seven games. Maybe the law of average catches up to them. I don't think it will. Again, I'm trying to find reasons why the Eagles could lose. The Cowboys aren't the Texans. They have talent at multiple spots on offense. Dez Bryant is a top ten receiver. DeMarco Murray is a top ten running back. Jason Witten is a top ten tight end. Tyron Smith is a top ten tackle.
The Cowboys don't have anywhere near their equal on defense, though. Lee was probably the No. 1 reason why LeSean McCoy was held to 55 yards on 18 carries in the first meeting. The Eagles running back missed a few holes and the offensive line was uncharacteristically sloppy, but Dallas doesn't have anyone near Lee's capabilities left on defense. DeMarcus Ware is still dangerous, but he seems to be slipping and the rest of the line hasn't done enough to free him up from facing double teams.
Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is very good. But he's been banged up in the second half of the season. Cornerback Brandon Carr is talented, but he has regressed playing in a secondary that can't seem to stop anyone. Foles was very bad in the first game. He missed open receivers the entire game and was indecisive. He has been excellent since returning from the concussion he suffered in the third quarter of that game. I can't imagine he'll be anywhere near as bad.
Kelly has also fine tuned his offense since Week 7. He's cut down on the package plays in lieu of more screens. There are more four-verticals concepts to attack defenses when they stack the box to slow McCoy. He's lining DeSean Jackson up everywhere and creating mismatches. The Eagles still operate their run game with essentially five different plays. But Kelly has found ways to keep defenders from crashing down on McCoy in zone read plays.
I just can't see the Cowboys keeping the Eagles offense under 30 points.
The Cowboys have the firepower on offense to keep pace even with Orton at quarterback. He doesn't have Romo's ability to move out of the pocket and throw on the run, but Orton can distribute the ball. Bill Davis' plan will be to collapse the pocket. Trent Cole did a great job of rushing off the edge against the Bears last week. Jay Cutler had no chance to get outside. If the Eagles' line can bottle Orton up and pressure him it should aid a secondary that will be tested against Bryant and company.
The general consensus seems to be that Murray has to carry the load. I'm not sure that's the Cowboys' best course. The Eagles run defense has been stout almost the entire season. Only one running back has topped 100 yards (Rashad Jennings, Raiders) and most of those yards came in garbage time. The Eagles pass defense is susceptible.
Even if the Cowboys burn the Eagles through the air a few times, I don't think it'll be enough. The defense has been good situationally and at creating turnovers. Orton has a couple of interceptions in that arm.
Prediction: Eagles 30, Cowboys 16
What goes right: McCoy goes over 100 yards once again and sets the Eagles' all-time mark for rushing yards in a season. Brandon Boykin gets interception No. 6.
What goes wrong: Bryant gets into the end zone at least once.
After the Eagles' Oct. 20 loss to the Cowboys, they looked more inclined to finish the season with a top 10 pick than a home playoff date. The two months since have changed the direction of the franchise, both this season and potentially long-term. But this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, and the result of a win-and-in Week 17 game will linger throughout the offseason.
On Monday, this game looked considerably more challenging. For all the criticism Tony Romo endures, he's still one of the NFL best quarterbacks. And Sean Lee is among the finest linebackers in the league. Without both of those players, the Cowboys' chances have dwindled – Las Vegas will tell you as much – and the Eagles appear in line to play into January.
The Eagles' offense will continue on its hot pace. They need 77 more yards to break the franchise record for single-season net yardage. That will happen in the first quarter. LeSean McCoy should break Wilbert Montgomery's record before halftime, too – McCoy needs 37 yards to set the Eagles' single-season rushing record – and DeSean Jackson will go over 106 yards to break Mike Quick's franchise record. The Cowboys have allowed a 100-yard receiver in four of the past six games, which is a good sign for Jackson. The absence of Lee is favorable for McCoy, who saw Lee often in the Oct. 20 game.
When looking a the Cowboys, a few trends jump out. First off, their defensive line is a patchwork group that has struggled this season. They played 20 different defensive linemen this season. Only eight of 10 defensive linemen on the roster were with the team earlier this season. Their 29 sacks rank No. 31 in the NFL.
They're also prone to giving up chunks of yards. In fact, Dallas has allowed more 20+ plays than any NFL team. Quarterbacks compete nearly 65 percent of their passes against Monte Kiffin's defense. Don't expect a repeat of Nick Foles' Oct. 20 performance.
On defense, the Eagles must be aware of DeMarco Murray. He did not play when the Eagles last faced Dallas, and the expected absence of Romo means Dallas will likely rely on Murray. Of the top 10 rushers in the NFL, Murray has the most yards per carry and the second most yards after contact. Dallas runs 42.8 percent of the time behind the left tackle or around the left edge, so Fletcher Cox and Trent Cole must play well in run support. It's critical for Cole to set the edge and allow the inside linebackers to be active. Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith is one of the best in football.
Dez Bryant has touchdowns in each of the past four weeks, and he had a season-high 17 targets when Dallas last played in the Eagles. Orton will look for him, and Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher must play like they did last week – not the way they did vs. Minnesota. Jason Witten is always a threat, although the Eagles have kept tight ends to fewer than 50 yards in nine games this season and have allowed on two touchdowns to tight ends.
Special teams will play a big role in this game. As much as the Eagles needed to respect Cordarrelle Patterson, Dwayne Harris is just as dangerous. He is No. 2 in kickoff return average this season and would be No. 2 in punt returns if he qualifies. One big return can alter momentum.
This game certainly is not a walkover. The only other time the Eagles faced a team with this many key players missing was Minnesota, and you saw how that worked out. But the stakes of the game will keep the Eagles focused, and come Monday morning, they'll be preparing for a first-round playoff game.
Prediction: Eagles 38, Cowboys 24
What goes right: McCoy and Jackson both break records. The Eagles have six plays of more than 20 yards.