The Inquirer’s Eagles-Cowboys Predictions, Part II
Eagles-Cowboys picks from The Inquirers Eagles beat reporters:
Assuming Tony Romo will feel better than he did on Thanksgiving, what should the Eagles pass defense be most concerned about?
Jeff McLane: The easy answer in Dez Bryant. The Cowboys receiver burnt Bradley Fletcher on an early deep ball, but the Eagles kept him in check for most of the game by giving him a variety of looks. Sometimes Bill Davis had Fletcher and Cary Williams singled up on Bryant and had them press. Sometimes he had help over top with a safety when Bryant ran deep posts. Davis was a step ahead of the Cowboys' offensive coaches for most of the game.
Bryant became frustrated. He yelled at his teammates on the sideline. He called the Eagles a little cheap after the game when reporters pointed out his bloody lip. When we were in Dallas a long-time Cowboys reporter told me that Bryant will often drift for long stretches and then out of nowhere get on a hot steak – particularly in the second half. But the Cowboys were dead and buried by the fourth quarter in the first meeting. Bryant really never had an opportunity to do his thing. If Romo, with ten days rest, is more mobile, I can't see the Eagles jumping out to an early lead again and coasting.
I'm not sure Fletcher can sustain his level of play in the first game. The Eagles safeties, particularly Malcolm Jenkins, have been increasingly unreliable. I could see Bryant lining up more in the slot on Sunday.
Zach Berman: The answer is Bryant, almost by the process of elimination. Terrance Williams has been inconsistent in his second season, and Cole Beasley doesn't wreck defensive game plans. Jason Witten is reliable, although I was impressed with the way Jenkins played him on Thanksgiving. They also need to watch DeMarco Murray catching the ball out of the backfield. That was a big part of the win over the Bears last week.
But I'm going to go further into Romo, because I think he's going to be much better than he was in the last game. He was simply not good that afternoon. The Eagles' defense had a lot to do with it, but Romo did not look right. He did not move in the pocket and extend plays the way he typically does. Romo has played at a high level throughout the season, completing 69.1 percent of his passes with 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Thanksgiving was the worst he played. I believe the defense will continue to generate pressure, but I expect a few more plays from Romo than what he showed two weeks ago. It still might not be enough, but it will at least make the game more competitive.
Can the Eagles win if their running game isn't as dominant as it was in the first game?
McLane: The Eagles ran for a season-high 256 yards and LeSean McCoy gained 159 yards on the ground on Thanksgiving. The lopsided score meant for more running in the second half, but the Eagles won the battle up front from almost the start. Kelly had a great game plan, and the offensive line executed wonderfully. He set up counters, mixed in high-percentage throws for Mark Sanchez and had the Cowboys off balance all game. That kind of success should carry over, but I can't see Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli always matching the Eagles "11" personnel with his nickel. The Eagles gashed the Cowboys whenever they went smaller.
If I were Marinelli, I would sell out to stop McCoy and force Sanchez to beat him. Sanchez had his best game in Dallas, but was at his worst on Sunday against the Seahawks. Seattle's defense certainly made throwing difficult, but Sanchez had opportunities downfield and mostly checked down or missed open receivers. The lack of a running game didn't help matters, but that is the point. He can't to be expected to carry the offense.
The Cowboys aren't to be mistaken for the Seahawks. McCoy should have space to maneuver. But if Dallas can come even close to their performance last week against the Bears and Matt Forte (13 carries for 26 yards), Kelly will have to ask more of his quarterback and the Eagles odds on winning will drop.
Berman: I think the Eagles can win without 159 yards from McCoy. But it must be more than 50 yards.
This defense does not have the personnel that should worry the Eagles. They can move the ball on them through the air. What struck me about the first game was how efficient Sanchez was. That's when he's at his best in this offense -- playing fast, throwing high-percentage passes, and letting his receivers run after the catch. The Eagles can do that more effectively against Dallas than they could against Seattle.
From a matchup perspective, this is a good game for the passing game because they could use different groupings. If they get Dallas into nickel, the Eagles can run effectively. If they keep Dallas in base, they can pass on them. Seattle had such good safety play that it was like having extra linebackers on the field.
So yes, the Eagles can still win if the running game is not as dominant. But I think they can and will get them both going.
Who is your stud and dud for the Eagles?
McLane: I'm going back to the well and picking Zach Ertz as my stud. The Eagles tight end consistently got open against the Cowboys. Sanchez found him twice, but also missed him several other times, particularly on third down. He didn't play much against the Cowboys in the first matchup, but that game got out of hand and he wasn't needed as much. I think the Eagles will need more third down conversions this time around, Ertz will see the field more, and Sanchez won't miss the tight end as often.
As for the flip side of the coin, I'm picking Fletcher. He settled down after the debacle in Green Bay, but he's always susceptible when and if his technique breaks down. I think Bryant will get the better of him on Sunday.
Berman: I'm going with someone who played poorly last week: Jenkins. He had a bad game against Seattle after he was especially effective against Witten in the first Dallas game. That played a big role in getting the Cowboys off the field on third down. If Jenkins does not play well, then the secondary struggles because he wears so many hats for them. His worst games this year were probably Green Bay, Seattle, and St. Louis. Look for a bounce-back performance Jenkins.
My dud is Casey Matthews. I thought your evaluation of Matthews after that first game was right on. He knows the defense and has been sound out there, but he looks overmatched at times. This is not a great matchup for Matthews, who will need to be on the field often to help slow down Murray. The one note here is that Emmanuel Acho could get more playing time now that he's healthier. That wasn't the case in the first game. Matthews played better when the linebackers were rotating, so that could help him.
What is your prediction?
McLane: The Eagles have won the following week after their three previous losses, so Chip Kelly's squad has proven to be resilient. But they beat the Rams, Texans and Titans and will face a much stiffer test on Sunday. The Cowboys will be rested and ready and seeking revenge. I think the Eagles have moved on from the Seahawks loss, but it should be noted that Seattle's last seven opponents have lost the following week.
I think the Eagles have more overall talent, and have shown that they can beat the Cowboys when it counts (see: last year's season finale). But I think a rested Romo will be the difference against an Eagles secondary that is ripe for picking. The Eagles stout defensive front will keep DeMarco Murray from exploding, but he'll do enough to get the Eagles out of their base defense and allow Romo to do his thing. It'll be a close game, but I see Cowboys 30, Eagles 28.
Berman: Can't they play the Titans again? That game seemed easier to read ...
... I remember writing the prediction two weeks ago and my sentiment was that the Eagles were the more talented team, but the short rest an the homefield advantage worked in Dallas' favor. I was obviously way off, although it was clear that the Eagles were the more talented team. They won all three phases in convincing fashion -- Romo admitted as much on Wednesday.
The question this week is what role the rest will play. Dallas has extra time and the Eagles are coming off of a physical game. That could be an equalizer. Still, the Eagles are better, they're at home, and they're a mentally tough team that has not lost back-to-back games since last October. Give me the Eagles in a 38-28 win.