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The five key areas to focus on in the Eagles-Cowboys matchup | Early Birds

Offensive momentum, the wide receivers, and the run defense among areas in focus vs. Cowboys

Eagles coach Doug Pederson gives quarterback Nick Foles instructions along the sidelines during the game against the Oakland Raiders at Lincoln Financial Field in a Monday Night Football game Christmas night 2017. Eagles won 19-10. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Eagles coach Doug Pederson gives quarterback Nick Foles instructions along the sidelines during the game against the Oakland Raiders at Lincoln Financial Field in a Monday Night Football game Christmas night 2017. Eagles won 19-10. CLEM MURRAY / Staff PhotographerRead moreCLEM MURRAY

Good morning, Eagles fans. The Eagles close the regular season on Sunday in a game that has no effect on the postseason bracket, but the Eagles don't want to call it meaningless. They need a better offensive showing, and they're also trying to set a franchise record with 14 wins and finish undefeated at home. Will they do it?

This is a Friday of the Early Birds newsletter. It's free for anyone to sign up here to receive in your inbox every weekday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

The key areas to focus on against the Cowboys

This game won't have the same significance of a typical regular season game, but there's still reasons to watch. Here's what I'll be watching for at 1 p.m. Sunday:

  1. Offensive momentum: Nick Foles and the offense underwhelmed on Monday, and they need to go into the bye week offering some type of reason for confidence. I don't think Foles should play the whole game, but the Eagles should treat it like the preseason when a productive drive shows that the offense is ready, and a poor drive requires more work. If the Eagles can put together a sustained drive with third-down conversions, they'll have momentum for the bye. If they're lackluster early in the game, Doug Pederson should keep them in the game until they do something positive.

  2. Completions to wide receivers: Foles completed only five pass attempts to wide receivers on Monday. I'm all for spreading the ball around, and Zach Ertz can be viewed like a top receiver. But Foles needs to get the ball to the wide receivers – it threatens defenses differently than passes to the tight end and check downs to the running back. Pay attention to the connection with Alshon Jeffery, who will need to be a key part of any offensive dynamism in the postseason and went without a catch on Monday.

  3. Run defense vs. Ezekiel Elliott: Barring a historical performance by Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, the Eagles will finish with the No. 1 rush defense for the first time since 1991. However, they allowed their most rushing yards of the season last week (137). I wouldn't be worried about the rush defense because they've had outstanding games this season, but I'll be watching how the first-team defense does against Elliott early in the game. My guess is reserves are in the game in the second half, although it'll be intriguing to see if Elliott can top 100 yards. The Eagles haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher yet this season; Elliott has topped that mark four times and needs at least 120 yards to reach 1,000 yards for the season.

  4. Avoid major injuries: The worst scenario in Sunday's game would be if the Eagles lost a key player for the playoffs in Week 17, like the Patriots did in 2009 with Wes Welker. Injuries obviously cannot be controlled, although it's often the reason teams rest key players in these games. No matter the result, the Eagles need to get out of this game without starters on the injury report with new injuries.

  5. Scanning the depth chart: There are down-the-depth chart players who've been unseen on offense or defense for most of the year. This will be a good chance for them to get valuable in-season work and the coaching staff to form better evaluations. Wide receiver Shelton Gibson and linebacker Nate Gerry, both fifth-round picks, fit this profile. The Eagles could take a look at Isaac Seumalo at center. And how about quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who has never played in an Eagles uniform but is a chinstrap away from being the starting quarterback? It sounds like I'm writing a sentence a preseason preview, but it's a good position for a playoff team to be in for Week 17.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Fletcher Cox might be the best player on the Eagles, and he'll need to play like it, Jeff McLane writes. Jeff also looks at Jake Elliott's rookie season.

  2. Les Bowen looks at middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who is a new starter entering the postseason.

  3. Patrick Robinson has been a key addition for the Eagles, Paul Domowitch writes. Domo also looks at the snaps between Jason Kelce and Nick Foles.

  4. Foles expects to start against the Cowboys, and more in this notebook.

  5. Eagles playoff tickets go on sale on January 4.

  6. Domo gives you his Eagles-Cowboys scouting report.

  7. If you missed Thursday's newsletter, it had a section on quarterbacks in cold weather.

3 Questions With | Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe

Zach Berman: In the postseason, you'll face some good running backs. Is that where you can help the team the most?

Dannell Ellerbe: "I can help wherever I'm needed. I've been in some defenses where all I did was cover. In this defense, it seems like I'm going to be in for base, so that's going to be more playing runs. But I feel I can do it all. I'm not just a run stopper or a coverage guy. I feel I can blitz, cover, run."

Zach Berman: Were you wondering when your chance with the Eagles would come?

Dannell Ellerbe: "I knew it was going to come, I just had to stay ready. I was learning the defense. It's kind of hard to learn the entire defense in a week or two. I just had to do what I had to do. …I was paying attention, asking questions. …I'm good [with the playbook]."

Zach Berman: You've been a part of some good teams. What stands out about this team?

Dannell Ellerbe: "It's a family. Guys are light, guys are not uptight. They're having fun. That's the biggest thing. You want your guys to have fun and be light. When you're uptight and coach is always on you, it can sometimes get in your head. You can tell these guys are having fun out there. That's the biggest part."

Elsewhere in the NFL

  1. Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott is "itching to play" against the Eagles. [Dallas Morning News]

  2. The Giants hired Dave Gettleman as general manager, bringing back a familiar face who was previously the GM in Carolina. [The Record]

  3. Get ready to hear a lot about Kirk Cousins this offseason. [Washington Post]

  4. The Rams will rest key players on Sunday — even if that means dropping from the No. 3 seed to the No. 4 seed. [Los Angeles Times]

  5. A look at NFL general manager candidates, including Joe Douglas. [Inside the Pylon]

From the mailbag

A few questions to unpack here…

  1. On the first question, they need to find a way to bring Nigel Bradham back. He's a good fit in the scheme and a key part of the defense, and the Eagles don't have the necessary depth at linebacker. He might be expensive for a linebacker, but it's worth it given his production and the fact that they know him. If he's back, the Eagles should feel comfortable about their starting lineup.

  2. I'll tackle this more during the offseason, but I think the Eagles need to continue addressing the offensive line in the draft, and they can add another young edge rusher. Tight end depth should be a priority given the uncertainty behind Zach Ertz.

  3. I don't know when Wentz returns, but my guess is it's not "later in the season." The Eagles should be a playoff contender, although it obviously depends how Wentz looks when he returns.

I wouldn't say "worried," but it's something to watch with kicker Jake Elliott. It's odd to be 4 of 7 from 30-39-yard field goals, yet 12 of 13 from kicks in the 40s and 5 of 6 from kicks in the 50s. Lt's throw in extra points, which are from 33 yards. Elliott is 39 of 42 on those kicks. Add that to the 30-39-yard field goals, and he's 43 of 49 (87.8 percent). That's not ideal, but it's better than the 57 percent you're citing. So pay attention to it going forward, but don't be "concerned" because he's a good, clutch kicker with a big leg.

Nick Foles needs a sustained drive or two with third-down conversions and completions to the wide receivers. Look at the third preseason game. Carson Wentz led the Eagles on two scoring drives in the first quarter, and that was all Doug Pederson needed to see. Foles doesn't need to throw seven touchdowns on Sunday — or even four, like he did against the Giants. But if he can get some positive momentum going into the bye, it would be a good thing for the Eagles. (And he must stay healthy.)