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Cowboys' biggest missing star is not Tony Romo

Linebacker Sean Lee, expected to miss Sunday's game with a neck injury, hurt the Eagles more than Tony Romo in the first meeting.

Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee. (Tim Sharp/AP file)
Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee. (Tim Sharp/AP file)Read more

WHEN THE EAGLES lost to the Cowboys back on Oct. 20, there were two key figures.

One was Nick Foles. You might have heard about that. Worst of his now-15 career starts, in terms of yards, as he completed 11 of 29 passes for 80, before sitting down with a concussion. Only Foles' first career start, back on Nov. 18, 2012, at the Redskins, was worse in terms of passer rating (40.5 vs. 46.2).

The other key player on the field that day was Sean Lee. The Dallas middle linebacker from Penn State was credited with a game-high nine solo tackles and an interception of rookie quarterback Matt Barkley, who took over for Foles.

"He was all over the field," Eagles coach Chip Kelly recalled yesterday.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, whose potential absence this week in the game to decide the NFC East took up the overwhelming majority of the questioning when Philadelphia-area reporters spoke with Dallas coach Jason Garrett on a conference call yesterday, really didn't play that well against the Eagles in October - a 69.2 passer rating on 28 completions in 47 attempts for 317 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Lee was a much bigger factor in the outcome of a game Dallas led only 3-0 at halftime. Garrett didn't rule Lee out yesterday, but media reports say he will miss his third game in a row with a neck injury.

Garrett agreed that Lee is "one of our best players . . . a guy who's made a huge impact on our team since he's been our starting inside linebacker."

Lee's ability to go sideline-to-sideline would seem especially valuable against an offense like Kelly's, which tries to stretch the defense.

"He's the leader of the defense," said Lee's counterpart, Eagles middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "When you watch him play, watch how active he is, how he gets everybody in the right spot and makes a lot of plays . . . them being without their leader out there, I know is going to be tough."

Lee was especially active against the run that day, as the Cowboys held LeSean McCoy to 55 yards on 18 carries. Going into that game, Dallas was 14th in the NFL against the rush. Today, the Cowboys rank 27th. Lee missed two November games with a hamstring problem, then hurt his neck in his first game back, a 45-28 loss to the Bears Dec. 9. He hasn't played since, and the Dallas defense has missed him.

"Obviously, he's one of the top linebackers there is in this league. In [11] games, he's got 99 tackles and four interceptions," said Kelly, who said he did not think the Dallas offense would be very different, whether Romo or backup Kyle Orton quarterbacks.

"He's certainly one of the slipperiest guys, in terms of trying to block him. He's really good at getting off blocks. He's very fast," Eagles center Jason Kelce said of Lee.

"That's a huge challenge for them," Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said, when asked about the Cowboys playing without Lee. "I know if we lost DeMeco - that's what I would compare it to - that would be a huge loss for us. Hopefully, that doesn't ever happen. [Lee] is respected around this league as being a helluva player. I'm sure the guy that's playing for him is going to do everything he can, but that's a big loss, and a big challenge."

The Cowboys played a sixth-round rookie from South Carolina, DeVonte Holloman, in Lee's spot last week against the Redskins. Holloman was a strongside sub and a special-teamer until both Lee and former Eagle Ernie Sims went down with injuries, and he was moved into the middle. Holloman was credited with one solo tackle and five assists last week.

Eagles right guard Todd Herremans disputed the notion that Lee was the main reason the Eagles' offense couldn't get its running game going in the last meeting, or that Lee's absence would be telling this week.

"He played a good game. We didn't play our best game," Herremans said. "Sean's a special player, but it's still the NFL. They're going to have good 'backers out there, no matter what."

Left tackle Jason Peters agreed with Herremans. He said Lee's presence or absence "ain't no big deal."

"We beat ourselves, the first game we played 'em. We're going to go out Sunday and try to redeem ourselves. Him not playing, he's a big part of their defense, but he ain't gonna stop what we've got going."

If the Cowboys have an advantage Sunday, other than playing at home in the Jerrydome, it is that they are a more veteran team that has played for a playoff berth in the final week of the season each of the past 2 years (though they've lost both times). The Eagles haven't been in the playoffs or in position to play for a berth in their last game since 2010.

Kelly was asked yesterday if he is curious how his team will respond to the one-and-done imperative.

"I don't think 'curious' is the word," he said. "I think 'excited' is the word. I think we're all excited about going down there, with what's at stake and what we can do. I'm not Curious George, wondering how we're going to show up or if we're going to show up. We're excited about playing a really, really good team that beat us the last time we played 'em. And obviously, there's a lot at stake."