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Can the Eagles avoid the trap on Sunday?

If Sunday night's game in AT&T Stadium were any other game - and not the one that will decide the NFC East championship - it would be a dead trap game, a steel-jawed, spring-loaded, hidden-beneath-the-leaves invitation to pain and defeat.

(Yong Kim/Staff file photo)
(Yong Kim/Staff file photo)Read more

If Sunday night's game in AT&T Stadium were any other game - and not the one that will decide the NFC East championship - it would be a dead trap game, a steel-jawed, spring-loaded, hidden-beneath-the-leaves invitation to pain and defeat.

Or course, given the circumstance, that's not possible, right?

"I think we learned a pretty valuable lesson against Minnesota, and it's fresh in our minds," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said as the Eagles prepared for Sunday's meeting with the Cowboys in the cavernous Jerry Jones Pleasure Palace and Pole-Dancing Emporium.

That's right. It was just two weeks ago that the Eagles, having promised they saw the trap and would step around it, stepped into something different entirely against Matt Cassel and the Vikings. Lesson learned, they say.

Unfortunately, that's not how it works in the NFL, and the Eagles will have to do more against the Cowboys than just acknowledge that on-any-given-Sunday-blah-blah-blah. They have to really believe it. By halftime, we'll know if they did.

On the surface, the game is a horrible mismatch. The smart guys in Las Vegas think so, and they don't get paid to be wrong. When Dallas lost quarterback Tony Romo to injury the betting line that had favored the Eagles by three points jumped to seven points. Factor in the standard three-point cushion allowed a home team and that means the professional bookmakers believe the Eagles are 10 points better than Dallas right now. In a showdown game to decide a division title, that might as well be a million.

Consider that a year ago, the Eagles wouldn't have been rated 10 points better than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Even two months ago, when the Cowboys beat the Eagles in Lincoln Financial Field - in a game in which Romo stunk, by the way - there was no way to predict that the season would come down to a road game in which the Eagles would be heavy favorites.

It has happened, though, and it has happened because Dallas is brutally bad on defense, ridiculously inconsistent overall, and escaped its third straight loss only by dint of playing a team last week that is somehow even worse. (And, at that, they still needed a last-play miracle from an apparently crippled quarterback.)

The Cowboys don't just come into Sunday night's game on fumes, they have been inhaling them. Chip Kelly surveyed this landscape and went for nearly the same metaphor.

"I don't think anybody in this group was like, 'Hey, we don't have to get ready this week because such and such and such and such isn't going to play.' I know this team is not going to fall for the banana-in-the-tailpipe trick," Kelly said. "We are not concerned with that stuff."

When not quoting Eddie Murphy, Kelly made a lot of sense, as he always does. The Eagles are professionals, and they know what is on the line, and, well, Minnesota was Minnesota. True enough, and one unexplainable loss coming after five straight wins doesn't seem to mean as much after the Eagles pushed past the pliable Bears in the next game.

"I'm confident that if we stumble, God forbid, we'll get it back," cornerback Cary Williams said before the Minnesota game. "This team doesn't give up. I don't see a letdown with this team if we happen to falter."

They did falter, and then they did get it back against Chicago. And Matt Cassel, whatever his issues, is a lot better NFL quarterback than Kyle Orton, who is replacing Romo. Still, there is something shining there beneath the leaves, and it still looks too easy to step around.

What makes it dangerous is that the Eagles now have something to protect while nothing is expected of the Cowboys. All it takes is one measly win over a diminished team - one that wasn't all that good prior to being diminished - for the Eagles to make the postseason in Kelly's rookie season and get a home playoff game to boot. After that, let the dreaming begin.

But first they have to beat a team without its starting quarterback, without its best linebacker; a team that has split its last eight games giving up an average of 32 points; a team that operates under the withering shadow of a megalomaniacal owner and at the direction of an apparently overmatched head coach; and a team whose last memory of its home field is being booed off it. What could possibly go wrong?

"I think everybody understands what's at stake," Kelly said. "It's the first game of the playoffs for us and for them. If you win on Sunday, you get to play again, and if you don't win on Sunday, you go home."

What could go wrong, if something goes wrong, will be apparent early. If the Eagles can dominate the first half, the Cowboys will wilt away and accept their whupping. No one will blame them given the way the odds are stacked. But if Dallas can hang around, or even take advantage of turnovers or other Eagles mistakes and get in a position of control, then it will be interesting to see how the Eagles respond. If they came into the game believing it would be a game, that would help.

We'll see about that one. The Minnesota game should be a handy reminder that there are dangers in the woods, and it doesn't take more than one bad step or two to find them. The real key to avoiding a trap, after all, is truly believing there is one.