BREAKING NEWS: The biggest thing the Dallas Cowboys can do differently, when they encounter the Eagles on Sunday for the second time in 17 days, is play better.
This is what the Eagles expect; they were as surprised as anyone at how the Thanksgiving visit to the Jerrydome got out of hand, the Birds winning by a 33-10 margin that could have been greater had they been a bit sharper in the red zone. They'd prepared for a much more formidable opponent.
What they don't expect this week, in the game that could decide which of these 9-4 teams goes to the playoffs, is some huge shift in tactics or personnel. We're 13 games into the season. These are NFC East rivals who meet twice a season. This will be the shortest interval for any Eagles regular-season rematch with a divisional opponent since games 2 weeks apart against Washington in November 1999. Nobody's going to break out the wishbone.
"Our defense really doesn't change. Most defenses don't change a lot," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said yesterday. "Usually, their game plan, what they saw, whatever your weaknesses were, what they game-planned for, they probably have seen the same weaknesses, and think they can exploit the same things. A lot of times, the game plans [in rematches] are very, very similar, with one or two wrinkles here or there that they'll add . . . The small things count even more. We know what they're doing, they know what we're doing, it's just who can execute better."
Speaking yesterday to Philadelphia-area reporters on a conference call, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo said he agreed there will be no secret weapons.
"Football, at the end of the day, is still hitting, tackling and being physical and tough," Romo said. "I think we weren't our best versions of ourselves, throwing, catching, this last time. I think our football team just feels very anxious to get out there and do better than what we did."
Playing the rematch so quickly "can be good. It can be tough, too," Romo said. "They won that game convincingly in all three phases. You go back and look - they did a great job against our defense, they did great against our offense, and they did well on special teams. When you look at it, you have to understand that we can't just be a little bit better; we have to improve a lot, to have a chance to win this game."
The Cowboys can do a better job of getting the ball to Jason Witten, who caught only one pass for 8 yards on Thanksgiving. They probably can extend plays longer, given that Romo has the benefit of a longer preparation time for his injured back, Dallas not having played since beating Chicago a week ago. Defensively, they can jam the box to try to keep LeSean McCoy from gaining 159 yards on 25 carries.
But to win, the Cowboys probably need to find some holes for DeMarco Murray, the NFL's rushing leader (1,606 yards on 320 carries) who was held to 73 yards on 20 carries last time. The Eagles aren't getting gashed much on the ground these days. The last 100-yard rusher against them was the 49ers' Frank Gore, in the fourth game of the season.
"Everything kind of builds off that running game," Jenkins said. "Romo's a lot more comfortable in the games, and he's a lot more productive when that run game is hitting on all cylinders. So I don't expect 'em to change their philosophy. But you will see a couple of different tendency-breakers."
Defensive end Fletcher Cox, who has emerged as a dominant player, particularly against the run, indicated he didn't see how much would be different. "They want to run the ball. In order to do that, they've got to block us," Cox said.
Eagles coach Chip Kelly suggested it's easy to get caught up in trying to change for the second matchup, and misstep. He said the Eagles didn't hold anything back in the first meeting, thinking ahead to the rematch.
"Just go play," he said. "I think you can paralyze yourself by trying to overanalyze it - 'They think that we know that they think this, so that we think the same thing that this will' - we're going to go play. I've got great respect for [the Dallas coaches]. I would imagine DeMarco Murray's probably going to carry the ball a lot against us in our game. I think they'll probably try to throw the ball to Dez Bryant in our game. They'll probably try to find the tight end a lot, probably in third-down situations . . . we're going to give the ball to LeSean McCoy, in our game."
The biggest variable the second time around might be Romo's back. He played last time on 3 days' rest and was not elusive, sometimes going down before pressure got to him. Romo looked much better against the Bears last Thursday, as Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis noted. Davis said he expected Romo to look "completely different against us."
Kelly said the Eagles prepared for an effective Romo last time, and are doing that again; they aren't preparing for "a lot of quarterback power runs," or anything, just because Romo is healthier.
"That's what happens when you play people the second time; you try to make up things that you think they'll do. They're going to do what they do," Kelly said. "But with any player, when you have a couple extra days of rest, that helps you. We're preparing for Tony Romo at his best, and when Tony's at his best, we have to be at our best."
Cox said all the talk about Romo's back being a big factor last time sounded like excuse-making, to him. Though Brandon Graham had talked afterward of Romo not being able to spin and dance away from pressure the way he usually does, when Cox was asked about that yesterday, he said: "When you got the heat coming, then you'll lay down, too. Not a lot of quarterbacks want to take a lot of hits."
Romo sounded as if he agreed with Cox about excuse-making. On the conference call, Romo talked of relishing "the opportunity to put your best foot forward" this time around, but he wouldn't discuss how he felt on Thanksgiving, or how he was affected.
"I didn't play as well as I wanted to. I'm excited about playing in this game," he said.