This Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) will travel to Jerry’s World to take on the Dallas Cowboys (8-7) in a game that will decide the NFC East title and each team’s playoff status. The winner will take the division and play at least one home playoff game; if the Eagles win, they will be the 3rd seed and likely face the New Orleans Saints. If the Cowboys win, they’ll be the 4th seed and likely face the San Francisco 49ers.
So, which NFC East team should come out on top? Let’s break it down, position by position:
The Cowboys will be trotting out Kyle Orton in all likelihood this Sunday, filling in for an injured Tony Romo (back). Orton, who signed with the Cowboys two season ago to be their backup, has only appeared in two games this season, and he’s only attempted five passes. He has been in this role before, back in Kansas City, and played pretty well. Sure, it was the defense (which allowed nine points per game during that run) that may have been the main reason for the Chiefs’ success, but they did rally around Orton as a QB and the offense scored big TDs when needed.
It will be hard, however, for Orton to make up for the loss of Romo. He has a solid arm, but he isn’t mobile whatsoever and has not had time to sync up with the Cowboys first-string receivers, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Miles Austin. While he is an above-average backup for sure, he is a far cry from Romo and could struggle against an Eagles defense that sacked Jay Cutler five times in Week 16.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, will be featuring the league’s hottest quarterback, second-year signal-caller Nick Foles. Foles came in in relief of Michael Vick against the Giants earlier this season and has been starting ever since Vick pulled a hamstring in the second game, three weeks later, against New York. In 10 games, Foles has thrown for 2628 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions and leads the NFL with a 118.8 passer rating. He has also rushed for 226 yards and three touchdowns.
This is not the same guy who completed 38% of his passes for 80 yards ten weeks ago against the Cowboys. This is a more confident, more accurate, and more intelligent quarterback who has found a way to make the most out of the offensive talent this team possesses. If Romo were playing, this would likely be a different story, but the Eagles clearly will have the stronger man under center this Sunday.
No one provides the total package that Eagles RB LeSean McCoy does. There is a reason he is 2nd this week on ESPN’s MVP Watch; he has been the primary catalyst behind the fast-paced, no-huddle offensive machine that is Chip Kelly’s offense. With 1476 yards, he is on pace to win the NFL’s rushing title handily and break the Eagles’ franchise record for rushing yards in a season. He’s also 2nd among qualified running backs with 5.1 yards per carry (first being his counterpart in this matchup, DeMarco Murray).
In the first matchup with Dallas, McCoy ran the ball 18 times for only 55 yards. That, however, was a fluke; with the passing game in disarray, Kelly relied heavily on McCoy even in obvious rushing situations and the Cowboys stacked the box to stop him. Now, with Nick Foles playing as well as he has, the Cowboys will not be able to play seven or eight in the box to contain McCoy. His ability to find holes and burst through them is nearly unparalleled in the NFL, but what really makes him special is his ability to change direction in a split-second and bounce a run to the outside for a big gain. Dallas’ defenders will have trouble stopping him throughout the game.
The Eagles’ defensive line will be charged with stopping Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, who has missed two games this season (including the Week 7 PHI-DAL matchup) but is still among the league’s leaders in every rushing category. As mentioned earlier, he leads the NFL in yards per carry (5.4), carrying the ball 200 times for 1073 yards and nine touchdowns. A powerful back with great ability to find holes and attack them, Murray has been explosive when given the ball this season.
His problem, however, has been the fact that Jason Garrett has felt pressure to utilize his $100-plus million quarterback too often. Murray sees 38% of his carries in the first quarter as opposed to just 20% in the fourth quarter. He also sees 68% of his carries on first down; even on 2nd and 4, or 3rd and 2, Dallas opts to go to its passing game. While he is not as talented as McCoy, he certainly has the ability to pick up some yards against the Eagles defense, and if Orton does end up starting, he could see the ball a lot more.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Both teams have a lot of talent at these positions. Even with Jeremy Maclin lost for the year in training camp, the Philadelphia Eagles have made do with the plethora of other weapons they’ve accumulated: wide receivers DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper, and Jason Avant, and tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek.
Jackson and Cooper have emerged as quite the 1-2 punch this season, especially with Foles under center. Jackson has 1304 yards and 9 touchdowns to lead the team, and could break the franchise single-season record this Sunday. He is still the deep, big-play threat he was in 2010, but he has also added a more consistent dimension to his repertoire: the intermediate passing game.
Cooper was dormant during Vick’s stay as starting QB, but has exploded with Foles under center; he has 796 yards and 8 touchdowns while averaging 19.1 yards per reception. Ertz (426 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Celek (431 yards, 5 touchdowns) do not boast unbelievable statistics, but seem to always be there to make key catches on 3rd down or in the red zone. The diversity of talent on this team gives Foles several good options on any given play, which is why he has been able to be so efficient this season.
The Cowboys receiving corps is led by Dez Bryant, one of last year’s biggest Pro Bowl snubs and one of the league’s top three wide receivers. Although having a slight down year, Bryant still has 85 receptions for 1134 yards and 12 touchdowns and seems to be there to make big plays for Dallas when they need them. He is flanked by Terrance Williams, who has emerged as the team’s second wideout, and slot receivers Cole Beasley and Miles Austin, who has continued to struggle. Romo’s top 3rd down target is still Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, who is second on the team with 716 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Overall, it’s hard to say which team is better at these positions. While the Eagles may have been more consistent this season, the talent of guys like Bryant, Witten, and Austin cannot be ignored. When you take everything into account, it looks like a wash in the receiving game.
The Eagles are superior along their offensive line in almost every way to the Dallas Cowboys. They feature three, maybe even four, guys who are having Pro Bowl-caliber seasons. The strength of the Birds’ line is truly the left side, featuring All-Pros Jason Peters and Evan Mathis, along with center Jason Kelce who has played at a very high level this season. All three have been dominant in the run game and opened up gaping holes for LeSean McCoy and Co. to run through. There is a reason Philadelphia averages 5.2 yards per carry, highest in the NFL. On the right side, Todd Herremans and Lane Johnson have also been quite productive this year.
Dallas doesn’t have nearly the talent along its offensive line, featuring more role players and veterans like Doug Free than Pro Bowl-caliber players. While the line only gives up two to three sacks per game, Tony Romo has had pressure in his face all year, and a resurgent pass rush for the Eagles could get home several times on Sunday against Kyle Orton. They do get a good push in the run game, helping Murray put up such good numbers, but their pass blocking is suspect.
The Eagles’ pass blocking is pretty good as well; while the statistics might suggest that they allow a lot of sacks, most of them are coverage sacks that Nick Foles would rather take than throwing and errant pass with the chance of a turnover.
We stay at the line of scrimmage, comparing the team’s defensive lines. These two teams have gone in opposite directions over the past couple years. While the Cowboys have switched back to a 4-3, the Eag
les and first-year defensive coordinator Billy Davis have transitioned, smoothly I might add, to a 3-4 scheme.
The Cowboys defensive line has been pretty strong for them. While former All-Pro DeMarcus Ware has struggled since moving from his stand-up 3-4 position to his hand-on-the-ground defensive end spot in the 4-3, Jason Hatcher (9.0 sacks) and George Selvie (7.0 sacks) have anchored the front four.
These guys, however, are not so stout against the run. They rank 27th in the league against the run in terms of total yardage and give up the 3rd-most yards per run. They struggle to clog holes, and their linebacker play has diminished due to some key injuries (more on that later).
After a rough start to the season, the Eagles’ front fo—er, three—have seen a resurgence over the past two months since GM Howie Roseman traded nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga to the Patriots. Defensive ends Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox have been extremely disruptive; Thornton has seven tackles for a loss, which leads the team and includes a safety last week against Chicago. Cox has three sacks and three passes defended. Rookie Bennie Logan, who has played the majority of snaps at nose tackle since Sopoaga was traded, has also played much better as of late and is one of the main reasons the Eagles allow the 3rd-least yards per carry in the league.
The Eagles are able to get pressure from their front three, but it’d be nice to see them getting more, and more consistently. Again, it seems to be a wash when you look at these two units side-by-side.
Like at the quarterback position, this would be less one-sided if the Cowboys hadn’t been marred by one key injury.
Without middle linebacker Sean Lee, the Cowboys have really struggled. They have had one of the worst run defenses in the NFL in almost every category you could name and that will likely continue against the Eagles. Weakside linebacker Bruce Carter has picked up some of Lee’s slack with 90 tackles, 5 for a loss, but it has not been enough. Guys like Ernie Sims struggle to get off blocks in the running game and teams are able to just run the ball down their throats.
One thing, however, that they do well is cover tight ends; it will be interesting to see how productive Ertz and Celek can be against Dallas on Sunday.
The Eagles’ linebackers, on the other hand, have been playing at a whole other level over the past seven or eight weeks. Led by middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who is having the best statistical season (120 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 7 passes defended, 2 interceptions) of any Eagles linebacker since Byron Evans in 1992, they’ve been solid in terms of stopping run, generating a pass rush, and covering tight ends. All three are responsibilities of 3-4 linebackers.
Trent Cole has been the primary pass rusher, and he leads the team with 8.0 sacks (all in his last six games). Connor Barwin, signed to anchor the new 3-4 defense, has been great in pass coverage, with 10 passes defended, and in the pass rush with 5.0 sacks. Despite missing over a game and a half, sophomore inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks is 2nd on the team with 94 tackles and leads the NFL with four fumbles recovered. He also has two interceptions.
Everyone in the Eagles linebacking corps understands their role, and is performing their respective jobs at a high level right now.
Coming into this season, both teams thought their cornerbacks would be a strength coming into the season. After five or six weeks, neither team could say that anymore. Both defenses were struggling and neither had an answer. Since then, however, the Eagles and Cowboys have gone in opposite directions at the cornerback position.
The resurgence of former Super Bowl champion Cary Williams, the surprisingly good play of Bradley Fletcher, and a breakout, Pro Bowl-worthy campaign from Brandon Boykin have this defense in a good spot heading into this Sunday’s showdown with Dallas. Since Week 7, when Bryant and Williams burned the Eagles cornerbacks for 16 catches, 181 yards, and a touchdown, they have improved drastically. They’ve managed to limit the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery, and create turnovers in the process—those three have a combined 10 interceptions.
On the other hand, however, the Cowboys have continued to struggle. Both veterans, Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr, have underperformed this year. They are good man-to-man cover guys, but against a team as deep as the Eagles, the Cowboys will be forced to run a zone. They are not suited to cover guys like Jackson, Cooper, Avant, Ertz, and Celek; they will be overmatched. While Morris Claiborne, the team’s 1st-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, will return this Sunday, it will hardly be enough for the league’s 31st-ranked pass defense.
This is one position where the Eagles are definitely lacking, especially if rookie Earl Wolff (questionable) cannot play. While Nate Allen has certainly made drastic improvements this season, with 77 tackles and six passes defended, he and Patrick Chung are not exactly a safety pairing that strikes fear into the hearts of opponents. They are weak in both the run and pass games.
Dallas, on the other hand, has one of the league’s most productive free safeties in Barry Church, who leads the team with 127 tackles. He also has 6 passes defended and 3 forced fumbles. He has been making big tackles to save big plays all season long for Dallas. Strong safety Jeff Heath has been a liability, but still, I have more faith in Church than either of the Eagles safeties.
It’s the battle of the Joneses. Cowboys punter Chris Jones has had a solid season, his 3rd with Dallas but first as the full-time punter. With a net of 39.5, 28 punts inside the 20, and only 9.0 yards per return, he has been helping the Cowboys at least stay competitive in, if not win, the field-position battle.
Donnie Jones, however, has been unreal for the Eagles. Also known as “Donnie Football,” he has had 32 punts inside the 20, 40.2 net yards per punt, and allowed only 8.2 yards per return. Although he won’t get a Pro Bowl nod because he’s often been punting from midfield and therefore does not get the net yardage some punters do, really the only stat fan voters look at, if you have watched him this season you’ve seen some incredible punts.
Eagles placekicker Alex Henery, in his 3rd year out of Nebraska, isn’t having the greatest season. He’s hit 22-of-27 (82%) field goals, but is 6-of-9 (66%) from 40-49 yards and 1-for-2 (50%) from 50+ yards. While he’s automatic from inside 40, the Eagles can’t really use him on long field goal tries unless they’re desperate; while they can often pick up a couple of yards on 4th down instead of kicking, if the game comes down to a long kick off of his leg, it is hard to have faith as an Eagles fan.
Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey, however, has been stellar this season, making 25-of-27 (93%) field goals. He 8-of-8 from 40-49 yards and 6-of-7 (86%) from 50+ yards.