2011 NFL Week 8: Eagles – Cowboys Preview by Lloyd Vance

Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo will lead his team into Lincoln Financial Field for a crucial NFC East battle with the “desperate” Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football

 

Dallas Cowboys (3-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (2-4), Sunday October 30th, 8:20 PM ET on NBC

Broadcast Team: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, and Michele Tafoya (Field reporter)

The 101st meeting of the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, just like the ghosts and goblins of the Halloween, definitely will signal the official midway point of the 2011 NFL regular season.  Sunday Night Football will be back in Philly for a game that I am calling, “Something to Prove”.  The Philadelphia Eagles (2-4) have a chance to get back into the division race with a win and the Dallas Cowboys (3-3) want to show that they are now the kings of the NFC East.  The Cowboys lead the all-time series 56-44 and have won five of the last six meetings, including embarrasing Philadelphia in the 2009 NFL Playoffs Wildcard Round.  The hated Cowboys will be bringing Eagles’ fans public enemy number one, America’s new golden boy quarterback Tony Romo, so you better get your popcorn ready for a slugfest.

So far this season, the Cowboys have been a little up-and-down as shown by their win over the NFC West-leading Niners (Week 2) while also having losing two huge double-digit lead games to the NY Jets (Week 1) and Detroit Lions (Week 4).  However Dallas — playing their 2nd divisional game of the season with the first being a Week 3 win over the Washington Redskins by a score of 18-15 – are coming off a dominate thrashing of the hapless St. Louis Rams by a score of 34-7 and have the opportunity of going 2-0 in the competitive division.  While Philadelphia — beginning a three-game stretch at home with games against Dallas, Chicago and Arizona — looks to gain momentum from a 20-13 win at Washington in Week 6 while chasing the elusive .500 mark.  The good news for Philly fans is that a bye week surely should have refreshed the Eagles, who will be getting back players DE Trent Cole and OT Jason Peters from injury for this huge rivalry game. “The fact that we got the win before the bye is good because now we can put some wins together,” said Eagles star free-agency pick-up CB Nnamdi Asomugha.  He added, “I think for a young team and a new team, getting that win is a good spark. It’s what you need and hopefully it helps more people believe what we can do.”

I can only imagine the number of offices that will be empty on Monday morning as people sleep-in after watching the rivalry that I put right up there above any other traditional NFL feuds.  Lincoln Financial Field will definitely be rocking on Sunday Night since die-hard Eagles fans know there are really two games a season that are “Must Win” and both of them are against the hated Cowboys.  You can have the Steelers-Browns, Browns-Bengals, Patriots-Colts, Cowboys-Redskins, Packers-Lions, Raiders-Broncos and Patriots-Jets as Eagles-Cowboys means more to me.  I have never missed a game in my over 25+ years of watching professional football, especially when former head coach Buddy Ryan was leading the Birds against “America’s Team”.  Ironically it was formerly Philadelphia-based company, NFL Films, that gave the Cowboygs that monniker, but Philadelphians say those that title with disdain right from their hearts.  In my home growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, this game took on a whole new meaning, because I am ashamed to say, my brother has been a stinking Cowboys fan since we were kids first watching football in the late ‘70s.  And he always loves to needle our Father – a life-long suffering Eagles fan — whether it is calling or texting, every time that these two teams play.  He is more than overjoyed to tell our Pop that the Cowboys own five Super Bowl titles while the Eagles have not won a championship in over 50 years and have never won the “big” game.  The strange thing is that my brother is not alone as a Cowboys fan living in the Philadelphia area – probably due to the fact the ‘Boys were on TV every Sunday at 4:00 PM for like twenty straight years – as there are many “never have been to Texas” Cowboys’ fans who year after year love to talk about Super Bowl rings to hometown Eagles fans. The whole thing makes for some great local heated banter on message boards and sports talk radio during the crazy week leading up to the game affectionately known as ‘Cowboys Week”.

Plus the fires of the rivalry were definitely fanned this week after new Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, son of former Birds’ head coach Buddy, called the Eagles supposed “Dream Team” about two months ago, “Overhyped”.  Ryan then added the now infamous quote, “We’re Gonna Kick Their Ass Anway”.  Ryan’s comments, to say the least, have not sat well with Philly’s lockeroom including never-quiet receiver DeSean Jackson, so you can expect a raucous sellout crowd on Sunday at the Linc.  And why not, finally after a 1-4 start that caused several Eagles’ fans to be looking for the nearest bridge, the team’s win over the Redskins and some other statistics are starting to bring some opitism in Philadelphia.  Under head coach Andy Reid, the Eagles have won 12 consecutive games after a bye — the longest such winning streak since the bye was instituted in 1990. Philadelphia also is an NFL-best 18-4 (.818) after a bye.  Cowboys 2nd-year head coach Jason Garrett – 1-1 for his career vs. Philadelphia — said of the challenge of facing the Eagles, “It’ll be a great challenge for us. They’re an awful good football team at their place. They’ve got a lot of playmakers on both sides of the ball. We know the challenges of the Cowboys playing the Eagles. We’ve got to get locked in on that. There’s a lot of football to be played.” NFL television watching football fans also always circle this one on their calendar too as these two teams have met 30 times in prime-time since 2000.

Both the Eagles and Cowboys are coming into their Week 8 battle on high-notes.  In Week 7, Dallas embarrassed the lowly Rams while the Eagles had their bye week to savor their Week 6 season-saving win over the Redskins.  This match-up has gotten bigger and better each week as Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and his sometimes erratic offensive line seem to have finally gotten healthier and more consistent.  And the seemingly rejuvenated Eagles always seem to turn it up a notch at this time of year under Head Coach Andy Reid (15-10 for his career vs. Dallas), but this game comes after a tumultuous week.  The 13-year head coach had to deal with mouthy corner Asante Samuel speaking, through the media, about his strong discontent over allegedly being on the trading block at the league’s October 18th deadline.  Samuel even went so far as to say that the Eagles front-office tandem of GM Howie Roseman and Head Executive Joe Banner were playing fantasy football with owner Jeff Lurie’s money.

In regards to the action on the field, this mid-season match-up you know will have future division and possibly playoff implications.  The storylines for this game definitely start with the quarterbacks as Vick leads the Eagles against Romo and the Cowboys. The 2011 NFL Season has already been a trying one for Vick (123-200, 1573 yards, 9 TDs, 8 INTs and 84.4 QBR) as he has endured injuries to hand/ finger and head (concussion) while also dealing with questions about his sometimes leaky offensive line, his ability to pick-up the blitz, turnovers (15 total including an NFL-high 7 fumbles), his penchant for sometimes throwing into double-coverage, and overall not having the same magic carpet ride that 2010 tended to be for the NFL ‘s Comeback Player of the Year. However I know it was only one game, but the Week 6 win in Washington DC may also be the catlyst that Vick (237 passing yards and 1 TD), needs to get Philadelphia back to the playoffs.  Though the boxscore was not perfect for the Eagles or their quarterback they did get the win which naturally has brought back some much-needed swagger to a squad who were touted as a “Dream Team”, after winning the NFL’s offseason, only to stumble out the gates.

For as much as Vick is maligned for his on-the-field play, it is not even close, when compared nationally to Dallas’ quarterback Tony Romo.  The small-college former NFL 3rd stringer holds several Dallas’ franchise single-season passing records, but to his doubters he will be forever known for “choking” away games in the 4th quarter. And man-oh-man do the Cowboys always seem to be in close games where Romo’s late-game uneasiness has a chance of rearing its ugy head — before their Week 7 dominant win over the Rams, Dallas had been in a stretch of 11 straight games decided by four points or less. Though Romo (140-217, 1756 yards, 10 TDs, 6 INTs, and a 93.4 QBR) seemed to rid some of his “choking” demons by leading Dallas to an overtime win over the Niners in Week 2 and a close 18-15 win over the Redskins in Week 3  in both  gutty performances – played through broken ribs and an earlier collapsed lung — to some, the star quarterback will forever be known for bobbling the snap on a potential game-winning field in the Cowboys loss to the Seahawks in 2006 and his Cobo trip during the team’s playoff bye week before their 2007 home playoff loss to the Giants.

Statistically the two teams seem to be evenly matched offensively (Dallas has scored 149 points and the Eagles have scored 145 points) with both leaning on their passing games first to get early leads so their attacking defenses can pin-their-ears-back.  There are always players to watch in each game and this one is no different.  The Cowboys marquee players are WR’s Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, TE Jason Witten, breakout rookie RB DeMarco Murray and Romo on offense and on defense athletic LB DeMarcus Ware is their lynchpin.  Murray, a 2011 3rd round pick from Oklahoma, No. 71 overall, just last week against the Rams rushed for a franchise-record 253 yards with one touchdown (91 yards, 2nd longest in team history). His 253 rushing yards were the second-most rushing yards in a game by a rookie in NFL history (Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, 296). Murray also surpassed Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith’s team-record 237-yard performance and currently ranks 2nd among NFL rookies with 324 rushing yards (6.6 ypc).  Bryant said of Murray’s breakout performance, “Outstanding. Great. Amazing. I can keep going. He said he wanted opportunities, and he got what we wanted. The rest is history.”  Offensively (averaging 24.2 points per game and 3rd in yardage at 441.7 per game), the Eagles will counter with RB LeSeasn McCoy — 105 rushes for 569 yards, 5.4 ypc, and 6 TDs (3rd in NFL), Vick, and on defense they are welcoming back Pro Bowl high energy sack man Trent Cole (5 sacks).

Look for the Cowboys (averaging 415.5 total yards per game) to establish the run early with their three-headed monster backfield of Tashard Choice, DeMarco Murray, and speedy Felix Jones (if he plays…ankle) as the Eagles have allowed 743 rushing yards (ranked 23rd in NFL) for an average of over 100 yards per game – plus get the ball to Pro Bowl TE Jason Witten and Austin.  I think the “Murray-plan” from a week ago will definitely be Garrett’s agenda unless Eagles rookie defensive coordinator Juan Castillo can dial-up the same kind of “pressure” that the late Jim Johnson was so great at doing against Romo and the Cowboys.  Some NFL experts say that the Eagles 23-7 demolition of the Cowboys on Christmas Day 2006 provided the blueprint for stopping Romo and Philadelphia needs to find a way to play with the intensity of that evening.  In that win, Johnson turned his defense loose as Romo was harassed over and over (sacked twice, but was hit at least 10 times) into throwing two interceptions, one of which was returned over 100 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Lito Sheppard.

TThe key players for the Eagles defense will be Pro Bowl players CB Asante Samuel (just doin’ his job), DT Cullen Jenkins, DE Jason Babin (7 sacks to rank 3rd in NFL), Asomugha and Cole.  But other Eagles’ defender, namely the Birds underachieving linebackers, will need to step-up.  The Eagles will need to get a solid effort from MLB Jamar Chaney and their Wide-9 defensive formation, whch outside of their recent win over the Redskins (allowed only 42 rushing yards), have been consistently gouged by teams running the football.  With the Eagles still working out the kinks on defense –- have allowed 145 points for an average of 24.2 points per game -– they cannot afford to have another letdown at home – have lost five straight games at the Linc including their 2010 Wildcard loss to the Green Bay Packers.

When the Eagles have the ball offensive, they will need to have balance first and foremost.  In their Week 6 win over Washington, Vick threw the ball 31 times and emerging back McCoy had 28 rushes for 126 yards and a touchdown.  If the Eagles don’t establish their running game or have balance, the Cowboys will harass Vick all-day.  So it will incumbent on Reid and offensive cordinator Marty Mornhinweg to utilize the running and screen game to slow down Ware and company.  Also the Eagles’ recent offensive line woes must be corrected, because if Philly loses Vick, they are sunk (see the play of backups, Kafka and V.Y).  Throughout much of the Birds’ first six games – sacked 17 times plus being hit in double-digit numerous other times.

Look for the Birds to also find explosive Pro Bowl WR DeSean Jackson often as they need the mercurial receiver to get his touches early and to make big plays down the field (over 40 yards) so that Philly can get a lead.  In Philadelphia’s December 2010 win in Dallas, the vitory was fueled by big plays from Pro Bowl players Vick and Jackson as the Eagles outraced the Cowboys in a 30-27 win.  Jackson was speedy as he got deep over and over to the tune of 4 catches for over 200 yards and Vick was a force inside and outside of the pocket.  I am sure the Cowboys’ defense will be looking for some revenge against Jackson for his  “Nest-Tea Plunge Endzone” antics while scoring a touchdown when the two teams met on December 12th on Monday Night Football.  You can definitely count on Cowboys pass rushers DeMarcus Ware (8 sacks, 2nd in NFL) and Anthony Spencer plus Pro Bowl NT Jay Ratliff to bring their A-game against the hated Eagles.  If the Eagles are to have any success against Ware and his mates, Vick will need to make plays in and out of the pocket plus spread the ball around to everyone and not just recently-hot WR Jeremy Maclin (37 receptions for 489 yards, 13.2 ypr, and 3 TDs).

Key match-ups to watch for:

Eagles RB LeSean McCoy vs. the Dallas OLBs – The Cowboys outside linebackers (Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware) are known more for rushing the passer than their coverage skills.  I am sure the Pennsylvania native knows all too well the history between these two teams so I am sure he will want to have a huge performance.  We will see if McCoy follows in the footsteps of past Eagles RB’s Wilbert Montgomery, Duce Staley, and Brian Westbrook by having a big game against the hated Cowboys.  Also watch for former Penn State LB Sean Lee as he is becoming one of the top nickel linebackers in the NFL.

The Eagles Receivers vs. the Dallas Secondary -Though the Cowboys have some big names in their secondary (CB Terrance Newman, CB Mike Jenkins, CB Orlando Scandrick and others) but this group has had trouble covering man-to-man especially against play-action.  The Cowboys constantly try to help their safeties on passing downs, so the Eagles could attack them there.  Expect Vick, Maclin, and D-Jax to try and get deep early.  Also watch for tight end Brent Celek on seam routes against their safeties and Lee.

The Eagles O-line vs. the Dallas Pass Rush – The Cowboys have a formidable group rushing the passer led by double-digit sack guys Spencer and Ware (has 4.5 sacks in 5 prior meetings w/ Eagles).  The key will be for veteran bookends Jason Peters (ankle) and Todd Herramins to get their hands on the smaller pass rushers.  Also I will be real interested in the Eagles’ smallish interior, rookie center Jason Kelce, rookie guard Danny Watkins and veteran guard Evan Mathis, against man-eating NT Jay Ratliff.

Eagles LB’s vs. Cowboys TE Jason Witten – The Pro Bowl tight end always seems to save his best for the Eagles, probably since they passed over him for former Eagles TE LJ Smith in the 2003 NFL Draft.  The Eagles set of young linebackers (Chaney, Fokou, and Rolle) along with their safeties will need to make sure coverage holes are not left open for Witten underneath.  Remember Witten (36 receptions for 449 yards, 12.5 ypr, and 3 TDs) had one of his best games in the Cowboys 38-17 shellacking of the Eagles in 2005 on Sunday Night Football.  In that game, he had 3 catches for 77 yards with one touchdown and also had the play of the game as he ran helmetless for a 53-yard catch and run.   The linebackers will also have to keep an eye on Murray and Jones (ankle), if he plays.

Eagles DE’s Trend Cole and Jason Babin vs. Cowboys OT’s rookie Tyron Smith and Doug Free – This match-up will serve as the barometer of how much pressure Romo will see.  Everyone knows Romo gets happy-feet when pressured, so the Eagles high-motor sack men will try to get around the two giant offensive tackles to hurry, harrass, and sack “pretty boy” passer, Romo.  Pressure will also keep the ball out of Austin, Bryant, and Witten’s hands. The Birds D-line will also have to tackle well in stopping Cowboys breakout rookie DeMarco Murray.

LV’s Pick:  With both teams’ recent history of playing in close games, you can expect this one to be a last-second field goal game with the possibility of overtime.  Though the Cowboys have the better rookie kicker in Danny Bailey over Eagles Alex Henery, I do believe that a Romo mistake will setup Philadelphia for a game-winner.  To say the least, this is a “Desperation Bowl” special as the Eagles cannot fall to 2-5 as that hole will be to insurrmountable to break out of.  It is going to take a total team effort and you can expect the home crowd, Vick, McCoy, D-Jax, and Babin to play big parts to getting a “W” in a must-win situation.  Also there will be a lot of emotion at the Linc as the Eagles honor late DC Jim Johnson and former Buddy Ryan era corner, Eric Allen, by addin them to the team’s Ring of Honor.  Eagles win 23-20 as they end their 5-game home losing streak and continue Reid’s domination after a bye.

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