Cowboys-Eagles face-off in Desperation Bowl by Lloyd Vance

Dallas Cowboys stadium will surely be rocking on Christmas Eve as the Cowboys and Eagles square-off in a “Desperation Bowl” with huge playoff implications.  Back in Week 8, the Eagles romped over the Cowboys 34-7

Philadelphia Eagles (6-8) at Dallas Cowboys (8-6), Saturday December 24th, 4:15 PM ET on FOX

Broadcast Team: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, and Pam Oliver

The 102nd meeting of the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys will be one of the bigger games in the second-to-last week of the 2011 NFL regular season.  Both the Eagles and the NFC East division-leading Cowboys will be looking to further clear-up the NFC’s muddled playoff picture by coming away with a win in a sure-fire “Desperation Bowl”.  Of course the stage for this game could be already set after the New York Giants (7-7) face the New York Jets (8-6) meet in the1:00 PM ETslot.  The Cowboys and Giants have been locked in a season-long battle for the NFC East crown and if the G-Men are able to pull off a win versus their in-stadium rival, then both Dallas and Philadelphia will experience different feelings heading into their rivalry game.  If the Giants win at1 PM, then the Eagles will be eliminated from playoff contention and the Cowboys win or lose will have to prepare themselves for an “All or Nothing” game in Week 17 against the Giants.

For what it is worth, my gut is telling me that the NY Jets seem to be riding a much stronger sense of momentum than the NY Giants – have lost 5 of their last 6 games – so it would not shock me if the Eagles-Cowboys game really will still matter come 4:15 PM ET.  The Philadelphia Eagles, who are currently in the thralls of a two-game winning streak, surely will be looking to continue their recent surge as they travel to Big D to face the hated Cowboys.  While the Cowboys want to show that their late season swoons are a thing of the past and that they are playoff ready – can win division with a victory + a NY Giants loss.  The Cowboys lead the all-time series 56-45 and have won five of the last seven meetings, but the last time these two teams met in Week 8 on October 30th at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, it was an entirely different story.  In a dominating 34-7 win by the Eagles, the Cowboys had no answer offensively or defensively on the field.  Led by their explosive offense and some timely turnovers, the Birds jumped out to an early 24-0 halftime lead and never looked back – racked up 495 total yards.  Then after the game Dallas owner Jerry Jones to us reporters, “We Got Our Butts Kicked Today”.  The players of the game for Philadelphia were RB LeSean McCoy — had a career-high 185 yards rushing and two scores – and QB Michael Vick (21-28, 279 yards and 2 TDs) in the Sunday Night Football romp.

However with the playoffs and a good chance for a division title, so close, you can expect the ‘Boys to have more on their minds than spreading a little Christmas cheer.  Throughout this season, the Cowboys have continued to be “good”, but inconsistent.  As shown by high’s like beating the NFC West Champion Niners in Week 2 and lows like back-to-back heart-breaking losses in Weeks 13 and 14 to the Cardinals and NY Giants – both lost on missed late field goal attempts.  However Dallas is coming off a dominate thrashing of the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a score of 31-15 last Saturday and have the opportunity moving closer to their 2nd NFC East crown in 3 years.  While Philadelphia– need to win-out to while looking for a three-way tie at 8-8 with DAL and NYG in order to win division with a 5-1 NFC East record — is looking to finish strong.  In what can only be described as “a very strange” season that has had them go from the NFL’s darling “Dream Team” during training camp to an absolute train wreck where fans were calling for the head of HC Andy Reid – had an ugly four game losing streak including bad home losses to the Cardinals and Patriots – to winning 3 of their last 4 games including their last two to miraculous remain in the NFC East race despite an ugly 6-8 record at this time.  The good news for Philly fans is that the Eagles are finally playing some of their best football of the season – outscored their last two opponents 71-29 in wins over the Dolphins and NY Jets – but you have to wonder is it too much, too late.

And to no one’s surprise, the fires of this rivalry continue to be fanned by comments off the field.  In Week 8 it was Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, son of former Philadelphia head coach Buddy, saying that his team was going to beat the <butt> of the “Overhyped” Dream Eagles – too bad that all blew-up in the mouthy D-Coordinator’s face.   However this time the talk coming from the Cowboys is a lot more humble and is probably being used as internal motivation. Dallas owner and GM Jerry Jones recently said on the radio, “Because it is the Eagles and after the butt-kicking they gave us up inPhiladelphia, I’m scared.” The charismatic team figurehead added, “It’s that kind of feeling. The respect turns into being afraid of what they can do to you if you have some breakdowns out there, so you can put that scared there if you want to. I think sometimes I know I do my best when I’m scared.”  It will be real interesting to see which team turns their “fear” into a much-needed “W”.  Cowboys’ 2nd-year head coach Jason Garrett – 1-2 for his career vs. Philadelphia– and Reid (16-10 for his career vs.Dallas) really need to win this game to quiet their respective fanbases. 

In regards to the action on the field, this late-season match-up will have storylines aplenty.  And you definitely have to start with the two quarterbacks as Vick leads the Eagles against Romo and the Cowboys. The 2011 NFL Season has already been a trying one for Vick (211-352, 59.9%, 2675 yards, 13 TDs, and 13 INTs with 576 yards and 1 TD rushing) as he has endured a myriad of injuries (hand, concussion, and ribs) that have caused him to miss 3 games.  While also dealing with questions about his ability to pick-up the blitz, turnovers (22 including a team-high 9 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 been a couple games, but in the Eagles’ last two wins, Vick has been spectacular while finishing with 482 passing yards and scoring 4 TDs (3 throwing and 1 rushing).  You can really see that the Birds are a different team with their leader in the line-up.  The Eagles offensive line really has a done a nice job in the two wins as Vick has not been hit nearly as much as earlier in the season.  Look for Vick to lean on McCoy first in the running and screen game, then he will be able to take his shots down the field to WR Jeremy Maclin (finally healthy), WR DeSean “Big Play” Jackson, and TE Brent Celek (coming on off a career-day against NY Jets – 5 catches for career-high 156 yards, long of 73 yards, and 1 TD).  We will see if it is “Too Much, Too Late”, but Vick and his offensive mates do have swagger that should make Rex Ryan fearful. 

Michael Vick isn’t the only high-priced quarterback battling questions of his leadership.Dallas’ quarterback Tony Romo, who is either considered “America’s Golden Boy” or a “Choker”, depending on the fan that you talk to, also needs a win in Week 16 to solidify his season.  In the past two weeks, Romo has experienced both the agony and ecstasy of being the quarterback of America’s Team.  In the NY Giants’ loss many blamed Romo for not being able to lead his team to a comeback win and the following week, he answered the bell by playing one of his best games of the season in beating Tampa Bay on the road – finished with numbers 23-30, 249 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 INTs.  But to make some of the Dallas faithful forget his end-of-season problems – Dallas 18-2 in the month of November under Romo, but 12-14 in December and January – nothing less than wins over the Eagles in Week 16 and the NY Giants in Week 17 plus an NFC East title will silence his naysayers. And if we do know one thing, this game should be close – 9 of the Cowboys’ 14 games have been decided by six points or less — so the former small-school star needs to be ready to make a play in the 4th quarter versus the Eagles.  Luckily for Romo (317-483, 65.6%, 3895 yards, 29 TDs, 9 INTs, and a 102.6 QBR) he should have his full compliment of weapons for this game including TE Jason Witten and receivers Dez Bryant, Laurent Robinson, and Miles Austin (missed Week 8 game but is now healthy).

Statistically the two teams seem to be evenly matched offensively (Dallas has scored 348 points and the Eagles have scored 342 points) with both leaning on their passing games first to get early leads so their attacking defenses can pin-their-ears-back.  However at the running back position, it is two entirely different stories.  The Eagles will have the services of one of the NFL’s breakout stars of the season in shifty back LeSean “Shady” McCoy (260 rushes for 1274 yards and 17 TDs plus an additional 47 receptions for 305 yards and 3 TDs).  While the Cowboys will be without star rookie RB DeMarco Murray (ankle).  In only 7 starts,Murrayhad gained 897 yds and 2 TDs but more importantly he brought some much-needed balance to a Dallas offense that is very pass-happy at times.  In place ofMurray, the Cowboys are hoping that high-octane running back Felix Jones – 112 rushes for 521 yards and 1 TD – will be able to fill the void.  Unfortunately, as is too often the case, Jones is injured (hamstring) and may not play.  If Jones can’t go expect to see a lot of recently signed veteran Sammy Morris (12 rushes for 53 yards last week versus the Bucs.

Look for the Cowboys (averaging 391 total yards per game – ranked 6th in NFL) to establish the run early with Morris or Jones (if he plays) as the Eagles have allowed 1590 rushing yards (ranked 17th in NFL) for an average of over 100 yards per game – plus get the ball to Witten, Bryant, and Austin.  I think establishing the run will definitely be Garrett’s agenda unless Eagles rookie defensive coordinator Juan Castillo can dial-up the same kind of “pressure” that his defense has done in the Eagles’ last two games – 7 sacks and 7 turnovers cause.  Hopefully for Eagles fans, Castillo has study some of the game plans from  the late Jim Johnson, as the former defensive guru was so great at attacking 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 same defensive-minded 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), which led to throwing two interceptions with on being returned over 100 yards for a touchdown by former Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard.

The key players for the Eagles defense will be Pro Bowl players DT Cullen Jenkins, DE Jason Babin (18 sacks to lead NFL), CB Nnamdi Asomugha and high-energy sack man Trent Cole (9 sacks).  But other Eagles’ defenders, namely the Birds sometimes 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, which outside of their recent success against offenses led by subpar quarterbacks, Dolphins Matt Moore and the NY Jets Mark Sanchez, has been consistently gouged by teams running the football.  With the Eagles still working out the kinks on defense – have allowed 311 points for an average of 22.2 points per game (ranked 19th in NFL – they cannot afford to have another letdown.  Also no Asante Samuel (hamstring) maybe a big factor for the Eagles in stopping Austin, Robinson, and Bryant .  As Joselio Hanson just isn’t the ball hawk that Samuel often is for the Birds and last time having all their corners healthy allowed Asomugha to spot shadow Witten.

When the Eagles have the ball offensive, they will need to have balance first and foremost.  In their Week 15 win over the NY Jets, Vick threw the ball 22 times while running the ball 31 times for 160 yards and 4 TDs into a dominating 34-7 win. In that game, the Birds’ balance fueled by clock-churning drives piled-up a whopping 31 first downs.  If the Eagles don’t establish their running game or have balance, the Cowboys will harass Vick all-day, especially Pro Bowl players OLB DeMarcus Ware (16 sacks) and NT Jay Ratliff (2 sacks, but great pocket pusher).  So it will incumbent on Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to utilize their running and screen game to slow down Ware and company.  If the Dallas pass rush is contained, it will allow Vick to get the ball to speedsters McCoy, D-Jax, and Maclin down the field which could produce a big early lead thatPhiladelphialoves.  Also the Eagles’ offensive line must put in another “lunch bucket” effort, because if Philly loses Vick again, they are sunk (see the play of backups, Kafka and V.Y). 

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 their pass rushing prowess than their coverage skills and playing the run.  It will be interesting to see if McCoy is able to produce another big effort – 30 rushes for 185 yards and 2 TDs in Week 8 – against Rob Ryan’s defense.  Also watch for rookie 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 names in their secondary (CB Terrance Newman, CB Mike Jenkins, CB Orlando Scandrick and safety Gerald Sensabaugh), this group has struggled covering man-to-man especially against play-action.  The Cowboys constantly try to help their corners with safety coverage on passing downs, so the Eagles maybe able to attack the middle of the field with Celek on seam routes.  Of course, watch for Vick, Maclin, and Jackson to have some big plays down the field (40 yards or more) in an attempt to get a highly coveted early lead.

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 (had 4.0 sacks in Week 8 vs. Eagles).  The key will be whether veteran bookends Jason Peters and Todd Herramins can get their hands on the smaller pass rushers to dictate the pace of the game.  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 and Safeties 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,Jordan, and Rolle) along with their safeties will need to make sure coverage holes are not left open forWitten underneath.  RememberWitten (68 receptions for 849 yards, 12.4 ypr, and 5 TDs) had one of his best games in the Cowboys 38-17 shellacking of the Eagles in 2005.  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 Morris and Jones (hamstring), 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.  Babin (6 sacks the past 2 weeks) is playing at a level that has not been seen around Philadelphia since former great Hugh Douglas was in his prime and he will need another high-motor effort on Saturday.  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, harass, and sack the “pretty boy” passer.  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 Morris, who is very fresh after sitting out most of the season.

LV’s Pick:  No matter if the NY Giants win or lose – am predicting a loss for Big Blue — this one will have desperation in the air.  I fully expect a highly competitive game and given these two 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 — Danny Bailey over Eagles Alex Henery — I do believe that a Romo mistake will setup Philadelphia for a game-winner.  It is going to take a total team effort and you can expect Vick, McCoy, D-Jax, and Babin to play big parts to getting a “W” to further silence Reid’s critics.  Eagles win 34-31 as they move their current winning streak to 3 games and crazily stay in the race for the NFC East title.

 

 

Lloyd Vance is the Editor  for Taking It to the House , who is also an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA).  Lloyd can be reached on Twitter @lloydvance_nfl

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