The first game between these two teams this season was, in the words of Jerry Jones, some “serious s–t.”
This time, it’s even bigger.
Just a month removed from their instant classic in Philadelphia, the Dallas Cowboys (9-3) and Philadelphia Eagles (10-2) will meet again on Sunday night in Dallas. And there is a ton on the line in this rematch, including temporary control of the NFC East.
The winner will also have a great shot to make a run at the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The winning quarterback could emerge as the favorite to win the NFL’s MVP Award. And the winner will have some much-needed momentum heading into the final month of a season, one in which both teams think they’re capable of making a Super Bowl run.
“It’s the Cowboys and the Eagles,” said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. “I don’t think you have to say anything more on that.”
Well, yes. Forget for a moment that both of these teams were blown out by the San Francisco 49ers this season. This is still a battle of NFC titans. The Eagles won the first game, 28-23 on Nov. 5, but the Cowboys literally lost by inches. They could only hope back then that the next time they faced Philly they’d still have a shot at the NFC East crown.
This is the shot they’ve been waiting for. FOX Sports Cowboys writer David Helman and NFC East writer Ralph Vacchiano break it all down:
Vacchiano: David, I know that the NFL is a league of mood swings, and opinions swing wildly from one weekend to the next, but after watching both these teams the last few weeks I’ve got a really bad feeling about the Eagles heading into this game. It’s not just that they got crushed at home by the 49ers last weekend, it’s how they’ve played in the last few weeks – particularly on defense.
Admittedly, I’m holding them to an unfair standard. I mean, they’ve gone 3-1 the last month in a stretch of games that included the Cowboys, Chiefs, Bills and 49ers. But their defense has looked so vulnerable in all of those games. They’re really struggling against the NFL’s better offenses.
Which brings me to the Cowboys. They are obviously clicking right now. I think they’ve got the best offense in the NFL and I don’t think there’s a quarterback anywhere playing better than Dak Prescott. They’re using all their weapons now. They’re even running the ball a little more effectively than they were early this season. So I guess my question for you is: What’s the weakness in this Cowboys offense? Is there a good way to stop them or even just slow them down?
Helman: Fittingly for this week, I think the Eagles showed you how to slow the Cowboys down when this game was played last month.
Two likely Hall of Famers, Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, play on this Dallas offensive line. Second-year guard Tyler Smith is also growing into one of the game’s best young blockers. Despite that, the Cowboys’ offensive line as a whole is what I’d call pretty good, not great. You can past them, as Philadelphia showed us when they sacked Dak five times last month — including one that really swung the game’s final sequence in the dying seconds.
The Cowboys have protected well over the last month because they’ve played several bad teams. But the Seahawks got to Prescott last Thursday. He was sacked four times and even had to pull off some Houdini escape acts to make big plays.
Let me be clear: Dak Prescott is still playing well enough to overcome a good pass rush. He nearly did it last time out against Philadelphia. If the Eagles don’t get him on the ground a few times, I’m positive he’s going to hurt their secondary a few times. So you can bet Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Desai will once again try to test right tackle Terence Steele and anyone else he sees as a weak spot in the Cowboys’ protection.
Let’s stick with the quarterbacks. You mentioned that maybe the standard is unfair for Philly, and it feels like that applies to Jalen Hurts. I keep seeing speculation about why he seems to be struggling, and then I look at the stats and see that he’s averaging 254 total yards with nine total touchdowns over the last three games.
Is this a case of Hurts not meeting high standards, or is his knee injury hampering him that much? And if it is, do the Eagles need to adjust their offense to address that?
Vacchiano: I think there’s definitely something to Hurts’ knee being an issue, especially because he hasn’t run as much as he has in the past. But mostly I think he’s a victim of his own really high standards. He was so incredible last year and so impossible to game plan against, I think we’re just shocked when it looks like teams have figured him out.
What’s really crazy about that, though, is in some ways he’s having a better year this year. He’s on pace for career-highs in passing yards, touchdown passes and even rushing touchdowns. And he’s still 10-2 even though he’s getting less help from the Eagles’ running game and very inconsistent help from their defense.
Now, he has made more mistakes this year than he did last year. The 10 interceptions are a career-high already and are a bit alarming. In fairness to Hurts, he has only thrown three in the last six games, dating back to an ugly, three-interception performance in a bad loss to the Jets.
So I do get why people are concerned about him. He just keeps finding ways to win, though. And every time I think he’s limping or trying to project his knee, he looks like the same old Hurts when he takes off on a run.
We all probably should stop doubting and worrying about him, at least until he really gives us a reason.
Of course, playing against the Cowboys defense could be a reason to worry. They did a pretty good job against Hurts last time. He threw for 207 yards and ran for 36, a substandard day for him. The Eagles did score four touchdowns, but they only had 292 total yards. I was shocked by how poorly the Cowboys defense played last Thursday night against the Seahawks, though.
Was that an anomaly, or is there reason to be worried about the Dallas D?
Helman: We can’t call it an anomaly, because we’ve seen the Cowboys get gashed a few times this year. They might’ve done a solid job against Philly, but Seattle, San Francisco and even Arizona have hit them for 400 yards this season. Maybe it’s just an NFC West thing.
In a way, Dallas isn’t too dissimilar to the Eagles. The pass rush is fierce, but the secondary has struggled some without Trevon Diggs. And even if the young linebackers have impressed, it’s still fair to call that the weak point of the defense.
Hopefully, that doesn’t sound like too much of a knock. I’m well aware DaRon Bland has set the NFL record for pick-sixes, and Stephon Gilmore is having a nice season. Converted safety Markquese Bell has been a pleasant surprise at linebacker, where he was never intended to play prior to training camp. But I still think this group can be picked on, as Seattle showed last week. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Eagles try to target the middle of the field, where the Cowboys have often been vulnerable.
That same vulnerability in the middle of the field also prompts a question about the run game. I would typically say that Dallas isn’t very good at defending the run if they don’t have a lead, which is why it was so impressive that they were able to limit the Eagles from running the ball in the first meeting. From my vantage point, Philadelphia hasn’t been consistent on the ground all season. Is that something they can fix going forward?
Vacchiano: That’s absolutely something they can fix, because all the tools are there. The offensive line is still strong – maybe not as strong as last year, but still one of the league’s best. Running back D’Andre Swift is fast and shifty and, so far, healthy. Jalen Hurts obviously can add to the run game too, making their RPO plays hard to stop.
I think the biggest problem with their run game this season has been offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. He never seems to want to lean on it or stick with it. The Eagles have been at their best the last two seasons when they just ground teams into submission with long, grueling drives led by their offensive line. There have been very few games where they’ve committed to that, but when they do, it usually works.
Still, they have the eighth-best run game in the NFL. They average 126 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry.
That wasn’t the issue in the game against the Cowboys. They did run 33 times, but only for 109 yards. The Eagles’ biggest problem was that the offense shut down in the fourth quarter when all three of their drives were three-and-outs. The Eagles ran on six of those nine plays for only 10 yards. The Cowboys defense really stepped up when it mattered.
The Eagles need to try to run in this game because I don’t think they want to be in a shootout with the Cowboys the way their offense is going right now. And that brings me back to Dak Prescott. I think he’s playing better than any quarterback in the NFL right now. I think if he wins on Sunday night he’ll be the favorite for the MVP.
I also think he’s been tragically underrated by everyone for years, but there’s no doubt he’s taken it to a new level the last few weeks. What has changed with him?
Helman: For starters, I think you’re right that he’s been underrated. It’s hard to get a fair shake when you quarterback the most polarizing team in football. But with a few obvious exceptions like Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, Prescott’s resume stacks up with the game’s best over the last four or five years.
What has changed? Two things stand out. For starters, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy has been willing to give Prescott the reins and let it rip. For so many years, it seemed the Cowboys wanted their identity to be about the physicality of their run game.
After watching that approach lead to a 3-2 start, McCarthy seems to have leaned into the idea that Prescott is the best thing about his team right now. This has always been an efficient offense, as the Cowboys have been among the NFL’s best teams on third down for several years. Now, it’s also an aggressive offense. Dak’s average yards per attempt (7.9) is one of the highest of his career. His average depth of target is among the league leaders, at 8.7, and ProFootballFocus charts him as the league’s leader in big time throw percentage — essentially, throws that are going either a long way downfield, or into tight coverage, or both. The Cowboys aren’t afraid to put the ball in their quarterback’s hands, and I’m not convinced that’s always been the case during his career.
In addition, I think Prescott is using his athleticism to his advantage as well as he has since his rookie year. The rushing totals aren’t impressive, but if you’ve watched the Cowboys you’ve seen Prescott break contain, get away from pass rushers and make plays down the field, both with his arm and his legs. He’s not Lamar Jackson, but he does have the ability to extend plays well outside of schedule and he’s doing it more often than we’ve seen in a long time. It’s paying dividends.
This feels like a fitting time for predictions. Because of everything I just said about Dak — not to mention that the game is happening at AT&T Stadium, where the Cowboys have won 14 straight games — I like Dallas in a shootout. I don’t think we’re going to see many stops in this one, but I trust Prescott to find a way at the end, helping the Cowboys over the finish line in a 34-28 thriller.
Ralph, what say you?
Vacchiano: After covering the Eagles for the last two years, I probably should know better than to doubt them. They have a knack for not looking good for most of a game and then finding a way to win. They have an ability to seemingly struggle for weeks, and then dominate an opponent soon after. They are the most resilient team I think I’ve ever covered. They are really the definition of “winners”.
Yet, I can’t shake my bad feeling about them. I’m not worried about the big picture. I can easily dismiss their blowout loss to the 49ers as a one-off – just the way it was when the Cowboys were blown out in San Francisco. There’s just no way the Eagles are really that bad, even against a really good team.
It’s the Eagles defense, though, that concerns me. They’ve been bad for two weeks running and the bad trends go back a lot farther than that. They’re not getting enough of a consistent pass rush and their tackling and coverage hasn’t been great at all. And now they’ve got to face a Cowboys team that is playing offense better than any team in the league right now?
I do think the Eagles can keep pace with them, even against a pretty good Dallas defense. I’m just not sure they can outscore them the way Dak Prescott is playing right now. So I’m not exactly expecting a defensive battle, and I do think the outcome will be in doubt in the fourth quarter.
Ultimately, I agree with you. The Cowboys are going to win it. Final score: 38-31.
David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports and hosts the NFL on FOX podcast. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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