Friday, January 8, 2010

Can the Eagles Possibly Beat the Cowboys on Saturday?

Eagles Brian Westbrook runs against the Cowboys.

Now that the dust has settled a little after the Eagles embarrassing meltdown in Dallas last Sunday, all the conjecture and unhappiness about what happened can be put aside. The only thing that matters now is forward looking to tomorrow night's big rematch in the "Mega-Stadium that Jerry Built." Simply put, can the Eagles possibly beat the Cowboys after being thoroughly dismantled by them just days earlier?

It will not be easy and would require a dramatic reversal in every phase of the game, but the simple answer is absolutely. The Cowboys are playing their best football of the season and are brimming with pride. The same could have been said about the Eagles prior to their 3 hour body of work last Sunday which suddenly had them defending their honor and trying to restore confidence.

The bottom line is that the Eagles are very much the same team that many expected to level the Cowboys to lock up the NFC East and # 2 seed just a week ago. The only thing that has changed is they had a particularly horrific performance, failing in virtually every phase of the game. And, of course, this affects human psyche on both sides, positively and negatively. This is especially true for Eagles players as they have had to endure the distractions all week due to the media's trumped up friction and implications about Donovan McNabb's and Andy Reid's futures.

It is also the same Eagles offense that racked up the highest scoring total in team history before heading to Dallas, eclipsing the previous mark set last season as well as the 2004 Super Bowl team. It still features the same young group of receivers, including two speed burners, an emerging star tight end and a sure handed possession receiver. This group is still complemented nicely by LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver in the backfield.

What has changed on the Eagles offense is the loss of center Jamaal Jackson to injury. However, on the positive side is the presence of Brian Westbrook, who missed most of the season due to multiple injuries. Now that he has had a couple games to shake off the rust, and possibly allay fears about his readiness to return to action, Westbrook may be primed to re-assert himself as a difference maker.

Of course, the unit is still led by veteran McNabb, who has put together his best season since the 2004 Super Bowl year. McNabb drew an inordinate and undeserved amount of criticism after last week's contest, and it remains to be seen how much those distractions might affect his play this week. The fact that he has never lost a first round playoff game in his career should not be discounted, while Tony Romo on the opposite side of the field is looking for his first post season win, period.

Much has been made of the emergence of the Dallas defense in the latter part of the season. Pitching back-to-back shutouts in the last two regular season games will tend to do that. A lot of the accolades are surely deserved, but it needs to be tempered by the fact that the Cowboys played the woeful Redskins followed by an Eagles team whose troubles were often self-inflicted.

The real wild card for this Wild Card team will be the defense. Rookie Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott was forced to move players around to fill holes and shore up weaknesses in the depleted unit for a good portion of the season. This creativity was probably mostly a good thing, but may have contributed to the breakdowns in Dallas. The cure may well be to get players settled into their more familiar roles to improve on the overall execution.

Another key aspect will be whether their trade mark aggressiveness returns. Last Sunday, McDermott surprisingly pulled back on blitzing and often deployed a soft zone defense. The safer approach allowed Romo to pick them apart and Witten to roam free across the middle. A return of the Eagles normal attacking style with press coverage seems essential for success.

One other element that was highly influential in the previous game's outcome was field position. Dallas largely played on a short field, while Philadelphia was backed up most of the day. The Cowboys kicking specialists provide this advantage, but a key means to combat that will be for DeSean Jackson to get untracked in the punt return game.

So, yes, this is largely the same Eagles team and accordingly it is surely conceivable that the outcome of the game be reversed. There is no denying that the Cowboys have a strong team, but despite the disaster in Dallas, the same is true of the Eagles. Teams don't fake their way to 11-5 in the NFL.

The 'Boys have "home super venue advantage" and the afterglow of their recent masterpiece on their side. On the flip side, the Eagles post season track record over the past dozen years dwarfs that of the Cowboys. Although last week's game felt like a playoff game, the NFL's year-end tournament begins in earnest tomorrow.

When the NBC camera lights go on tomorrow night, it should not take long to gauge the Eagles chances. A slow start could further fuel doubts and likely have the Cowboys players' confidence soaring. Conversely, the reverse scenario would make last Sunday's events a distant memory. In such case, the Eagles could well surprise the enormous number of pundits who have jumped off their bandwagon and directly onto the Cowboys bandwagon.

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