Saturday, January 2, 2010

Eagles, Cowboys- Winner Takes All

Philadelphia DeSean Jackson gains 9 yards

Like a year ago, the Eagles end the regular season against the arch rival Dallas Cowboys in a contest with big playoff implications. Unlike a year ago, both teams have already clinched playoff berths and the NFC Eastern Division title is on the line. And, unlike a year ago, this year's game will be in Dallas at the NFL's Taj Mahal.

Philadelphia fans surely recall, while Dallas fans are want to forget, the 44-6 pummeling that gained the Eagles entry into the 2009 playoffs while sending the Cowboys players home to pack and dust off their golf clubs. The Eagles defense keyed the win by forcing Tony Romo into misfiring on passes and making mistakes. By the end of the first half, the home team had run a 27-3 lead and then added two long fumble returns for touchdowns in the 3rd quarter to remove any doubt.

It would be unreasonable to expect anything similar this season, especially considering that the Cowboys are playing their best football of the year and the game is in Dallas. Both teams know what is at stake and adrenaline will be in abundance. The winner grabs the division crown and will host their first playoff game. A win for the Eagles translates into the NFC's #2 seed, a first round bye and a second round game at the Linc. The 'Boys would need some help to earn that same #2 seed if they were to prevail.

In the team's earlier meeting this season, the Cowboys came from behind to win 20-16 and were aided by some bad decisions. The Eagles squandered time outs and Andy Reid made a regrettable choice to kick a field goal late in the game despite trailing by 7 points. Head Umpire Walt Coleman also contributed by not properly spotting a ball after a Reid challenge on 4th down that should have given the Eagles a first down at mid-field late in the game.

The Eagles appear to be a considerably different team since that early November game. Donovan McNabb and the offensive line were still on the mend, and the young offense was just starting to jell. Since then, the offense has complemented its quick strike arsenal with an ability to methodically move the chains on the ground and via a short passing game. And, Brian Westbrook will back in uniform after sitting out the last time around, while McNabb has asserted himself more overtly as a leader.

Interestingly, the Eagles enter the game as the third highest scoring team in the NFL, while the Cowboys have yielded the third lowest number of points. A strong defensive front seven led by Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer, Keith Brooking and DeMarcus Ware makes running tough while supplying plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. In the first game, the secondary effectively shut down the Eagles vertical passing game and will look to do the same again.

Romo has weathered heavy criticism about his ability to play well and win in pressure games. In recent weeks, he has transformed many doubters into proponents with possibly the best stretch of games in his career. In the previous five games, Romo has averaged 310 yards while tossing 9 TD's and only 1 interception.

He will be surrounded by hard running Marion Barber and explosive running back Felix Jones. The Eagles rotation of defensive linemen should keep them fresh enough to prevent Barber from doing damage as the game wears on. Jones does present a different challenge with his speed and could exploit the Eagles penchant for arm tackling in space.

One of the main reasons that Romo has flourished is the emergence of Miles "Yeh, baby" Austin as the team's top wide out. Roommate and close friend Jason Witten still remains his favorite target, but Austin provides another dimension with his ability to get down the field for big gains.

Despite Romo's recent success and improved ball protection, Sean McDermott will try to maintain pressure and force him into bad throws. Particular emphasis will be placed on keeping him inside the pocket since Romo is most dangerous on broken plays when he escapes pressure. Expect to see Tracy White, Moise Fokou and an extra defensive back used to take away Witten and force Romo to look for Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton.

Although this game won't be a blowout, the Eagles should make more big plays on both sides of the ball to prevail. It is doubtful that the Cowboys can bottle up DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek, especially while having to account for Westbrook, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver. Jackson should break free for a quick score, and with the extra attention given him, both Maclin and Celek will also find the end zone. And, despite Romo's strong December, the Eagles aggressive, ball hawking defense will present an entirely different equation, and should win the turnover battle. Look for McNabb to out duel Romo and the Eagles to end the day as NFC East Champs with a firm grasp on the #2 seed.

Eagles 31

Cowboys 27

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