Two bitter rivals, on parallel season tracks. Both opened with impressive wins. Dallas ripped Tampa Bay's suspect secondary. Philadelphia forced seven Panthers turnovers in a walkover.
Both suffered turnoveritis and lost in week two, Dallas in the waning seconds against the Giants and the Eagles in a home shootout with the Saints, who dropped 48 heavy points on their heads. Both suffered painful second losses, with Dallas ending two yards short of overtime in Denver and the Eagles facing the music after an eye-popping and irritating 13-9 loss to the woeful Raiders.
It was the week five games that turned each teams' season around. Dallas found its resolve -- and Miles Austin -- in its sloppy overtime win at Kansas City. The Cowboys got no style points and were abused in the press for "almost losing" to the then winless Chiefs, but the Cowboys level of play has risen dramatically since they escaped Arrowhead Stadium with the W.
Everybody Cowboys fan knows the rest. Tony Romo has regained his zip, the turnovers and penalties have gone way, way down, the pass rush has emerged and the good times have returned, as Dallas has risen from 3-2 to 5-2.
The story is similar in the Eagles' camp. They've patched their mistakes and have also risen from 3-2 to 5-2. Their repair work suggests there is little to distinguish these two teams heading into Sunday Night.
The Eagles faced major injury issues leaving camp. They lost the Andrews brothers, Stacy and Shawn. The team also saw left guard Todd Herremens hobbled by injury. The team has made do on the fly, getting impressive play from RG Max Jean-Gilles, who looked good in '08 before an ankle injury ended his season early, and from Winston Justice, who has been a steady Eddie at right tackle. This is not the same Justice who flailed in his debut at left tackle two years ago, though I do expect Dallas to match Demarcus Ware against him more than usual. (More on this in a moment.)
On defense, the Eagles had to scramble to replace middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, who went on IR after tearing a knee ligament in preseason. The Eagles base 4-3 relies on big MLBs who can mash with centers. Jeremiah Trotter was the prototype at 260 lbs. Bradley weighs 255 and was steadily improving each season.
Philly auditioned several linebackers off its active roster, and brought Trotter out of retirement after Omar Gaither was also lost to injury. Trotter's head and heart may be as willing as ever, but his legs have gone. The Raiders targeted him with lots of tight end crosses in their upset.
That game also brought out the bad Andy Reid. Reid will sometimes fall in love with the pass and forget his running game. The signing of Stacy Andrews in free agency and the trade for LT Jason Peters, a dominant run blocker, were supposed to inaugurate a new era, where the Eagles would hammer the ball behind their massive line, the NFL's largest (Jay Ratliff called it one of the two toughest he's faced) and give Donovan McNabb more support.
That plan was forgotten in Oakland, where Reid again went pass happy early and never came back. He called only 14 runs on his 60 offensive downs, a 24:76 percent run-to-pass ratio.
Pressure focuses the mind. As Romo, Wade Phillips and the Cowboys knuckled down in games six and seven, so did Reid and his Eagles. He's called almost perfectly balanced games the last two weeks, with the run:pass ratio shifting to 51:49. Consequently, his runners have gained over 300 yards on the ground in Philly's two wins.
On defense, the Eagles quickly admitted to themselves that their MLB was not on the roster and worked a deadline trade for former Panthers and Rams standout Will Witherspoon. He has been an instant tonic to their front seven, scoring a touchdown off an interception early in his debut against the Redskins.
The Eagles have regained form with two impressive divisional wins. They've found their play calling balance on offense and their run stopping balance on defense. They're every bit as steady as Dallas. They were ripped for years for saddling Donovan McNabb with pedestrian receivers. Now, they have two speedsters in rookie Jeremy Maclin and big-play man extraordinaire DeSean Jackson, who hasn't found a secondary yet he could not get behind.
McNabb has overcome a fractured rib to post an impressive 9-1 touchdown to interception ratio. They're not beating themselves on offense anymore.
They're taking games away on defense, with a league-best, plus-12 turnover ratio. They got seven opening week and have continued to pilfer footballs. They have a 12-2 turnover edge the last month.
Both teams are in a groove. One may knock the other off-balance, or, we may in due for a classic game.
When Dallas went 13-3 two years ago, Adams shut Cole down. He's the man Cowboys fans love to hate, because of his copious false starts. But when he's on, he can shut down any top rusher. And Flo has been on recently. He stumped John Abraham two weeks ago and has not committed a penalty since K.C.
He's always a liability on the road, because he's deaf in his right ear. This will be his first road game since Arrowhead. I'll gladly take a five yard flag or two if he blocks Cole the way he did Abraham.
Demarcus Ware vs. Jason Peters and Winston Justice.
The Cowboys flop their linebackers a lot, putting Anthony Spencer over the tight end and Ware on the weak side as much as possible. Against Atlanta, they gave the struggling Spencer more rush reps at right end, where he played in college, and it seemed to help him; He looked far more comfortable coming off the QBs weak side and carried that strong performance (he shared a sack and recovered a Matt Ryan fumble) to Seattle, where he showed more power and certainty from his usual left end spot.
The Cowboys will flop Ware and Spencer again, I imagine, looking for Ware's best match-up. Jason Peters has struggled in pass protection, allowing 14 sacks in '07 and '08. He was dinged in the Washington game but returned last week. If Ware gets him early, Dallas may keep Ware on Peters all day. Look however, for the Cowboys to get Ware some early reps against Justice.
Jason Witten vs. Will Witherspoon
The Eagles love to blitz their corners and safeties, meaning WItten will get a lot of man coverage. Look for Dallas to run Witten on deep outs and crosses early, to see how the newbie Witherspoon covers in space.
Jackson is the Eagles' igniter, with six plays of over 50 yards this year. He torched Pacman Jones on a bomb in the week two match-up last year. He got Newman on an early seam route in the season ender which set up the Eagles' second score.
Keeping Jackson in front of the secondary would go a long way towards winning the game, but it's far easier said than done. Dallas will surely give Newman, who has been the targeted Dallas corner lately, help over the top with FS Hamlin. They don't need a big early Jackson pass to help the Eagles off to another quick start.
The Eagles may roll coverage to Austin's side, but that's not their style. They have two big-money corners and they let them play. Brown has been hot and cold in recent years but he's red hot so far this year. Dallas will likely run Austin at Samuel, who plays the ball-hawk in their scheme. He'll give up some big plays going after picks, and he's good at getting them.
Jason Garrett burned both Eagles corners last year with stop and go moves, taking advantage of their aggressiveness. He may use Austin in this same way Sunday night.
The Dallas special teams vs. DeSean Jackson
He's a deadly return man, but the Cowboys coverage teams have been on all year. The winner of this match-up could tip the game.
Tony Romo vs. Eagles' DC Sean McDermott
- Romo in the first games against the Eagles, '07 and '08 -- 79 points, two wins.
- Romo in second games vs. Philly '06 through '08 (Drew Bledsoe played the first '06 game): 19 points, three losses.
Romo and his OC Jason Garrett have ripped the Eagles in their first meetings the last two seasons. The Eagles have stopped them cold in the rematches. Will the '07 and '08 templates hold, or will we see a wildly different result?