The midseason break is over, as the Cowboys enter a brutal second half stretch run in Philadelphia, hoping to cement their status as the owners of the Eagles. Dallas thrashed Philly 33-10 in Texas Stadium a month ago, a loss that has sent the four time defending division champs into a tailspin. They have won just one of their last three games and have looked worn out in all of them.
The stakes for both teams are high. Dallas sits at 5-3 and needs a strong start to a third quarter that will see them play the Eagles, Lions, Broncos and Giants by December 1st. Philadelphia is 4-4 and 0-2 in the division. Another loss would drop them deep in the division basement with New York next on the schedule.
When Philadelphia Has the Ball
It's the most mystifying trend of the year. Andy Reid has a beaten up QB who is suffering with a sports hernia, bruised ribs and other bumps and bruises. And yet, week after week, he insists on throwing the football close to 80% of the time. He has always favored the pass and threw the ball over 60% of the time last season. But why would he put more pressure on Donovan' McNabb when he returns almost all of last year's offensive lineup?
The answer will be Reid's alone. So far it's not working. Yes, he had some explosiveness early in the season, when his skill position players were healthy. But now, he's playing with a much shorter deck. TE L.J. Smith suffered a concussion against Washington last week and might not play Monday. And then there is that Terrell Owens fellow, who so stupidly pouted and punched himself off the team.
Smith and Owens were two thirds of the Eagle's receiving-game trio, the third being RB Brian Westbrook. When these three were healthy, the Eagles could move the ball with regularity. Now, the gang is Westbrook. Washington made stopping him priorities one, two and three last week and shut the Eagles offense down cold in the last 45 minutes.
If it worked for Gregg Williams, it will probably work for Mike Zimmer. Look for Westbrook to be bracketed by two defenders on every play. This will remove the screen, one of Reid's favorite options, from his arsenal. When Dallas won in October, it opened in its 4-2-5 nickel package before going to its standard 3-4. I think the nickel will again be the opening package and I would not be surprised to see slot corner Terence Newman spying Westbrook.
It received less publicity than Owens, but center Hank Fraley's season ending leg injury might be as severe a blow to Philly's plans as Owen's suspension. Fraley was the anchor of the line and his replacement, Jamaal Jackson, will be making his first NFL start. Eagles' opponents have blitzed them heavily to start games and I expect Dallas to continue the practice. Denver blitzed on every play of the first quarter two weeks ago and forced McNabb into an 0-of-11 start. The Cowboys will probably sit Jason Ferguson on Jackson's nose in a four man line and see if the greenhorn can handle him. Ferguson's improved play has set LaRoi Glover free, preventing inside double teams. Dallas may also rotate front seven looks to see if Jackson can recognize and call blocking schemes effectively. If he can't, McNabb will see a steady diet of inside blitzes.
Dallas played aggressive coverage in game one and I expect more of the same. The one qualifier might be the health of RCB Anthony Henry. He suffered a groin injury late in the Cardinals win. He returned to practice late this week but may still be sore. Third year WR Greg Lewis had some success running hooks and slants in front of Henry last month and the Eagles will surely test Henry again.
When Dallas Has the Ball
Dallas stunned the Eagles last month by going straight at their secondary, the alleged strength of their defense. Neither Sheldon Brown nor Lito Sheppard could handle Terry Glenn and this changed the nature of the game early. Because they needed help, coordinator Jim Johnson reduced his blend of blitzes. When he did go after Drew Bledsoe, Dallas picked up the extra rushers with water-tight maximum protection.
Dallas' will probably not change a thing. The Eagles will have to respect Glenn's deep speed and give safety help to the corners. Dallas, on the other hand, has two young tackles who need assistance this time around. Rob Petitti got near constant help against Jevon Kearse in Texas Stadium. He will likely get it again. The question is how much assistance LT Torrin Tucker will receive. He has been steady as Flozell Adams' replacement. Every passing down he can handle alone will give Dallas an extra receiving option.
Dallas had a steady if unspectatcular running game the first time out. Julius Jones was well on his way to a 100 yard afternoon, tallying 70 yards in the first half, before he injured his left ankle. In the second half, Dallas played keep away with an attack Woody Hayes would have loved. Tyson Thompson got 20 carries in the second half alone. The Cowboys were not perfect, however. They were stopped on a 4th and goal from the Eagles' one early in the game.
Jones is back and Dallas will surely test the Eagles line. Early success on the ground will make the play action passes to Glenn, Keyshawn Johnson and Jason Witten that much more effective. A key will be the play of RG Marco Rivera and C Al Johnson. Both had exceptional first games against the Eagles (it was Adams who flailed on the goal line). Both have been erratic but are coming off strong games against Arizona.
Prediction: The experts are calling it the Eagles' last stand, and it is. It will be very hard for them to overcome another divisional loss. They will play a desperate game. That said, I just don't think they've got the firepower to stop their slide. How many losses can they take, in the standings and in the locker room, before they can't respond anymore?
The Eagles offense has sputtered early in many games. Philadelphia fell behind Kansas City 24-6, to Dallas 27-3 and to Denver 28 to 7. They rallied in the Chiefs and Broncos games but never woke up in Texas Stadium. However, the Eagles had Smith and Owens in all those games. If they don't have Owens in Denver, they never mount a comeback. (He had a 90 yard TD reception and a 50+ yard reception in the third quarter, when they came from 28-7 down to 28-21.) They won't have him on Monday. They might also not have Smith.
They can't blame their poor starts for last week's loss. Philly surprised Washington with a 53 yard pass to Reggie Brown for a 7-0 lead. Washington outscored them 17-3 the rest of the way. The Eagles have yet to lose a regular season game at home this year, but have played poorly there. Sebastian Janikowski's errant kicks let the Eagles take a 23-20 win from Oakland. They needed bigger luck against the Chargers, blocking a late field goal and returning it for a touchdown. In the process they turned a 17-13 deficit into a 20-17 win.
The luck runs out this week. Dallas is rested. What's more, it's now the deeper and better team. Rock beats scissors and better beats desperate.
Dallas 24, Philadelphia 13.