Here we are. Our beloved (at least when they aren't driving us mad) Dallas Cowboys sit alone in first place in the NFC East (again). But the lead is only one game, and thanks to the NFL emphasis on late season games being meaningful, we still face the two division rivals that could take the division crown away from us.
There is a special nature about this week's Christmas Eve game against the Philadelphia Eagles. It's not just that the Eagles are the one team that most Dallas Cowboys completely and thoroughly love to have, especially in the season of the Dream Team and the player that you could not design a defense to stop. It's not just that the game could potentially clinch the division, depending on what happens when the two resident New Jersey teams play earlier that day. No, it has to do with the six losses that Dallas has accumulated this season. They all have one thing in common: Dallas was in the games right up to the very end, and only a late mistake or a let down in stopping the other team led to the loss.
Except that first game against the Eagles. That one game where the Cowboys got their posteriors handed to them on a platter. The one where Andy Reid and his team just outcoached and outplayed the Cowboys.
I do try to maintain a modicum of objectivity about the Cowboys, which is hard when you love the team the way I do, but for this week, you can treat that the way most of us would like to treat Shay, our unofficial mascot. I want the Eagles beaten like a drum at an occupy Wall Street rally. You, know, senselessly and endlessly. I want them humiliated. I want revenge.
And I don't want to hear any more discussion about how the Cowboys need to rest players since the game does not mean anything. Rather than add another comment to the argument, I will just steal this from KD and his excellent article on why the game IS a big deal.
How do you want an organization to have no sense of pride in trying to avenge their most embarrassing defeat of the season, against a hated rival? I mean, seriously. This is a grown man’s game and grown men should want to exact that measure of revenge. You want a coach to prepare his team, lights out, all week, then at the last minute say ‘Go ahead McGee, Parnell and Morris, you got it today!’ Seriously? whiskey tango foxtrot, send out an APB on the cajones.
The actual forecasting stuff after the jump.
OK, now that I have that off of my chest, let's look at how I think the various units of the team will do against the Eagles. Just a reminder that the percentages I use are an estimate of how likely there are to be problems in that area for the team. The lower the percentage, the better I expect the Cowboys to do there.
Quarterback Tony Romo has just been lights out, even in the recent losses. He is playing at an equivalent level with people like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady. And if I need someone to extend a play to find an open receiver, there is no one else in the league I would rather have leading my team. The only reason I can't drop this down to 10%, the lowest rating, is that there is always the chance he might have to go out of the game. Otherwise, I believe Tony will get it done this week.
CHANCE OF QB BEING A PROBLEM: 20% Last time: 20%
Running Back I was very worried. I thought things were likely to be bad against Tampa Bay, and worse this week. After all, DeMarco Murray is gone. Felix Jones has never been a feature back. And the solution to not having a backup was to sign twelve-year veteran, 34-year-old Sammy Morris. And everyone knows that running backs just aren't any good after they turn 30, right?
Well, butter my bottom and call me a biscuit. Felix put up his second 100-yard game in a row. Sammy came in and had a very respectable 53 yards on 12 carries. I am still nervous about the Cat's tendency to get hurt, but I feel a lot better about this than I used to.
CHANCE OF RB BEING A PROBLEM: 30% Last time: 50%
Tight End/Fullback I don't know if OCC is the smartest guy in the Sports Blogs Nation, or even here at BTB. But I do know he is a lot smarter than I am, especially when it comes to crunching numbers and figuring out what it means. He swears by the scoring system Pro Football Focus uses to evaluate every position on the team, and over time, it seems to have quite a bit of validity, as he shows in his weekly post on the grades.
So what is my point? Just that Martellus Bennett, usually one of the top two or three players on everyone's list of who to get rid of after the season, was the highest graded player on the Cowboys last week. He was an absolute monster blocking, and he caught all three of the passes thrown his way. He has consistently graded high all season, and may be the most unsung part of the offensive success Dallas has had. And that kind of blocking does not sound like the unfocused, undisciplined image most have of him.
Add in Jason Witten, who is the best tight end in the NFL today, no matter what anyone says, and Tony Fiammetta, whose presence on the field seems to lead to 100-yard rushers even when he has a bad day, and this is a real strength for the team.
CHANCE OF TE/FB BEING A PROBLEM: 10% Last time: 10%
Wide Receiver The theory has been that if the Cowboys could ever get Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Laurent Robinson healthy and on the field at the same time, they were going to tear it up.
Looks like it. Tony Romo had the best half of his career against Tampa Bay, and you know that a good chunk of the credit goes to the guys catching the ball. All three of the top wideouts collected a touchdown pass. And just in case he is needed, may I remind you that Jesse Holley has caught every ball that has been thrown to him this season? Even Kevin Ogletree seems to be hanging onto the ball lately.
CHANCE OF WR BEING A PROBLEM: 20% Last time: 20%
Offensive Line Well, with the percentages I have been putting up, it looks like the Cowboys have an unstoppable offensive juggernaut. Not so fast, there, bucko.
If there is a place that that Cowboys can be stopped, it is the offensive line. The Yuglies tend to be up and down, and since they had a pretty good game last week, I have a sick feeling in my gut this week. Of course, Doug Free had a bad outing against Tampa Bay, so maybe he rebounds this week. But the middle, especially center Phil Costa, is always an area of concern. And there has been a disturbing tendency to get flagged at inopportune moments (basically, anytime they happen), although the team had that fixed, at least for one game, against the Bucs.
I figure the performance of the Yuglis is basically a 50/50 shot. The Eagles can put some real pressure on the quarterback with Jason Babin and company, and Tony may need all his talent for evading pressure to keep the team moving.
One exception: Tyron Smith is arguably the best right tackle in the NFL. With 14 games of experience. He indicated that his injury last Saturday was not a problem, and that is a good thing. If he stays healthy, I seriously think that we may look back on his selection as one of the best draft picks in the history of the team.
CHANCE OF OL BEING A PROBLEM: 50% Last time: 30%
Defensive Line The offense looks to be in good shape, providing the guys up front can handle their job. The defense, on the other hand, got embarrassed by the Eagles, from start to finish. They gave up 495 yards, 239 of it on the ground, and that is where the defensive line has to do a better job. LeSean McCoy racked up 185 yards, and the "unstoppable" Michael Vick looked like it that week, adding 50 yards rushing on his scrambles.
I'll be frank, I am not sure just what we have here. Jay Ratliff is the acknowledged star on this unit, but he sat out three quarters of the plays for the Dallas D last game. But Jason Hatcher and Marcus Spears had very good games, and Sean Lissemore continues to look solid, if not spectacular. Even Clifton Geathers got some snaps and had an impact, mostly with a holding call to keep him from eating Josh Freeman up. It was Tampa Bay and all, but they looked good from top to bottom. However, I would feel better if Josh Brent was definitely available for the game.
These guys have to stop that rush. If they let Shady and Vick get loose like they did last time, it is not going to be much fun for us.
They exceeded my expectations last game. But I still think this is a possible vulnerability.
CHANCE OF DL BEING A PROBLEM: 40% Last time: 40%
Linebacker The best thing about the Bucs game is that Victor Butler, Alex Albright and, to a limited degree, Bruce Carter, all got some playing time. Butler in particular looked very good. Meantime, DeMarcus Ware got to take most of the night off and rest his neck.
But Sean Lee had a bit of an off game in pass coverage. And the other options for doing that job are Bradie James and Keith Brooking. This makes me nauseous. Rob Ryan was not very successful in countering the Eagles passing attack the first game. He needs to come up with something else here (like having Vick spend most of the game on his back).
CHANCE OF LB BEING A PROBLEM: 60% Last time: 40%
Defensive Backs The best thing you can say about the Tampa game was that it was a bit of a confidence builder for the secondary, as they never really got burned.
Against Josh Freeman. This is not Josh Freeman, this is Michael Vick, who, although he may not be truly unstoppable, is a very dangerous quarterback. And he has a much more potent receiving corps in Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Brent Celek, and, if he shows up, DeSean Jackson.
This is going to take a much better effort from the defensive backs. And the game still is likely going to be more about how many points the Cowboys put up, not how many stops they have.
CHANCE OF DB BEING A PROBLEM: 70% Last time: 60%
Special Teams There was not much impact on the game at all for the special teams. Mat McBriar still is having a little trouble with his injury, and there still is not much going on with the return game for the Cowboys. Very little to base anything on here.
CHANCE OF ST BEING A PROBLEM: 30% Last time: 40%
Coaching This is the week for Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan to earn their paychecks. They got totally beaten by Andy Reid and company, and they need to do something about it. RR especially needs to find a way to at least slow down the Eagles and get the ball back in the offense's hands without giving up touchdowns on every possession like they did early in the first game. If he can manage that, then I think the Cowboys can handle Philadelphia. If not, then look forward to a long 2012 when we are reminded incessantly about how we got swept, no matter how the last game of the season goes for the Cowboys.
CHANCE OF COACHING BEING A PROBLEM: 60% Last time: 30%
Jerry Jones I still think Jerry has been saying and doing the right things this past week. In a sense, he is just like all of us, kind of holding his breath to see if the team can pull it out at the end and make it into the playoffs. Mostly, he has not been a distraction, and has supported his staff.
CHANCE OF JJ BEING A PROBLEM: 20% Last time: 20%
Again, as things are playing out, the outcome of this game does not determine the fate of the Cowboys. But I just don't like the team's chances against the New York Giants next week if the team does not beat the Eagles, especially if they look anything like they did in week eight. The team needs to come out with some attitude and more than a little anger.
Best outcome: A beatdown on the Eagles.