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Cowboys vs. Eagles: Five things to watch including stopping Zach Ertz and Cowboys passing game

What will you be watching during this NFC East showdown on Sunday?

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

It seems like only yesterday that the Dallas Cowboys season was on the brink of collapse as they were sitting with a 3-5 record and facing the defending champions, Philadelphia Eagles. Oh, what a difference a month makes.

Fast forward to now and the Cowboys are enjoying a four-game winning streak. They’ve come away with big road wins in Philadelphia and Atlanta followed by two home wins against Washington and New Orleans. The Eagles on the other hand went through a two-game skid, losing to Dallas and then a 48-7 thumping in New Orleans, but they’ve since won two straight after beating divisional foes New York and then Washington on Monday night.

The Redskins were in the driver’s seat after starting the season 5-2, but now have lost four of their last five games and are slowly falling out of the division race. Injuries to both Alex Smith and Colt McCoy have put their playoff hopes in the hands of third-string quarterback Mark Sanchez. It’s not looking good for them.

All this equates to an important battle between the Cowboys and Eagles, where the outcome will tell us if the Cowboys have a fight on their hands or if they can distance themselves from the divisions toughest competitor. A win by the Eagles will put them in a tie with the Cowboys with a 7-6 record, however they’ll hold the tie-breaker by virtue of having a better division record. But a win by Dallas gives them a two-game lead as well as then owning the tie-breaker from sweeping them this season. The simplest way to put it is - the Cowboys can squash the Eagles divisional hopes by beating them on Sunday.

With so much on the line, here are five things to watch when these two teams face off.

1. Encore performance from the defense?

It’s still hard to believe the Cowboys defense played so magnificently against the New Orleans Saints last week. The level of energy and physicality this group brought was a sight to be seen. Play after play, the defense was smothering their opponent, swarming to the ball, and hitting them every opportunity they got. It was one of the most complete games this unit has played in a long time, not just throughout all four quarters, but by everyone up and down the defense. It was outstanding.

The question now begs - can they do it again?

Last season, the Eagles were the league’s top offensive team, but that is not the case this year. This season, they are averaging around two touchdowns less than the Saints. And based on the 10-points Dallas held New Orleans to last week, the Cowboys defense should be able to hold the Eagles to minus four points on Sunday.

The Eagles don’t pose the offensive threat the Saints do, but they’ve scored 25+ points in each contest during their current two-game winning streak. The Eagles must get their offense in a groove if they are going to make a run in the division. But will they be able to move the ball against this much-improved Cowboys defense?

It should be interesting to see if the Cowboys can stack another stellar defensive performance on top of last week’s effort or if it was just a one-week showing that’s too tough to repeat. If the Cowboys defense continues to play at a high level, this division will be sewn up soon enough and a victory over the Eagles will just be another bump to get there.

2. Everybody Ertz

The Eagles love going to their star tight end. The six-year veteran Zach Ertz leads the team in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdown receptions and to be honest - it’s not even close. He has 42 more catches than the next guy (Nelson Agholor), 456 more yards than the next guy (also Agholor), and has as many Eagles touchdowns as Agholor, Alshon Jeffery, and Golden Tate combined. He’s the star of this offense.

Ertz has had four double-digit reception games as well as four 100+ yard games this season, including a 14-catch, 145-yard performance against the Cowboy in Week 10 (both were season highs for him). Teams haven’t been able to shut him down and the Cowboys certainly are no different.

The Cowboys have had problems against teams with talented tight ends as Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis combined for 148 yards against them on Thanksgiving. While the defense has done well stopping everyone else, a star tight end remains an issue for them.

Against the Redskins, we started seeing Byron Jones covering the tight end in the second half. It was a smart adjustment that worked out. Would the Cowboys consider having their star corner cover Ertz? With how both Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis have been playing recently, they might be able to loan out Jones’ services to go against Ertz. Or will we see Leighton Vander Esch slide back in coverage?

Chances are, it will be a collective effort in stopping the Eagles top receiving threat and while they won’t stop him all the time, hopefully they can stop him when it counts the most.

3. Attack through the air

It’s hard to advocate for passing the ball when Ezekiel Elliott has averaged 118 yards per game rushing during this four-game winning. Zeke’s been the meat and potatoes of this offense this season. But everyone knows this and the Eagles will have a plan in place to limit the damage Elliott can do. They all do.

Stopping Zeke is easier said than done, but the Cowboy can attack the Eagles in different ways and one of those ways should be taking advantage of a beat up secondary. Last week, the Cowboys picked on Eli Apple as he was the weakest link. The Eagles have slew of guys that can be exploited. Cre’von Leblanc (no. 34), Sidney Jones (no. 22), and Rasul Douglas (no. 32) are corners the Cowboys should be able to attack. The table is set for Amari Cooper to have a big game as all of these corners give up too much space in coverage and you just can’t let Coop have that much separation. And it’s not just Cooper that could see a lot of action. Michael Gallup continues to improve and hauled in a career-high five catches last week. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but Gallup never had more than three catches in any of his previous 11 games. Gallup had 75 receiving yards against the Saints and we could be seeing more production from him going forward. There’s some yards to be had through the air and it’s up to Dak Prescott to make it happen.

4. Avoid the Dak/Fumble

While attacking through the air can open up the offense, it does have some drawbacks.

Last week against the Saints, the Cowboys pulled off something they hadn’t done all season - win a game despite committing a turnover. In all the previous games this year, any type of turnover has been a kiss of death for this team. Thanks to a remarkable job by the Cowboys defense, they were able to overcome two fumbles lost, one by Cooper and one by Dak Prescott.

Fumbles by Prescott are becoming a regular thing. Nobody has lost control of the ball more than Dak this season as he leads the league with 11 fumbles. There are several contributing factors for these. Sometimes the offensive line breaks down and Dak gets blindsided. Sometimes Prescott holds the ball too long. And then there’s also times where Dak will try to take off scrambling and the ball will just magically slip out of his hands.

It certainly doesn’t help that Prescott has been sacked more than any quarterback in the league this year. After going down seven times last week, Prescott has now been sacked 45 times this season. Constantly getting sacked and frequently losing the ball is not a good formula for winning.

Sometimes these sack/fumbles are costly like they were when Prescott lost the ball near the goal line in the Redskins game. Then again, sometimes Dak works himself out of it like what he did on the final drive against he Lions, making a heads up play to pick it up and throw the ball away.

The ability to protect the ball will be a big factor in Sunday’s game. If the Eagles can get after Prescott and cause him to cough up the ball, that could be the winning ticket in leaving AT&T with a victory.

5. Who wants it more?

The last time these two teams met, things got a little chippy early.

The energy during pre-game spilled over into the game as there were several big plays in the contest. From Zeke leaping over defenders to Leighton Vander Esch stopping runners in their tracks - the Cowboys were all over the place. Who knows, by all counts this single incident could be the turning point in the Cowboys season. From that point on, Dallas has been on a roll, but the intensity they’ve played with has been off the charts.

Both teams will tell you they have a “backs against the wall” mentality and big dogs bite when they’re backed into a corner. The only question is - which team has the biggest bite on Sunday? The good news is that Jason Garrett’s group has been a model of consistency when it comes to fight. Playing smart and executing might be a different story at times, but the nature of intensity of which this group displays on the field is pretty consistent. Garrett’s team will be ready, but what about Doug Pederson’s squad?

What will you be watching on Sunday?

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