No matter what happens on Sunday between the Cowboys and Eagles, neither team will be able to clinch the division. However, the winner will come out with the division lead for the time being, and that gives this rivalry more fuel to the fire than it already needed.
The Eagles are on a two-game winning streak in which they’ve put up 25 or more points both times, but don’t let any of that fool you. Those wins were against the cellar-dwelling New York Giants, and even then Philadelphia had to fight back from a 19-3 deficit for a narrow victory, and their other win was against the Washington Redskins, who were forced to send out their third-string quarterback Mark Sanchez, who wasn’t even with the team two weeks prior. To say that this winning streak was easy should be an understatement.
And yet, the Eagles have looked like a shell of their Super Bowl team from last year. The offense has only scored eight touchdowns in their last four games, and three of those were just last week. They’ve been coming up short and relying on their kicker, Jake Elliott, a lot. A big reason for this inconsistency is the lack of a strong running game. The Eagles’ rushing attack currently ranks 23rd in the league, whereas last year they had the third-best ground game.
This is largely due to injuries. Jay Ajayi was supposed to be the featured running back for the offense, but nagging injuries slowed him down until an ACL in Week 5 ended his season. Darren Sproles returned from injury last week against Washington, his first game since the season opener, and had a touchdown on just four carries. As a result, Doug Pederson has gone with a committee of Josh Adams, Corey Clement, and Wendell Smallwood for the majority of the season. The three of them have combined for 896 rushing yards on 206 carries, averaging 4.3 yards per carry with five touchdowns and six fumbles between them. Getting Sproles should help stabilize things a bit, but if last week’s game was anything to judge off, Philadelphia is being cautious with him.
The passing game has been better for the Eagles, though still not great. Carson Wentz has had some good and some bad this year. He struggled early on as he was shaking off the rust, but as he regained both his confidence and mobility he started to put up better numbers. Yet, his last four games have been inconsistent despite mostly good statistics. Wentz has made some curious decisions lately that against better defenses like Dallas and New Orleans have turned into drive-killing mistakes, but against Washington and New York he was able to overcome them.
As Wentz heads into Dallas, he’ll face a defense that has gotten even better since the last time they played. By comparison, Philadelphia gave up 48 points to the Saints, and Dallas gave up just 13 last week. Wentz may have racked up 360 yards last time these two teams met, but chances are good he won’t fare as well this time around.
Wentz’s supporting cast of pass catchers hasn’t exactly been impressive either outside of Zach Ertz. The former Stanford tight end leads the team in catches, yards, and touchdowns by a mile. It’s no secret that he’s Wentz’s favorite target, and the Cowboys need to focus on taking him out of the game. After that, Nelson Agholor is a solid enough receiver who’s been the most consistent at his position by default. This is because Alshon Jeffery, while dangerous, lapses in and out of the domination he’s capable of dishing out. Standing at 6’3”, he should be a deadly red zone threat, but he hasn’t scored a touchdown since Week 7. That was also the last time he had over 50 receiving yards in a game, and the number one receiver hasn’t had 100 yards in a game since the season opener.
Then there’s Golden Tate, who the Eagles traded for at the deadline to bolster their weak and inconsistent receiving corps. He was incredibly effective in Detroit, and he specifically savaged this Dallas defense in Week 4 by catching all eight of his targets for 132 and two touchdowns. The trade was seen as a slam dunk for Philadelphia, but it took him until this last week versus Washington to score a touchdown with his new team. Even then, it came on a scramble play from Wentz. Offensive coordinator Mike Groh even went so far as to say that it was “challenging” to integrate their new receiver into their offensive system.
Another challenge for this offense will be the nagging injuries to All Pro left tackle Jason Peters, who left the game last week and has failed to participate in practices this week, although he is planning to play. This offensive line has struggled to create holes in the running game or protect Wentz, whose 29 sacks this year are the eleventh most of any quarterback. While Dallas will be without David Irving for this game, they have been generating a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks lately, and Dallas will be looking for more than just the two sacks they had on Wentz last time.
But perhaps the biggest problem for the Eagles offense at this point in the year is the short week to prepare, which contrasts sharply to the Cowboys’ ten days of rest since shutting down Drew Brees and their high-powered offense. That’s also more time to analyze, watch tape, and scheme for ways to attack this offense. It’ll be interesting to see if the drastic differences in rest plays a factor in this crucial matchup.