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Five things to watch when the Cowboys host the Eagles on Sunday night

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Here are some things to keep tabs on when these two division rivals battle it out on Sunday night.

NFL: DEC 09 Eagles at Cowboys

It’s the game we’ve been waiting for. The two teams people were expecting to battle for NFC East supremacy are doing exactly that on Sunday Night. The winner restores hope in their season, the loser is in a world of trouble. Either the Dallas Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles have taken down the East in five of the last six seasons, with the Cowboys the reigning division champs. But for them to retain their division title and become the first team in 15 years to repeat as NFC East champs, they’re going to need to get this win on Sunday. There are many storylines in this one, but here are five things to pay close attention to when these two teams square off.

1. Who is quick out of the gate?

Something tells me we’re going to be able to get a sense of who’s coming away victorious within the first six minutes of the game. Maybe it will be the team that storms out of the gate bringing the most intensity. Or maybe it’s because we’ll know if the Cowboys are going to just go through the motions, or if they will decide to be the aggressors. Surely, we are all hoping for the latter.

The Eagles aren’t messing around. Their head coach Doug Pederson has guaranteed a win, whereas Jason Garrett has guaranteed nothing. Talk is cheap, but which coach will have his team better prepared for this big divisional game?

2. Protecting the edge

The Cowboys are expecting to have both their starting tackles back for the game as Tyron Smith and La’el Collins both practiced in limited fashion on Friday. It’s good timing too with such a big game on the docket. Eagles edge rusher Brandon Graham has been riding hot lately. After going sack-less through the first four games of the season, Graham has sacked the quarterback four times over the last two games. Having the vets back will be huge for the Cowboys offense.

While the Cowboys offensive line gets a boost, the Eagles will be without their starting left tackle Jason Peters as he is dealing with a knee injury. This will put the responsibility of protecting Carson Wentz’ blindside to the Eagles first-round pick, Andre Dillard. The rookie is a promising young talent, but he’s going to have his hands full with Robert Quinn. The Cowboys veteran edge rusher is riding hot himself as he has two multi-sacks performances over the last three games.

3. Miles can run for miles

While the Eagles receivers are nothing to make you sweat, the Cowboys must not lose sight of how rookie running back Miles Sanders can hurt them in the passing game. The Eagles love to get him matched up on linebackers and just watch him blow past the defense on wheel routes. Over the last four contests, Sanders has put together games with 73, 49, and 86 yards receiving so it would behoove the Cowboys to respect the danger he can be as a receiver.

Over the last four games, Carson Wentz’ longest pass to a wide receiver has been just 26 yards. Wow. And with no DeSean Jackson making his return from injury this week, it’s possible that doesn’t change; however, the Eagles can supplement production in the passing game by looking to Sanders.

4. Going long

Remember early in the season when the Cowboys offense used to beat the defense deep on a heavy dose of play-action? Man, those were good times. After using play-action on almost 40% of their pass plays over the first three weeks (2nd in the NFL), the team has only faked the hand-off on a mere 15% over the last three weeks (30th).

What gives? Why stop when it was working so well?

Hopefully, the Cowboys go back to their old ways because the Eagles defense is very susceptible to giving up the big plays. In fact, no team has given up more touchdowns of 20 yards or more this season than the Eagles. Now, if the Cowboys would only choose to exploit it.

The Cowboys have the firepower to make big plays against this secondary, but can they pull it off? Amari Cooper returns to the scene of the crime where he destroyed the Eagles defense last year at AT&T Stadium with a 10-catch, 217 yards, and three-touchdown performance. With a suspect secondary, the opportunity is certainly there to have a big game, but will his quad be healthy enough for Amari to be Amari?

5. Winner sits pretty, loser facing turmoil

While it’s only Week 7, this game is of monumental importance. If the Cowboys win this game, they’ll take a game lead in the division with an early lead in holding the tiebreaker. That’s a huge advantage. The Eagles would not only drop under .500, but the heat inside the locker room would intensify as there are already reports about an anonymous player criticizing Wentz.

On the other hand, if the Cowboys lose, it would make four straight losses for them, and bring out even greater questions regarding the direction this team is heading under it’s current management. In simplistic terms, this game is a must win.