Back when the NFL 2019 schedule came out, almost everyone looked at the week 16 matchup of the Dallas Cowboys at the Philadelphia Eagles as the game that would decide the NFC East representative in the playoffs. That has turned out to be true, but hardly in the way most expected. No one really anticipated that both teams would be 7-7 as the division has turned out to be this year’s collective NFL dumpster fire.
But here we are, with the Cowboys able to lock up a berth in the postseason, while the Eagles would have the upper hand if they prevail. Our Michael Strawn and Tom Ryle take a look at some of the factors that will come into play.
Tom: Well, there’s no question we should feel a lot better about this now than we did a week ago. The dominating win over the Los Angeles Rams finally showed what the Cowboys are capable of when they eliminate the mistakes and focus on doing their jobs.
There’s little doubt that the Rams were a stronger team than the Eagles appear to be. They have been decimated by injuries, and with DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery on IR while Nelson Agholor is questionable, they are struggling to even field enough wide receivers to run 11 personnel, much less ones that can actually catch the ball. They also lost Darren Sproles and Corey Clement at running back, although the main replacement, rookie Miles Sanders, has turned out to be one of their few remaining effective weapons. Lane Johnson has been ruled out as well. The strength of their offense is the tight ends, Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, but that has to greatly simplify the defensive plan for Dallas.
When Philly goes on defense, they are a bit healthier, although they have also lost some players there. They have not found a way to stop the Cowboys of late, especially when Ezekiel Elliott is on the field. Now that the Cowboys have added Tony Pollard to the mix, they may be able to run the Eagles out of their own stadium.
Michael: No doubt the Eagles are wounded and frankly not that good; that’s one of the down sides of having one of the oldest teams in the league. Dallas has injury worries as well. I know Dak Prescott and the powers-that-be are brushing off his shoulder injury as if it’s nothing to worry about - but I’m worried. Call me crazy, but when your starting QB can’t even throw a pass in practice, I think that’s a problem.
Add Tyron Smith’s eye thing, Amari Cooper playing with his variety of injuries and Leighton Vander Esch and Connor Williams being out and the Cowboys aren’t exactly a pillar of health either.
Regardless, these division games never seem to go to form. Whatever happens, it rarely matches what most think going in. So the Cowboys need to be prepared to do whatever. My assumption is the Eagles will use their backs and tight ends extensively in the passing game because their wide receiving corps has 27 career catches between them. So, naturally, I’m worried Carson Wentz is going to launch bombs all over the place a la 1994 Thanksgiving Jason Garrett and those receivers will all post career days.
Hopefully I’m just a worry wart and Dallas will be cool, calm, and composed and take care of business against an opponent they should beat.
Tom: Well, I think you hit the crux of the matter, and that is Wentz. He has been better this year than his team’s record indicates, something we can relate to. Those scrub receivers have dropped countless passes, and Wentz himself is fumble-prone. Unless the Cowboys defense completely forgets everything good they did in the Rams game, the Eagles’ chances rest almost entirely on what kind of a game Wentz has. Playing for his team’s survival in front of a home crowd may give him a bit of a boost. Who knows, he may actually take over the fourth quarter as legend has it he can.
The good news is that unless those receivers really do have a very unexpected day, the Cowboys can focus on stopping the tight ends and running backs in the passing game, while the pass rush needs to keep the pressure on the quarterback. Offensively, the Cowboys just need to take care of business and not turn the ball over. Given how well the offensive line played against the Rams, that is certainly achievable. I don’t think Smith’s eye problem is going to be a big issue, and Prescott did play most of the Rams game after injuring his shoulder, so we can be pretty hopeful he will be able to do his job.
Mainly, though, I think the running game is the key for Dallas. And last Sunday, Kellen Moore was using a lot of things in the ground game that they just hadn’t been doing earlier in the season, with impressive results. That video must be giving the Philadelphia coaching staff headaches, as there are now so many new things to account for.
Michael: I’ll also be looking to see how Jason Garrett approaches this game. The Cowboys have been a different team on the road this year - especially in the “primetime” Sunday afternoon/night games - than at home. They’ve looked much more like the same old, conservative, play-not-to-lose team we’ve seen throughout Garrett’s tenure, and not the more aggressive, innovative team we’ve see at times (especially at home).
Garrett has to let it all hang out and I’m just not sure he has it in him. If the first few first downs are all hand offs to Zeke we’ll have a pretty good idea where Garrett is going. If, instead, we see the same array of different looks and different players getting involved on first down as we saw against the Rams, we’ll know Garrett has actually adapted.
Regardless, I’m pretty pumped. It’s not often you get a winner-take-all week 16 game against a hated division rival. Yeah, the teams aren’t as good as hoped back in August. But a win will be immensely satisfying and a loss deeply disappointing. And of course a win gives you an opportunity to write more chapters in the 2019 yearbook.
Honestly, I have no idea what’s going to happen but that’s why they play the games, right?