When the 2020 NFL schedule came out, this Week 16 game against the Philadelphia Eagles was one worth circling as the expectations were that this contest could determine who takes down the NFC East crown. Both teams are still in the hunt but would need a lot of help outside of this game for either to win the East. Currently, the Eagles are in last place in the division with a 4-9-1 record, while the Dallas Cowboys are in second place at 5-9.
This game was also supposed to feature another battle between the oft-compared Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz, but by virtue of injury or ineptness, we won’t be seeing these two square off. Instead, the game will be in the hands of a couple backups in veteran Andy Dalton and rookie Jalen Hurts. Both guys are trying to make their case that they should be a starting quarterback. Who can step up and deliver? Which team’s playoff hopes come crashing down on Sunday? Soon, we’ll know the answer. Here are five things to look out for when these two teams square off.
1. Too much time can Hurts you
The promotion of Jalen Hurts to starting quarterback has sparked the Eagles offense as everything’s working much better now. The numbers are pretty compelling.
#Eagles offense with Jalen Hurts vs. Carson Wentz:— Eliot Shorr-Parks (@EliotShorrParks) December 22, 2020
Points per drive:
Percentage of drives that score a TD:
Percentage of drives that end in a INT/Fumble:
The mobility of Hurts has created problems for Eagles opponents as he’s averaged 85 rushing yard per game in his two starts, including a 106-yard outing against a tough Saints defense. And while that will be an problem for the Cowboys, another element is just his ability to extend time in the pocket. This Dallas secondary is finally healthy and they can make plays, but as we saw against the 49ers on Sunday, if the defensive line can’t pressure the quarterback, there is only so long the DB’s can hold off the receivers.
And Hurts has shown that ability to improv and use those legs to turn nothing into something.
2. The other Jalens
While all eyes will be on the rookie Jalen Hurts, there just so happens to be several players with the first name Jalen who could end up being X-Factors in this game. The Eagles first-round pick Jalen Reagor isn’t popping like some of the other rookie wide receivers this year, but in the last three games he’s flashed some of his big play ability. Three weeks ago against Green Bay, he returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown. Against New Orleans a couple weeks ago, he had a nice catch and run that went for 40 yards. And then on Sunday against Arizona, he took a screen pass 23 yards. He’s coming off a game where he had a career high in both targets and receptions, so the Eagles would love to get more involved in these final two games.
We saw some big things from #Eagles WR Jalen Reagor on Sunday, as he made plays as a returner, a receiver and as a runner. Here's how the Eagles cut him loose against Green Bay #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/fbB33cl7t5— Fran Duffy (@EaglesXOs) December 7, 2020
Another guy is safety Jalen Mills. The Eagles secondary is dealing with all kinds of injuries as starters Darius Slay (concussion), Rodney McLeod (knee), and Avonte Maddox (knee) have not been available. Surprisingly, backups Nickell Robey-Coleman and Michael Jacquet (both of which forced a fumble on Sunday) have filled in admirably, but they’ll have their hands full with the Cowboys receivers. This puts added pressure on Mills to step up and make plays.
Jalen Mills be like “Pro Bowl, here I come!!!” pic.twitter.com/5BhDP1sGeY— Hate To Be A Killjoy (@ArmandKilljoy) December 22, 2020
The Eagles aren’t the only team will all the Jalen’s as the Cowboys have one too, only it’s spelled slightly different. Linebacker Jaylon Smith has been racking up the tackles this season as he’s had double-digit tackles in each of the last three games. He’s nine shy of his career-high (142), and with two games to play, there’s a great chance he gets there. With Miles Sanders and Dallas Goedert roaming around, it’s going to be particular important for Smith to be sharp on Sunday, especially since his LB mate Leighton Vander Esch will likely miss the game with an ankle sprain.
3. Eagles defense is clandestinely pretty good
It may not look like Philadelphia has been playing good defense this year. After all, they are ranked 21st in points allowed and 20th in yardage. But rest assure, this group can make plays. They have the second best sack percentage in the league, led by Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, who were both just recently named to the Pro Bowl. They’ve recovered 11 fumbles, which is third-best in the league. They have an opponent third-down conversion rate of just 37%, ranking them sixth in that department, and this past Sunday against the Cardinals was the just the first time all year they’ve allowed a 300-yard passer.
The Cowboys haven’t scored a touchdown against the Eagles in either of their last two games, having to settle for three field goals each time. Granted, these games were both on the road with either an injured Dak Prescott or very raw Ben DiNucci, but the Eagles defense is no slouch. They can bring it, and if the Cowboys offensive line starts struggling or the offensive execution is shaky, that’s going to be a problem.
4. Forcing mistakes
Nothing influences the outcome of the game more than a team’s ability to win the turnover battle. And up until recently, both the Cowboys and Eagles have hurt their chances by their inability to create takeaways. Entering Week 14, both defenses had just 11 takeaways, tying them for second-worst in the league. It just so happens that both teams are riding hot over the past two games with Philadelphia creating five takeaways and Dallas creating seven during that span.
Protecting the ball is important in every game, and expect the ball to change possessions several times in this one. It’s just going to come down to which defense is showing up and making plays.
5. Monitoring the division battle
It’s hard to remember the last time all four NFC East teams were still alive for the division title with just two weeks left to play, but that’s where we sit. However, Washington is firmly in the drivers seat as they sit alone at the top with a 6-8 record. Should they beat the 4-10 Carolina Panthers on Sunday, it’s all over for the Cowboys and Eagles. That doesn’t bring about a whole lot of optimism for the other teams in the East, but the Panthers have been in some really close games against some tough teams this year. Anything can happen.
The Washington/Carolina game won’t kickoff until the afternoon, so all the other teams will enter their games with a fighting chance. Here is what needs to happen for all the other teams to win the East:
New York Giants (5-9) - They trail Washington by just one game, and all they need to do is catch them because they hold the tie breaker by virtue of sweeping them this season. They have a tough game this week against Baltimore before finishing things off with Dallas. The G-Men have cooled off losing two straight after going on a run with four straight wins.
Dallas Cowboys (5-9) - They also trail Washington by one game, but they need to jump them because Washington holds the tie breaker over them by virtue of their own sweep. This puts the Cowboys behind the eight-ball because they need to win out, while having Washington lose their last two.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-9-1) - The Eagles are in the same boat as the Cowboys, needing to win out and have Washington lose out to get in. They get Washington in their season finale, so if they can just stay alive this week, they might be able to control their own destiny this time next week.