The last time the Cowboys and Eagles met each other, both were playing with a bit of a deficiency at the quarterback position. Dallas was forced to start rookie Ben DiNucci after losing Andy Dalton to a nasty concussion the week prior, and he quickly proved he wasn’t ready to be playing NFL football. Philadelphia, meanwhile, was still playing their former second overall pick Carson Wentz even though Wentz led the NFL in interceptions thrown and fumbles lost by a quarterback heading into that matchup.
Now, in Week 16, both teams have a different starter under center and have been better for it. Dalton has been playing well since returning to the team, and has the Cowboys on a two-game winning streak right now. Jalen Hurts, the Eagles’ second-round pick this year, has quickly shifted the demeanor of this Eagles team since he took over for Wentz three weeks ago against Green Bay.
Of course, Hurts becoming the starting quarterback over Wentz is all anyone is talking about in Philly right now, but both of these teams will be entering their game on Sunday with a chance - albeit remote - to win the NFC East and make the playoffs. At 5-9 the Cowboys are tied with the Giants for second place in the division, but hold the tiebreaker over New York, while Philadelphia is in last place with a 4-9-1 record and in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since Doug Pederson’s first year as the Eagles head coach.
The division leader, the Washington Football Team, sits at 6-8 and hold the tiebreaker over the Cowboys, meaning if they beat the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, coincidentally Washington head coach Ron Rivera’s former team, then the Cowboys would be eliminated from playoff contention no matter what. But since that game is now being played at the same time as the Cowboys-Eagles matchup, the Cowboys can simply focus on this game and not worry about scoreboard watching. That’s because whoever loses between Dallas and Philadelphia will be automatically eliminated, giving even more importance to this heated rivalry.
This game also represents the Cowboys’ final home game of the year, and with Dallas sitting at a disappointing 3-4 record in AT&T Stadium, Mike McCarthy and his team have a chance to get to at least a .500 record on their home turf. But an Eagles team that’s suddenly rediscovered their mojo stands in the way.
It all has to do with Hurts. When he came in against Green Bay, Philadelphia was down 20-3. Hurts managed to throw a touchdown and energize the offense in general, although the Packers still won 30-16. The next week, Hurts made his first career start and led a huge upset victory over the New Orleans Saints. He threw a touchdown and accumulated 273 total yards through the air and ground to lead a 24-21 win. Last week against the Cardinals, Hurts threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns and added 63 rushing yards and another touchdown, although the Cardinals ultimately won by a narrow 33-26 score.
It’s obvious that the Eagles are just a better team with Hurts under center, especially on offense. The Eagles have scored 20+ points in each of his two starts, and almost did it against Green Bay when Hurts only played one half. By comparison, the Eagles offense hadn’t scored 20 or more since Week 7 against New York (while the Eagles scored 23 against Dallas, the defense scored a touchdown, which doesn’t count towards offensive production).
Now, the Eagles’ issues are still there. The offensive line, which has been missing three of their starters, is still porous and the secondary frequently gets torched; Philadelphia ranks 23rd in pass defense DVOA and is giving up the seventh-highest completion percentage in the NFL. But whereas the Eagles under Wentz were unable to put up points as their defense allowed them to opponents, Hurts has ignited the offense and managed to at least keep them close.
Perhaps his biggest advantage over Wentz: ball security. Wentz had exactly one game this year without either a pick or a fumble, and ironically it was the game in which he finally got benched. While Hurts hasn’t been perfect, an interception against Green Bay, a lost fumble to the Saints, and three fumbles (all of which were recovered by Philly) against the Cardinals, he’s been a marginal improvement over the turnover machine that the other guy was.
Hurts’ foil on Sunday, Dalton, knows a thing or two about ball security. The Red Rifle hasn’t thrown a pick the last two weeks, during which the Cowboys are 2-0. He also hasn’t turned the ball over multiple times in a game since returning from injury, all while putting up 1,097 passing yards on a 66% completion rate with 10 touchdowns. Dalton has been a far cry from star Dak Prescott, who still leads the Cowboys in passing yards this season, but the Red Rifle has settled into a groove and found a way to give his team a chance at winning every week.
He’ll look to keep that up this week against a hot Eagles team that he missed playing against earlier in the year. And with the stakes being as high as they are, it’s safe to expect some really competitive performances from both of these quarterbacks, as well as their teams on the whole.