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Predicting the Cowboys vs Eagles matchup: One last ride before we find out what this team is made of

For better or worse, we will take Mike McCarthy at his word and assume the starters are playing in this one.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

After the ups and downs of the Dallas Cowboys 2021 season, there is one last formality before the playoffs begin. With the Cowboys almost locked into the four seed and the Eagles already having clinched a playoff berth, it is still uncertain how much the starting lineups of these two teams will be involved in this matchup.

However, as a 7-point favorite according to DraftKings Sportsbook, the expectation is that the Dallas starters should receive ample playing time. But instead of discussing what it will take to beat the Eagles, what do the Cowboys need to prove before the postseason?

The Cowboys offense

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If the starters are playing, this game is an excellent test for the Cowboys’ offense. Since Week 11, the Eagles have not allowed more than 20 points in a single game. Granted, this was against a few mediocre teams, but it is a test nonetheless for an inconsistent Dallas offense.

So, what do we need to see?

First and foremost, the Cowboys’ offense needs to play a complete game. Since the Broncos matchup, Dallas is the 28th ranked offense in the second half of games but the ninth-ranked offense in the first half. We saw the inverse of this against the Cardinals, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the offense can’t sustain a full game’s worth of productivity.

One-half of production will not be enough when the Cowboys play the Cardinals at home, the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, or the Packers at Lambeau. Forget four quarters; if the Cowboys want a Lombardi, they will have to string together sixteen straight quarters of sound offensive football. Considering three consecutive quarters has been a tall task lately, a complete game in week 18 would go a long way.

However, to do so, the offensive line will have to give Dak Prescott time to throw. This is another facet that Dallas needs to build on before the postseason, because according to PFF, here is where the NFC playoff teams rank by pass-rushing productivity:

  • Packers: 3rd
  • Rams: 1st
  • Buccaneers: 23rd
  • Cardinals: 9th
  • 49ers: 5th
  • Eagles: 4th

It is entirely possible that if the Cowboys want to advance to the Super Bowl, they will have to go through three of the top-ten most dominant pass rushes in the league. Gaining consistency with another game of Tyron Smith playing (once again assuming the Cowboys will be playing their starters) would be incredibly valuable for the following week.

The last aspect we should be looking for on Sunday is the proper use of tempo. An offense cannot always go no-huddle, and Cowboys fans should not expect that. However, when the defense is on its heels after Dak has ripped off a big play, that is when Kellen Moore needs to smell blood in the water and attack.

No more “big shift in momentum followed by a huddle and then several adjustments at the line of scrimmage” offense. The Washington game proved that the Cowboys can successfully run an up-tempo offense. Please use this weapon before the playoffs.

Maybe you are on the boat that the offensive starters need to rest, which is likely the right move. But if the offense is going to play as Mike McCarthy has stated, let’s right the ship before a likely date with the Cardinals.

The Cowboys defense

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

For the unit that we have the most faith in, there isn’t a ton that needs to be demonstrated before playoffs. However, if you treat Jalen Hurts as “Kyler Murray-lite,” it might serve as a preparation game.

Thus, keeping Jalen Hurts in the pocket becomes pivotal. Kyler Murray was productive last week when he was able to escape the pocket, roll outside, and buy himself extra time. He didn’t even scramble on most of these plays, but it afforded the receivers additional time to get open.

With an average time to throw of 3.2 seconds, the longest in the NFL, Hurts is strikingly similar to Murray. Thus, the defensive line needs to prove they can contain the edges and keep the quarterback in the pocket. Eight of the twelve first downs that Kyler Murray was involved in occurred outside the pocket. If Dallas can work on keeping Hurts between the tackles and carry that momentum into next week, Murray faces an uphill battle.

Another aspect the Cowboys struggled with last Sunday, going hand in hand with containing Kyler Murray, is their third-down defense. After an NFL best 31.2% third-down conversion rate against going into last Sunday, Dallas allowed Arizona to convert 44% of their third-down attempts, the twelfth worst rate in week 17. There is a solid argument that this was an outlier game for the Cowboys’ defense. Still, it isn’t a coincidence that a mobile quarterback such as Murray continually moved the chains against Dallas, despite facing the best defense on third down.

Fix this against Jalen Hurts and the Eagles, partially by keeping him in the pocket, and we can all assume this trend won’t continue in the Wild Card round. Getting off the field on third down is what Dallas does best, and we will need that asset come next week.

Ultimately, while the Eagles do not possess the same offensive prowess as the Cardinals, they are still a threat that needs to be respected. If the starters are playing, fix these issues and allow the defense to anchor this team in the playoffs.

Coaching and special teams

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As for coaching, we have already discussed what Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore need to focus on come playoffs. Fixing the issues from recent weeks is a task much more difficult for Moore, so at this point, we are holding out hope it all comes together when it matters.

For Mike McCarthy, the aggression finally showed up again with his three fourth-down conversion attempts, all of them being successful. We finally saw McCarthy demonstrate confidence in his team after an extended drought of no such aggression.

But clearly, the narrative is centered around his clock management. An argument can be made that the referees not ruling it a fumble would have been overturned if McCarthy had held onto his timeouts and was able to challenge the play. On the other hand, maybe he thought his defense would get off the field earlier and wanted his offense to have as much time as possible.

However you feel, the reality is that clock management decisions only arise in specific situations, most commonly in close games. Maybe this week is another close game, and he redeems himself in this facet. But more than likely, we simply have to hope he handles the clock well in the postseason because there aren’t many opportunities to prove yourself in this regard.

For special teams, specifically Greg Zuerlein, it is a more specific issue than missing field goals. Since his tenure with the Cowboys began, Zuerlein has not missed a field goal in the fourth quarter, and he is also very accurate in the third quarter. So, the complaint needs to be, stopping missing early field goals and PATs that cost the team in late-game situations.

Based on McCarthy’s comments and the current Vegas line, we should expect the starters to receive a decent amount of playing time. If they are going to play, hopefully they fix the mistakes that became apparent last week and prepare for a rematch against the Cardinals at AT&T Stadium.

At the very least, please help us regain the confidence that eroded during the Arizona game and most importantly, stay healthy.

Analytics Projection:

Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 61.2%

Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 27, Philadelphia Eagles 20