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Cowboys at Eagles: Week 18 primer

The Cowboys and the Eagles are in the playoffs, but will we see their starters in this one?

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The last time the Cowboys and Eagles played each other, it was never even close. Dallas won 41-21, including a Trevon Diggs pick-six, and it marked their first game over .500 all year. They’ve stayed in that territory since, while the Eagles had to make a midseason turnaround. Now, both teams are headed to the playoffs.

Technically speaking, both teams still have something to play for. The Packers clinched the NFC’s top seed last week, but Dallas could still move as high up as the second seed if they win this game and get some favorable (and highly unlikely) breaks in other games. Philadelphia is in a similar situation, as they already lost out to Dallas on the divisional race but could potentially move from the seventh seed to the sixth seed with a win and a little help from other teams.

Since this game is being played on Saturday night while the rest of the NFC plays the next day, there will be no scoreboard watching for either team. Mike McCarthy has already insisted he’ll be playing his starters with the aim of winning, but he could always be lying. Nick Sirianni, on the other hand, has admitted he’s openly considering resting his starters; of note, quarterback Jalen Hurts returned from an ankle injury just three weeks ago and still isn’t at 100%.

Hurts has been a major component in the Eagles’ rebound from a rough start to the year. Philadelphia fell to 2-4 following a Thursday night loss to the Buccaneers, and Sirianni’s pass-heavy attack was getting criticized left and right, much of that began when he only called 12 total runs against Dallas in Week 3. During the mini bye week, Sirianni overhauled his offensive approach and switched to a run-heavy style that maximized Hurts’ mobility.

After averaging 22 carries a game in their first six games, the Eagles have since averaged just under 40 carries a game. It’s not just that Philly started running the ball more, but they’ve done it more efficiently too. They’ve improved all the way to third in rush DVOA and third in EPA per carry. The sudden stabilization of their offense helped the Eagles go 7-3, including winning their last four straight, and get into the playoffs.

So even if the Eagles do play all of their starters, and even if McCarthy stays true to his word on playing to win this one, this game will look pretty different. It’s almost as if we’re seeing these teams play each other for the first time this year. That’s how different this Eagles team is now.

The Cowboys have had their own offensive evolution, too, though not for the better. Dallas looked to have an unstoppable offense as they marched out to a 6-1 start, but then things fell apart a little. The Broncos game happened, followed by a blowout of the Falcons that was supposed to be the back-to-normal game. The absences of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb played a part in offensive struggles against the Chiefs and Raiders before things gradually improved leading up to that 56-14 demolition of the Washington Football Team.

This past week’s loss to the Cardinals, though, seemingly put the offense back to square one. Michael Gallup, who had only been back since the Falcons game, is done for the year after tearing his ACL. That only makes things harder, and it’s a reason why some want the Cowboys to field their regular starters this week in an attempt to get things right before the playoffs begin. The counterpoint is that they can’t afford to lose any other players right before the playoffs begin.

To that end, the Cowboys already know they’ll be without Micah Parsons this week, as he landed on the COVID-19 reserve list on Wednesday. Tyron Smith and Anthony Brown were added on Thursday to the COVID list. Philadelphia has a long list of players on the COVID-19 reserve list too, although some are still eligible to return in time to play.

All of this makes prognostications for this week very difficult, but the knowledge that each of these teams will have more games to play should put their respective fan bases at ease. This game likely won’t mean much to either side, but we won’t know that until the day after this one wraps up. So what should we expect? Perhaps it’s best to just enjoy the last regular season game from this season. Save the angst for the playoffs, where Dallas makes a triumphant return soon.