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Pregame Shuffle: Cowboys vs. Eagles (Week 16)

What to expect from a Cowboys and Eagles matchup that’s seemingly lost some juice

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

A few days ago, this game seemed like it was going to be the biggest one of the season so far. The Cowboys were up by 17 points on the Jaguars, while the Eagles were struggling to hold onto a touchdown lead over the Bears. We were so very close to this Christmas Eve game turning into a battleground for control in the NFC East, as well as the race for the number one seed.

Things changed in a flash. Dallas squandered their lead and lost in overtime; Philadelphia pulled away at the last moment to win; and then, a day later, it was revealed that Jalen Hurts was likely to miss at least two games with an injury to his throwing shoulder. So, not only will this game no longer be a major player in the divisional race, but it won’t even feature the Eagles’ top quarterback.

Of course, that shouldn’t diminish any potential Cowboys win; it certainly didn’t for Eagles fans when they beat the Cooper Rush Cowboys earlier this year. And while this game won’t have incredibly high stakes anymore, it’s still one of the most intense football rivalries today. Besides, the Cowboys need to get back at Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni - who definitely wasn’t the one who orchestrated the sending of cheesesteaks to another football team - for his “How ‘bout them Eagles” comment after that last clash.

The big story here, of course, is Minshew subbing in for Hurts. While Philadelphia hasn’t officially ruled Hurts out, it’s widely expected he won’t play. That’s a big problem for the Eagles, since their offense has been completely built around Hurts’ dual-threat ability and Minshew, while not a statue, is nowhere near the athlete Hurts is.

The Eagles lead the league in rushing DVOA and Hurts is a big reason why: no other quarterback has more carries on the year, and just a quarter of his 156 carries this year have been scrambles. Philadelphia uses Hurts as a designed runner with almost unprecedented frequency, and he’s second on the team in both carries and rushing yards as a result.

Minshew simply cannot replicate that style, though he won’t be completely hung out to dry. The Eagles also lead the league in RPO plays, something Minshew has generally succeeded with in his brief playing experience. It helps that Minshew will have two talented receivers in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith to throw to, as well as tight end Dallas Goedert, recently activated from the injured reserve.

Minshew will also be facing a Dallas defense that’s having a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. Dan Quinn’s unit has struggled in consecutive games, and against two offenses nowhere near the level of the Eagles. Part of that has to do with the loss of both Johnathan Hankins and Leighton Vander Esch, which has seriously affected their run defense. Hankins won’t be available until the playoffs, and Vander Esch is about as likely to play in this one as Hurts.

Perhaps more pressing, though, is the question of who will play outside cornerback opposite Trevon Diggs. Kelvin Joseph had started the last two games since Anthony Brown was lost for the year, but Joseph’s egregious play against Jacksonville saw him benched for Nahshon Wright. While Wright played well in relief, he didn’t have too many opportunities to show much. Dallas also recently claimed Trayvon Mullen off waivers, and they’ve got both Mackensie Alexander and Kendall Sheffield on the practice squad. They have options, but it’ll be interesting to see who gets to go up against a slightly hamstrung Eagles offense on Saturday.

On the other side, Dak Prescott finally gets to square off against this fierce Eagles defense. He didn’t return from injury until the week after the first game between these teams in 2022, and he was sorely missed. Prescott has been on a tear since coming back, though his one flaw has been a pretty big one: interceptions. Not all have been his fault, but Prescott is throwing interceptions at an extraordinarily high rate.

He’ll need to be much more careful against Philadelphia, who ranks seventh in defensive DVOA and second in pass defense DVOA. They’re second in the league in takeaways, just one shy of Dallas, and actually lead the league in interceptions. They’re also tied with Dallas for the highest team pass rush win rate and are first in sacks while ranking third in pressure rate. Prescott will surely be under duress in this one, but he can’t get careless.

For as good as the Eagles are against the pass, though, they’re uniquely weak against the run. Ranked 20th in run defense DVOA, they’re surrendering the eighth most yards per carry on the year, more than the Cowboys. The difference, though, is frequency: only eight teams have seen fewer rushing attempts against their defense than Philadelphia. A big part of that is the Eagles gaining an early lead and forcing teams to throw to get back in the game.

That was their formula in the first game against the Cowboys, too. Rush dropped back more in that game than any other game he started this season, and the results were disastrous. But Dallas has been thriving on the ground, fielding the fifth best rushing attack by DVOA. And unlike last time, they have a quarterback who’s much more adept at managing a defense like this one.

It’s no wonder the Cowboys are favored in this game with Hurts very likely out, but the Eagles are still a very talented team. Just like last week, Dallas will need to play to their potential rather than to their opponent’s level. A complete game from the Cowboys could yield a pretty easy win at home, but more slacking in play could lead to another frustrating loss.

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