This week’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles is one of the biggest so far this season throughout the league. Not only will the winner have the inside track for the NFC East crown, the Eagles are the only one loss team in the NFC while the Cowboys are just a game behind in the loss column. With the sudden slump of the San Francisco 49ers, the top four teams in the conference are the two NFC East rivals plus the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. Whoever wins between Dallas and Philadelphia will also come out with at least a share of the lead for the number one seed in the playoffs in the loss column, and with both the Seahawks and Lions ahead on their schedule, the Cowboys would suddenly be in that “controlling their own destiny” situation.
Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.
It is easy to claim that both the teams involved in what is Sunday’s biggest game are strong, but not without weaknesses. While we make no claims about our ability to make accurate predictions, we are going to take a look at the key matchups with an eye to coaching and which ones favor the good guys in blue and silver.
It’s always a major factor, but coaching is especially relevant this year with Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy notoriously taking on the play-calling duties and being the main architect of the Texas Coast offense, his variation on the well-known West Coast system. This is the first time McCarthy has fully taken the reins since coming to Dallas. Up in Philly, Nick Sirianni has followed an opposite arc, starting out calling plays but handing them over to Shane Steichen before his first year was done. Steichen was successful enough that he was hired this year to be the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, with Brian Johnson stepping into the OC/play-calling role this year. Sirianni still is very involved in the offense, and while his personality has certain elements of fingernails on a blackboard, he certainly knows how to build a high-powered offense.
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Before the Cowboys’ bye week, this one certainly seemed to favor the Eagles. The new Dallas offense was having lots of trouble. In the two losses this season, it just didn’t work at all. Even in some of the wins, the team was struggling in the red zone, finding little success on the ground, and having a hard time getting anyone not named CeeDee Lamb involved in the passing attack. Coming out of the bye, they really needed to get these things fixed against the Los Angeles Rams.
Well, as that sage philosopher Meatloaf once observed, two out of three ain’t bad. They scored on half their four trips into the red zone, but the performance was really better than the raw number indicates. The first two trips both resulted in touchdowns, the third was stopped by a tipped ball interception, and on the fourth, the lead was 16 points and the Cowboys were more concerned about burning clock and not committing another turnover to let the Rams try to climb back into the game. The field goal they settled for to increase the margin to 19 and make it a true three-possession lead with just a minute and a half left in the third quarter came after an exemplary ball control drive of 17 plays that used up almost ten will-sapping minutes.
Meanwhile, Dak Prescott managed to have his cake and eat it too. The Lamb connection continued to be white hot, with Lamb putting up a career best stat line of 12 catches on 14 targets for 158 yards and two touchdowns, while the quarterback also was spreading it all over the place, completing passes to eight other receivers and targeting a couple of others for good measure. It was also Prescott’s best game of the year overall, with 304 yards and four total touchdowns. The ability to maintain consistency by McCarthy is still an open question against a good defense, and the answer to that could be what determines this game.
The Eagles continue to be very productive under Johnson, with an impressive 28 points per game. However, this is almost a dead heat between the teams, as Dallas is averaging 28.1, putting the two teams second and third in the stat ranking behind only the Miami Dolphins. This is a collision of offensive juggernauts.
It is only on the ground that the Cowboys show a disadvantage, but it is not as big as you might think from all the griping about it. Thanks in part to a couple of strong showings earlier in the season, Dallas is still above average rushing the ball, sitting eleventh in yards per game, only four spots behind Philadelphia. While Tony Pollard has not been as productive as we might hope, this may also reflect how West Coast style offenses make short passes interchangeable with runs. It also might be influenced by how the team is content to play some grind it out offense when they have a big lead, which has happened with refreshing frequency this season. That can lead to conservative play-calling. While McCarthy seems a bit too fond of that at times, it can be very useful as it helps protect the quarterback, avoids turnover risks, and takes some pressure off the offensive line.
Overall, the Cowboys look less impressive on offense from a volume standpoint. They are very middle of the pack in yards per game, thanks to a much lower passing average. But there are some details that are important.
First, the Eagles rely a lot on quarterback Jalen Hurts running the ball. He is their second leading rusher with 280 yards and a whopping 78 carries. D’Andre Swift leads things with 117 carries for 571 yards, and just three touchdowns compared to Hurts’ six. Those numbers are distorted by the infamous Tush Push plays, but clearly Hurts is using his legs a lot more to gain yards than Prescott, who has just 23 carries for 104 yards. For Philly, this places their QB at a lot more risk. And this year, although it is getting a lot less play than Prescott’s spate of interceptions in 2022, Hurts has become a bit of a turnover machine. He has thrown eight picks, or one per game, to just five for Prescott, a number inflated for the latter by the meltdown against the San Francisco 49ers.
Add in the five fumbles the Eagles have lost, and turnovers are suddenly a big advantage for Dallas. The Cowboys defense has nine interceptions already, led by sudden star DaRon Bland with four, including a record tying three pick-sixes. Add in the four fumbles they have recovered, and they sit at plus six in this key stat, while the green birds are minus three, the ninth worst in the league.
Turnovers are one of the hardest things to replicate, but Dan Quinn and his staff seem to be doing something right, while Philadelphia is making a lot more mistakes and perhaps having some bad luck as well. Luck may also favor Dallas, but if this trend continues, it could be a big help on Sunday.
Part of that is the intense pressure that the Cowboys defenders bring every week. While their sack total is not impressive, there are a bunch of errant throws under pressure that help them get off the field. Micah Parsons continues to be around the passer, but DeMarcus Lawrence and the rest of the Dallas pass rushers also make big contributions. One player who is not getting enough credit is DT Osa Odighizuwa, who has finally given the team the pressure up the middle they have lacked for many seasons. He is tied with Dorance Armstrong, another kind of under the radar contributor, for second on the team with three sacks.
Another thing that deserves our attention is run defense. The Eagles lead the league in allowing just 65.5 yards per game. This is a big challenge for the Cowboys, but there may be a hidden benefit, as that could force them to rely more on Prescott’s arm. He was so good against the Rams, and if he can stay that way, stopping the run may backfire on Philadelphia. Not only has Prescott had some very good games as far as efficiency, he has also been sacked less than Hurts, 17 to 19, although that includes one additional game for the latter. Both QBs are very good at evading pressure and creating, which will be one place this game is going to be strength versus strength.
Both keeping the quarterback upright and running the ball reflect the performance of the offensive lines. Here, there has been a surprising development for Dallas. They have had all five of their starters on the field for just two games so far, with Tyron Smith missing the Rams game. Coming into the season, we all were concerned about a lack of depth for the offensive line, but it has been much better than we anticipated. A big factor has been the stellar play of Tyler Smith at left guard, who gives the Cowboys one of the best guard tandems in the NFL with perennial All-Pro Zack Martin. The Eagles are also getting some very good play out of their line, and with both teams doing a good job protecting their passers, this is going to be a crucial element. The Eagles are the third ranked offense in yards per game, and going up against Dallas’ third ranked defense in the same category.
While there are a lot of places where you can point to advantages or disadvantages for each team, the Cowboys seem to have one clear edge, and that is John Fassel’s special teams. They have scored a touchdown and a safety already this season on blocked kicks, KaVontae Turpin is dangerous as a returner, getting a 68-yard return and having a touchdown nullified by penalty against the Rams, and Brandon Aubrey is setting records with his leg. The Eagles are just not doing much in the return game this year, and this is a great place for Fassel to make a difference. One thing to look for is if he continues to use Sam Williams as his new special teams ace after Williams blocked a punt and had great coverage on both the punts last week.
Not only are the Cowboys getting a lot of help on the scoreboard from special teams, they also get a huge boost from those pick-sixes and turnovers in general. In four of their five wins, they have jumped out to big leads and to a certain extent coasted to victory. Only the Los Angeles Chargers game was close. The Eagles have played a lot more one score games, going 4-1. That could come back to haunt them if this one is down to the wire, because that tends to regress to the mean. And if you need to go score a field goal at the end to win it, a Prescott-led offense and Aubrey coming on for the game winner is a heck of a combination.
While the talent and performance of the players is of course the vital element, the coaching has a lot to do with putting their players in a position to thrive and utilizing them well during the game. It may all come down to whether the Dallas team that showed up against the Rams is going to be back out there against Philadelphia, or if they have another bad day like they have twice already. Put that on the shoulders of the coaching staff as well.