Context is everything, including this week’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles. For some time this has been the matchup then one that determines who winds up the division champ of the NFC East, but as the San Francisco 49ers have suffered a mystifying three-game losing streak, this may now be a major determinant for who winds up with the number one seed in the NFC.
Not long ago, it was looking like catching the streaking Eagles was going to be a hard task, as the Cowboys stumbled badly against the Arizona Cardinals and 49ers. But then, as happens to almost every good team, the Eagles stubbed their own toe against the New York Jets. That puts even more of a spotlight on this matchup.
Outside of that surprising loss, Philadelphia been fairly consistent, winning games without a lot of dominant performances. They have gone 4-1 in their one-score games this year. Dallas has been much more up and down, with four of their five wins blowout scores and only one game, the win over the Los Angeles Chargers, going down to the wire. While that was also a positive sign that the Cowboys can come from behind (although they did not trail for long against the Chargers) and win a close one, it is fairly obvious that they are at their best when they get a big lead and can lean on their defense and special teams to keep the opponent down while the offense racks up points.
We have to hope that the good version of Dallas shows up on Sunday. The new Texas Coast offense struggled at times before the bye. Not only was it very ineffective in the two losses, it had issues in the red zone in a couple of wins and the running game has been inconsistent at best. The big win over the Los Angeles Rams gave us hope that the issues are resolved, but the nature of the NFL means that everything is a small sample size, and one game does not make a trend. It’s not like other sports such as baseball, where 162 games can give you a real measure of a team. We saw that in the Texas Rangers’ first ever World Series triumph as their offense kept exploding to put up runs. But we also saw them reverse a year-long problem as a beleaguered pitching staff suddenly became nearly untouchable in so many of their playoff wins, including the 5-0 deciding game. (Sorry for the diversion, but as a long-suffering Rangers fan, I had to sneak that in.)
Now we hope things are finally complete for the Cowboys, with the offense, defense, and special teams all contributing as they did against the Rams, where all three phases of the game put up points. The latter two have been more consistent outside of those irritating losses, so the onus seems to be on the offense.
And maybe the offense is on schedule. While this was not a completely new scheme, with a lot of carryover from last year, it still involves some changes. That often takes more than training camp and preseason to iron out, especially for a team that protects their starters to an extreme degree in the August exhibition games like Dallas does.
With a fairly early bye week, the team seems to have gotten everything fully up and running on offense at this time to face the Eagles, the preseason favorite to take the division as well as making a run to get back to the Super Bowl for a second time in a row. It is important to not peak too soon while also trying to maintain health as much as possible. It took them some time to get the starting offensive line on the field. They managed to go 3-1 before the five starters were all on the field at the same time for the 49ers game. While that game did not turn out well at all, it did get the backups some valuable playing time which has paid off with much better performance from them than we anticipated. The absence of Tyron Smith versus the Rams hardly affected them at all as the offense put up 34 points in that game.
A big part of that is how Dak Prescott has been playing so very well, particularly when he is targeting CeeDee Lamb. The Rams game also saw him spread the ball around effectively, throwing to ten other receivers and completing passes to eight of them. If this is things finally getting ironed out in the passing game, it bodes very well not just for this game, but for the rest of the season and hopefully beyond. The Eagles’ secondary has also been porous this year, ranking 26th in yards allowed per game.
That looks like a great formula for Dallas to get the win. Mike McCarthy’s offense should be able to move the ball and score. Dan Quinn’s defense has to put the brakes on the still potent Philadelphia offense, however. This is a case of strength against strength, as the Cowboys have allowed the third fewest points per game while the Eagles rank third in scoring. Just as Philly looks like the best offense Quinn has had to contend with, they have also not faced as stingy a defense so far.
The running game is more problematical for Dallas. Not only do they face a team that runs the ball almost as well as the two teams that beat them, they have been very up and down when they try to run it themselves. And the Eagles are by far the stingiest team in the league, yielding a paltry 65.5 yards per game on the ground. So far, the Cowboys have not had much problem when they lean heavily on their passing game, but if that is a draw or worse for them, their ability to get an edge in the running game is very much in question. We are left to hope the mediocre performance last week was more situational, and that some of the issues there will also benefit from the work during the bye.
Is this going to be a clash of the titans, or is one of the teams going to be exposed? It may turn out to be a slugfest in the end, with the last team holding the ball getting the win. That will pit the Eagles’ record in one-score games against regression to the mean, and if it comes down to needing to drive for a winning field goal, I’m not betting against Prescott and Brandon Aubrey.
We all hope that the team that thrashed the Rams is the real Cowboys, but one game does not a trend make. We hope this Dallas squad is indeed finding themselves when they have such a great opportunity to seize control of things. Stay tuned for the post game analysis here.