The Cowboys and Eagles will look to jump start their seasons Sunday night, as the division rivals begin to sort out who will be in the NFC East race. The loser will enter November with a losing record and a serious uphill battle to qualify for the playoffs. The winner will enter it on a win streak and look like a possible co-favorite, along with the Giants.
Before the season, many observers expected these Dallas Cowboys to be in the 3-3 range when they visited Philadelphia in Week 8. Not many expected a 2-4 Eagles team. That's where they are, though, thanks to a defense that has struggled to adjust to its new defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, that coordinator struggling in a completely new role, and an offense that has been much more error prone. With the 4-2 Giants lead the NFC East, and with those Giants facing an 0-6 Dolphins team Sunday, both clubs will fear that they can't afford to drop another game to the division field in October.
The Cowboys feel pretty good about themselves, despite their ordinary record and missed opportunities. They pushed Tom Brady to the edge in Foxboro, came back in San Francisco to beat a 49ers team that is now 5-1, and should have beaten the 5-2 Lions and 4-3 Jets in New York. They finally broke their streak under Jason Garrett of extremely close games with their 34-7 win over the Rams, and they are as healthy as they've been all season.
The Eagles come off of a bye, so they have had two weeks to prepare for Rob Ryan's new scheme and to make sure that a Cowboys running game that ran for 295 yards against the Rams doesn't chop up an Eagles run defense that has allowed 4.8 yards per carry and 124 yards per game (23rd in the league).
The Cowboys typically don't have issues stopping the run - they're first in the league, allowing just 69.7 yards per game and tied for second with a 3.3 yards per carry against, but they will be facing the league's number one rushing offense and one that complements LeSean McCoy with Michael Vick's ability to make big plays with his feet. With the two home run threats, the Eagles' 5.7 yards per carry easily lead the league.
The Philly passing game is another issue, as Dallas sits in the middle of the pack at 231 yards per game allowed, and the Eagles are eight in the league offensively. With Tony Romo leading a Cowboys passing attack that is no slouch, the basic number seem to suggest that we could be looking a shootout on Sunday Night Football, though Trent Cole's return does make the Eagles much more formidable defensively than the squad we've seen in the past few weeks..
After their two rookies' performances last week - DeMarco Murray set a Cowboys record with 253 yards on 25 carries and Philip Tanner added another 34 on six late runs - Jason Garrett decided that it was time to part with Tashard Choice. That means a faster and more versatile set of backs for the Eagles to deal with, along with an offensive line that seemed to be buoyed by the addition of Montrae Holland.
The focus from Al Michaels, Chris Collinsworth, and the NBC studio figures to trained directly on Romo and Vick. Romo has contributed to the first two Cowboys' blown leads, turning the ball over multiple times in the fourth quarter against the Jets and Lions. At New England, Jason Garrett effectively took the ball out of Romo's hands as the Cowboys tried to hold their lead. That approach resulted in a three-and-out and a game winning drive by Tom Brady.
Vick hasn't been the same player who turned the league upside down in 2010. He's still one of its top playmakers. He leads one of the league's most dangerous offenses and is responsible for much of that danger. Behind an overhauled offensive line, though, he has seen his TD-INT ratio change from 21-6 to 9-8. After running for 9 TD in 2010, he's yet to find the endzone himself this season. Adding in his three fumbles, his Eagles have fallen from last season's +9 turnover margin to a -8 that sits near the bottom of the league. Both quarterbacks will make plays as they always do, but NBC and most viewers will look for the QB who avoids mistakes.
Snow is expected through Saturday night in Philadelphia, but game time should be dry and cold. It could be an emotional night, as the Eagles will honor former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson by inducting him posthumously into their Hall of Honor. It should be a good one. Cowboys-Eagles in Philly is not always close, but it is always emotional. This one should be physical, and it should be compelling.