Two teams whose rosters are mere shells of what they started the season with will play in a game that means everything for Dallas and very little for Philadelphia.
The rivalry between the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles has a rich and somewhat nasty history, but this week's nationally televised match on Sunday Night Football has lost a lot of the luster. The Eagles, mired in a seven game losing streak that has put head coach Andy Reid's job in serious jeopardy, can only play spoiler to the Cowboys' slim playoff hopes.
Both teams have been riddled with injuries. The list continues to grow, as Dallas lost their second starting inside linebacker for the season with Bruce Carter going out and Philadelphia placed wide receiver DeSean Jackson on IR. At one point during the Monday night loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Eagles only had three of their offensive starters from the beginning of the season available -- Jeremy Maclin, Evan Mathis, and Brent Celek.
For the Cowboys game, the status of Mike Vick is still uncertain as he recovers from a concussion. Should he miss another contest, the Eagles will have to rely on Nick Foles, who was not very effective against the Panthers, going 16 of 21 for 119 yards and an 89.2 quarterback rating. What they did have was a surprising and effective running game, spearheaded by rookie Bryce Brown, who set a team rookie record with 178 yards and two touchdowns, although his performance was marred by two fumbles that played a large role in the loss.
LeSean McCoy, still trying to recover from a concussion, is reportedly behind Vick in terms of his progress. If he were healthy, it would give the Eagles a dangerous one-two punch at running back, with two very different styles of runner. But even if McCoy is out, containing Brown will be a big key for Dallas to win.
One of the surprising things about Brown's big game is that Philadelphia's offensive line is even more patchwork than the Cowboys. Dallas, despite their injury-depleted defensive front seven, should have a slight edge. The play of Ernie Sims, Dan Connor, Alex Albright and possibly new signee Brady Poppinga in the middle will likely be the biggest factor in how they stand up, especially if Foles is in.
Foles will have a limited group of receivers, with Maclin, Jason Avant and Brent Celek their most consistent remaining threats. Still, Dallas needs a good game out of the secondary, especially the depleted safety corps.
The Cowboys offense is still looking for a running game. There is some hope for DeMarco Murray to come back this week; if he does, the team will find out how their own offensive line is progressing. Phil Costa probably won't be back, but there is some optimism that Ryan Cook can return to center while Tyron Smith is expected to play. With more starters back in place, the line will hopefully do a better job of protecting Tony Romo and opening holes for whoever is carrying the ball. Dallas could get another boost if Miles Austin returns.
If Murray does not come back, or if the running game is still sputtering regardless, the team will have to rely on Romo's arm. The good news is that the Eagles have their own problems defensively, as evidenced by the release of Jason Babin. Philadelphia is in an evaluation mode here, looking to see more out of their younger players. Fletcher Cox is emerging as a force at defensive tackle. Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham and Phillip Hunt are looking to provide the pressure at end that Babin was no longer bringing to the table.
If Romo can evade the pressure, he has to work against the most intact part of the Eagles' roster. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Nnamdi Asomugha and Nate Allen are competent if not stellar. For several games now, the Cowboys only offensive success success has come through the air, so they have to win the individual match-ups when they pass.
The Cowboys have lost their margin of error. To make the playoffs, they will have to win the rest of the way, a tall order. But, to throw a cliche out there, they're just going to have to take it one game at a time.
Philadelphia is playing for pride and maybe to give Andy Reid a chance to stay. It is a dangerous combination. The game is one the Cowboys can win, but they have shown that they can lose these types of games just as easily. They will have to put a better product on the field on Sunday to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.