Will the real Eagles please show up?

Posted: December 27, 2013

SOMETHING LeSean McCoy said on Christmas Eve about this Eagles-Cowboys matchup on Sunday resonated, even beyond what the NFL's leading rusher might have intended.

McCoy was asked about the Dallas defense, and he replied with the customary mild praise. Then he said: "I don't think it's really a matter of how well Dallas does on defense. It's more the [Eagles'] offense. The playmakers we have on this offense - DeSean Jackson, myself, Nick [Foles] and the other guys - if we just play smart, we play ball together, we should be fine."

This seems true of the matchup overall, whether Kyle Orton or Tony Romo quarterbacks the Cowboys. When the Eagles' offense is really on, as it was in last Sunday's 54-11 victory over the Bears, the Eagles win. This is the second-ranked offense in the NFL, in yards and scoring, matched this week against the worst defense, in terms of yardage, which is eighth-worst in terms of points. The showdown for the NFC East title shouldn't be about Romo or Orton. It should be about the Eagles.

McCoy presumably will nail down the NFL rushing title in the season finale, and surpass Wilbert Montgomery for the top single-season rushing total in franchise history. (He has 1,476 yards, the record is 1,512. McCoy has a 189-yard lead over the NFL's No. 2 rusher, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles.) He'll be working against the NFL's 27th-ranked rushing defense, which somehow was able to hold McCoy to just 55 yards on 18 carries in the teams' previous meeting, that vexing 17-3 Dallas victory at Lincoln Financial Field back on Oct. 20. Mostly, it seemed Foles couldn't throw the ball well enough that day to keep the Cowboys from loading up the box.

"We're a totally different team," McCoy said. "I think it was more just the Eagles. I don't think we played well. Myself, I didn't read well, I didn't play well. The attention that they did give us in the running game - which we well deserved - we didn't answer well, didn't respond well. To their credit, they played well, but they didn't see the best of Nick Foles, at all - the Nick Foles that we play with every day and prepare with, they didn't see him.

"There's reads that I usually make, nine out of 10 times. There's plays I usually make, I didn't make. I think that was more me than anything."

The speculation about Dallas playing without Romo, who took an epidural injection this week in what seems like an unlikely bid to play through a back injury, suddenly brought to mind the 48-30 Eagles loss at Minnesota Dec. 15, when the Vikings were missing Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart but still blew away the Birds, behind the best passing performance Minnesota had seen all season, from Matt Cassel.

"I think we learned a pretty valuable lesson against Minnesota, and it's fresh in our mind," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "Not that we took them lightly at all, but we've got to step up, no matter who plays. It has to be at our absolute peak."

When McCoy was asked if Minnesota provided a lesson applicable to this week, he said: "I would say so. One of the best players to play this game didn't play. His backup didn't play. You'd figure we'd have opportunities on offense to make plays, and we didn't get it done."

More than anything else, this game will be about Foles, who played his worst game in the previous meeting, completing just 11 of 29 passes for 80 yards and a 46.2 passer rating before leaving with a concussion. Coaches have tried to avoid a detailed rehash of everything Foles did wrong that day, but in seven starts since, his passer rating has dipped below 100 only once, in the snow Dec. 8 against the Lions.

The popular narrative after the first Dallas game was that pressure got to Foles, given a chance to unseat Michael Vick as the starter, and a chance to put the Eagles in first place in the NFC East. Since faltering badly that day, he has still managed to accomplish both of those tasks.

"We have that one-week-at-a-time mindset. Last week's game was big. We got one down and one to go. I don't think whatever, the setting is too big for Nick," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "He didn't play very well, I don't think any of us played well the first time we played Dallas. I look back on it now and I don't recognize some of what happened. We dropped balls, we weren't on the same page with who we blocked. Certainly Nick had some inaccuracies. We did a poor job coaching and playing. I think we're a different team now.

"So Nick had that experience, and was knocked out of the game, then came back [in his next start, 2 weeks later] and threw seven touchdown passes against Oakland. So I don't think what's going to happen in the setting, I don't think it's going to be too big for him."

"It's going to be a big game," Foles said. "I expect it's going to be packed. Dallas is going to be ready to go. There's going to be a lot of people there. I know that stadium; I played in it as a rookie [a 38-33 Eagles loss last Dec. 2, in which Foles was 22-for-34 for 251 yards and a touchdown, for a 96.6 passer rating] . . . you block all that other stuff out, because when you start thinking about all that other stuff, that causes a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, puts a lot of pressure on you to succeed. The most important thing is to relax and play the game . . . When you have a great week of preparation, it takes a lot of that pressure off your shoulders.

"This is why you play the game . . . This is what you play for all season. It's a special time . . . We know what's on the line. I want to keep playing with these guys. I love these guys, and it's fun to play here."

One way to look at this game is that the pressure was on Romo and the Cowboys, a more veteran bunch who have played the last contest of the season with a playoff berth on the line each of the past two seasons and lost. But with Romo injured, maybe that pressure falls more on Foles, to nail down an unexpected playoff berth in Chip Kelly's first season.

Foles said he was keeping Romo in his prayers.

"I also know Dallas is going to rally for him . . . they're going to be ready to go," he said. "I know everybody's going to dwell on the last time, and everything like that, but this is not the last time. This is not the last game."

Cedric Thornton said he strongly suspected he had tackled Matt Forte for a safety Sunday, even though Forte originally was ruled down just outside the end zone. The Eagles challenged, and the safety was awarded on video review.

"I saw his knee hit the end zone. I didn't know where the ball was. I [almost] had one [Oct. 6] at New York. I just really wanted a safety," Thornton said. "I saw it on the [video scoreboard, which showed Forte down and the ball not over the line] . . . I knew if it wasn't a safety, he was down on the 1-inch line."

If there was a pivotal play Sunday, it was when Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher, playing as usual on the kickoff coverage team, ripped the ball from the grasp of Chicago returner Devin Hester, just after the Eagles had taken a 7-0 lead. Cary Williams fell on the fumble and soon after, the Birds led 14-0, midway through the first quarter.

"I saw he was holding the ball out, when I was trying to get off a block," Fletcher said. "I just took a shot at it. Cary jumped on it, and we put our offense back out there. We were all happy about that; that's a big deal for us, to get those guys on the field."

Chip Kelly said afterward that having a starting corner who plays special teams underlines the importance of those units to everyone on the team.

"I like playing special teams. I've been playing it my whole career," said Fletcher, who spent four seasons with the Rams before signing with the Eagles as a free agent last offseason. "It's another opportunity to make a play for our team . . . I just like playing football. How ever many opportunities I get out there, if it's special teams or defense, I'll do it."


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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