Game will put many Eagles on big, new stage

Birds of a feather: Nick Foles (center) and the Eagles have had spirited practices this week.
Birds of a feather: Nick Foles (center) and the Eagles have had spirited practices this week. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 28, 2013

The Dallas Cowboys will play in a Week 17, win-and-in NFC East game for the third consecutive season. They have lost the last two times, both on the road, against the Giants and Redskins.

Most players on the Eagles have never played on this type of stage in the NFL. The Eagles have 22 players who have made the postseason, and their average age is 26.1. They have 14 players from the 2011 and 2012 draft classes who never experienced a winning season before coach Chip Kelly arrived in Philadelphia. They also have 10 rookies.

So when the Eagles visit the Cowboys on Sunday, there will be one team with little experience and another team with bad experiences.

"I don't think curious is the word. I think excited is the word," Kelly said about how his team will respond. "I think we are all excited about going down there and what's at stake and what we can do. But I'm not Curious George wondering how we're going to show up or if we're going to show up. "

The playoff-tested Eagles mostly agreed that experience is valuable, but not a necessity. They all believed that the key is to not make the game more than it is, which is the approach that Kelly has taken this week. The coach wants consistency in the team's approach.

That was also the message from wide receiver Brad Smith, who has been to the playoffs three times and was part of the 2009 Jets team that won in Week 17 to advance. He said experience is valuable in understanding how to deal with different pressure situations.

Linebacker Connor Barwin, who played in the playoffs the last two seasons with Houston, said there's a clear difference in the energy and the speed of an elimination game. But a player who has never experienced one can quickly acclimate.

"I would say it's not as big of a deal as some people make it out to be," Barwin said. "You're still playing football. The big game elevates it, but the people who haven't been there, they'll feel it as they go."

The Eagles have been noticeably loose this week. Players agreed this was critical - if they acted uptight, it would show on the field. DeSean Jackson joked with LeSean McCoy during a news conference. A few players danced to music at the beginning of practice.

"They have been really focused," Kelly said. "Obviously, with it being Christmas and a little bit different schedule and getting out of rhythm a little bit in terms of what we did, they came here and they knew exactly what they had to do, and we have been good."

The Cowboys have been in these situations. Their problem has been winning in them.

In 2011, Dallas lost its final two games of the season to finish 8-8. In the Week 17 loss to the Giants, the Cowboys fell behind, 21-0, at halftime before getting within a touchdown in the third quarter. They eventually lost by 17 points.

In 2012, they also lost their final two games to finish 8-8. In the season finale, Tony Romo threw an interception late in the fourth quarter of a 28-18 loss to Washington.

"A lot of guys on the team, a lot of guys on the coaching staff, have been in these situations the last couple of years," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Hopefully, if you evaluate them the right way afterward, you learn from them and get better."

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten admitted that those two losses have stayed with the team, which has 31 players who have experienced at least one of those defeats. Witten understands why much is made of the failures, but he emphasized that the Cowboys must move past them Sunday.

"There's no question that being in those situations and experiencing what we did the last two years, and obviously we came up short; it sits deep in your gut and you feel that," Witten said. "I really think you have to take the emotion out of it because it's a new year, a new team, and we're facing a different opponent."

Reputations and potentially jobs will be on the line Sunday. Garrett already deals with the stigma of how he does in big games. So does Romo, who might not play.

Kelly has not coached in a game like this one in the NFL. Nick Foles has not played in one, nor have many of his teammates. How the Eagles respond could be telling.

"I think everybody understands what's at stake," Kelly said. "It's the first game of the playoffs for us and for them."

Extra points

Guard Evan Mathis missed Thursday's practice because of an illness. Both offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde (back) and safety Colt Anderson (knee) remained out. Vandervelde is the backup center, and if he cannot play, Mathis would be able to slide over to center in case of an emergency.. . . Safety Earl Wolff remained a full participant in practice, although he said his right knee was still sore.


Better Against the Run

SEASON

The Eagles are ranked 12th in the NFL in run defense, allowing 107.5 yards per game

(3.8 yards per carry)

LAST SIX GAMES

The Eagles have allowed at least 100 yards rushing in just two of their last 11 games, both wins (49-20 over Oakland, 24-16 over Washington).

SOURCE: Pro-Football-Reference.com


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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