Scouting the Eagles and Cowboys

Posted: December 30, 2013

The Eagles are one win from the playoffs. To get there, all they need to do is beat a Cowboys squad that is missing its starting quarterback and top defensive player. The Eagles know what's at stake and insist they will not look past the Cowboys or suffer a letdown because of Dallas' injuries.

The last time the Eagles played a team this decimated by injuries, the Vikings upset the Eagles. Even if coach Chip Kelly said the injuries did not affect the team's mind-set that afternoon, he must ensure it will not happen on Sunday.

With a win, the Eagles would host a playoff game next week. The most likely opponent is the New Orleans Saints, but it could also be the San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, or Arizona Cardinals, depending on Sunday's results.

When the Eagles run

LeSean McCoy leads the NFL in rushing and enters the game 37 yards shy of Wilbert Montgomery's franchise single-season record. He'll likely secure the record and league title Sunday. One of his worst performances came Oct. 20 against the Cowboys, when he rushed for only 3.1 yards per carry and 55 yards total. The Cowboys defense keyed on him that afternoon, and Nick Foles gave the Cowboys no reason to do otherwise. But this is a different Dallas defense from the one McCoy saw that day. Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee was a disruptive presence all afternoon, but he's unlikely to play this time. They're also missing key pieces on the defensive line. Dallas has cycled through 20 defensive linemen this season and ranks 27th in rush defense, and the injuries are a big reason. Rookie DeVonte Holloman moves inside to replace Lee.

The Eagles' offensive line deserves credit for the way McCoy is rushing. The Eagles rank No. 1 in the NFL when rushing up the middle with 6.23 yards per carry, and No. 1 behind the left tackle with 6.23 yards per carry. The Cowboys are 30th in stopping rushes behind the left tackle, allowing 5.89 yards per carry. So look for the Eagles to rush behind Jason Peters often.

Bryce Brown had his first 100-yard rushing effort of the season last week. Brown and Chris Polk continue to mix in carries behind McCoy.

EDGE: EAGLES

When the Eagles pass

Foles has moved on from his Oct. 20 performance, which was the worst of his NFL career. Foles threw for 80 yards in the loss, but he has developed since then. He's coming off a sterling outing against the Bears in which he completed 82 percent of his passes and threw for two scores.

The Cowboys allow 291 passing yards per game, which is No. 31 in the NFL. In the last three games, opposing quarterbacks have thrown nine touchdowns and two interceptions. So Foles would appear in line for another good game. Dallas has allowed an NFL-high 66 plays of 20 yards or more, and quarterbacks complete nearly 65 percent of their passes against the Cowboys.

DeSean Jackson enters the game 106 yards away from breaking Mike Quick's team single-season record. The Cowboys have allowed a 100-yard receiver in four of the last six games, so Jackson could reach that mark. The Eagles have six players with at least 400 receiving yards, so they mix in their options besides Jackson. Riley Cooper led the Eagles with six catches for 88 yards in the first meeting.

The Dallas secondary is struggling. Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick started last week. Scandrick started in place of Morris Claiborne. Undrafted rookie Jeff Heath now starts at safety with Barry Church. The Cowboys have only 29 sacks, which ranks 31st. Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware are their biggest threats to get to the quarterback.

EDGE: EAGLES

When the Cowboys run

The Eagles are expecting the Cowboys to focus on the rushing game, and Cowboys fans are likely hoping for the same. Without Tony Romo, running back DeMarco Murray takes on an even bigger role for Dallas. Murray did not play when the Cowboys beat the Eagles in October. His addition bolsters the Cowboys offense. Murray is No. 10 in the NFL with 1,073 rushing yards, and his 5.4 yards per carry are the most among the top 10.

The Cowboys like running the ball to the left side. Of their 306 rushes, 131 have been behind the left tackle or around the left edge. Fletcher Cox and Trent Cole will be busy for the Eagles. Cole must make sure he sets the edge, and the inside linebackers need to be sure tacklers. Murray averages 2.8 yards after contact, which trails only Adrian Peterson among 1,000-yard rushers.

The Eagles were formidable against Matt Forte last week and have the league's No. 12 rushing defense. Murray will be one of their toughest tests yet.

EDGE: COWBOYS

When the Cowboys pass

This would be a Cowboys advantage if Romo was on the field, but that won't happen. Kyle Orton is an unknown. Although he has started 69 NFL games, his last one came in 2011. When he last faced a Bill Davis-coached defense, Orton threw three interceptions. But Orton did not have the same weapons that day that he has in Dallas.

Containing Dez Bryant will be a difficult task. Bryant's back injury flared up this past week, but he's expected to play. Bryant had a season-high 17 targets against the Eagles in the first meeting. He finished with eight catches for 110 yards. Bryant has 85 receptions for 1,134 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, including four scores in the last four weeks. The Eagles cornerback combination of Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher did a nice job last week against Chicago's receivers, and they will both see Bryant.

The Eagles also must pay attention to rookie Terrance Williams, who has 697 yards. Tight end Jason Witten is always a threat, but the Eagles have played well against tight ends. The Eagles have kept tight ends to fewer than 50 yards in nine games this season and have allowed only two tight-end touchdowns. Murray has 48 receptions and is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.

The Eagles pass rush impressed last week, when Cole recorded three sacks. He'll be challenged this week by Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith, who is one of the best in the NFL. Safety Earl Wolff's knee still bothers him, so Patrick Chung could continue in that spot.

EDGE: EVEN

Special teams

Dallas returner Dwayne Harris missed the last two games with a hamstring injury, but he will return Sunday and continues a string of dangerous returners the Eagles have faced. Harris trails only Cordarrelle Patterson with 30.5 yards per kick return. He would be No. 2 in punt returns if his 17 returns qualified. Harris has touchdowns on both a kickoff and a punt.

Eagles special teams improved last week against Chicago's Devin Hester. Kicker Alex Henery has not missed a field goal since Nov. 10. His two longest field goals have come during the last two weeks.

EDGE: COWBOYS

Intangibles

This is the Cowboys' third consecutive season playing a win-and-in game in Week 17. They lost the last two on the road. Coming home might be an advantage, but losing Romo doesn't help. Dallas is 5-2 in AT&T Stadium this season. The Eagles enter the game heavy favorites and winners of six of seven games, so they also have momentum.

EDGE: EAGLES

Predictions

ZACH BERMAN: EAGLES 38, COWBOYS 24

JEFF McLANE: EAGLES 30, COWBOYS 16

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