By Scott Garbarini, Sports Network ; The Sports Network Published: December 24th, 2008 09:56 AM
With their playoff hopes now hanging by a thread due to a costly defeat a week ago, all that may be left for the Philadelphia Eagles in Sunday's regular-season finale is a chance to shatter the postseason dreams of their hated rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.
Dallas opened the door for the Eagles to control their own destiny in the NFC playoff race when the Cowboys were dealt a stinging 33-24 loss to the Baltimore Ravens last weekend in what was likely the final game at storied Texas Stadium. Philadelphia couldn't take advantage of the holiday gift provided by their fellow NFC East member, however, as a surprisingly sluggish performance last Sunday resulted in a 10-3 setback to a reeling Washington squad that entered the contest mired in a three-game losing streak.
The Eagles' slip-up has put Dallas (9-6) back in the driver's seat in regards to the NFC's sixth and final playoff seed, and the Cowboys can secure their third consecutive postseason appearance with a victory at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday. However, a loss in Philadelphia would eliminate the preseason Super Bowl favorites from extending what has been a roller-coaster season.
Philadelphia's (8-6-1) fate may or may not be sealed prior to kickoff of Sunday's showdown. For the Eagles to remain alive for the playoffs, they need Tampa Bay to be upset at home by a four-win Oakland team and either Minnesota or Chicago to lose their Week 17 games. The Buccaneers, Vikings and Bears all play at 1 p.m. (et) on Sunday.
If that scenario unfolds, then the winner of Sunday's showdown would clinch one of the NFC's two Wild Card spots.
Both teams had been surging down the stretch before stumbling last weekend. Philadelphia put itself back into the discussion by ripping off three straight impressive wins, including consecutive triumphs over division winners Arizona and the New York Giants. The Cowboys entered the Baltimore game with victories in four of their previous five tilts and were fresh off a 20-8 ousting of the NFC East champion Giants in Week 15.
The Eagles' late-season rise had been fueled by an offense that averaged nearly 400 yards and over 30 points during the recent three-game tear, but the unit managed only 275 total yards and failed to reach the end zone against the Redskins.
Dallas had built its push on the strength of a dominating defense that was yielding a scant 68.5 rushing yards over a four-game stretch prior to last week's loss, in which the Ravens churned out a devastating 265 yards on the ground and had two touchdown runs of 77 yards or more in the final four minutes.
These two divisional foes haven't met since the Cowboys posted a wild 41-37 win at Texas Stadium back in Week 2, with Dallas erasing a six-point fourth- quarter deficit with a pair of late scoring drives.
The Cowboys hold a 53-42 advantage in their all-time regular season series with the Eagles, including the above-mentioned 41-37 home win when the teams met in Week 2. The clubs embarked on an unconventional home-and-home split last season, with Dallas coming up a 38-17 winner in Philadelphia in Week 9, and dropping a 10-6 decision at Texas Stadium in Week 15. The Eagles' last home win in the series occurred in 2006.
In addition to their regular season advantage, the Cowboys have a 2-1 edge in the postseason series. The Eagles were 20-7 winners in the 1980 NFC Championship, while Dallas won NFC Divisional Playoff games over Philadelphia following the 1992 and 1995 seasons.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid has a career record of 13-6 against the Cowboys. Dallas' Wade Phillips is 3-1 all-time against both Philadelphia and Reid all- time, with the first of those wins coming in the form of a 26-0 rout for Phillips' Bills over the Eagles in 1999.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Perhaps no player will have a bigger impact on the outcome of this game than Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (3265 passing yards, 26 TD, 13 INT), who's been wildly inconsistent during this December stretch run. The star signal-caller began the month by throwing three picks in a heartbreaking loss at Pittsburgh, then turned in a mistake-free outing against the Giants before putting forth an uneven 252-yard, two-touchdown, two-interception effort last week. He'll undoubtedly be looking often in the direction of Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten (74 receptions, 4 TD), who had 110 yards on seven catches versus Philadelphia in September, and public enemy Terrell Owens (63 receptions, 949 yards, 10 TD), the one-time Eagle who burned his ex-mates for two touchdowns in that Week 2 encounter. The offense may have to make do without top running back Marion Barber (872 rushing yards, 50 receptions, 9 total TD), however, as the powerful fourth-year pro is still bothered by a dislocated toe that reduced him to just two carries in the last game. Rookie Tashard Choice (416 rushing yards, 2 TD, 20 receptions) has proven to be a capable fill-in, though, with the Georgia Tech product amassing 90 yards and a score on 17 attempts against a stout Baltimore defense.
While Philadelphia's offense sputtered in last week's loss, the defense resumed its high level of play by holding the Redskins to 249 total yards and a mere 127 through the air. The Eagles have surrendered the second-fewest passing yards in the NFL (180.1 ypg) and rank third in the league with 44 sacks, while sporting a quality secondary featuring two Pro Bowl selections in ball-hawking cornerback Asante Samuel (34 tackles, 4 INT, 22 PD) and 35-year- old free safety Brian Dawkins (70 tackles, 1 INT, 2 sacks). Linemen Trent Cole (77 tackles, 9 sacks) and Darren Howard (23 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 INT) will be in charge of pressuring Romo, who wasn't sacked at all in the Week 2 meeting but has been brought down nine times over the past three weeks. Middle linebacker and leading tackler Stewart Bradley (106 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack), one of the keys to a run defense that is allowing just 92.6 yards per game (6th overall), fractured a rib against Washington but is expected to play on Sunday.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia's recent three-game win streak had coincided with a renewed commitment to running the ball, but the team strayed from that train of thought in last Sunday's setback. The Eagles attempted 48 passes and only 16 running plays against the Redskins, a game plan that garnered Reid a heap of criticism from the local media afterward. That philosophy has worked for the most part, however, as quarterback Donovan McNabb (3741 passing yards, 21 TD, 11 INT) has put together a strong season while spreading passes around to a stable of wide receivers led by flashy rookie DeSean Jackson (60 receptions, 2 TD), whose debut campaign was highlighted by a career-best 110 yards on six catches in Philly's Week 2 loss to Dallas. McNabb was without two of his main targets for the Washington game in wide receivers Kevin Curtis (32 receptions, 2 TD) and Hank Baskett (33 receptions, 3 TD), but both players appear ready to return from injuries that kept them out of the Week 16 contest. The Eagles are just 22nd in the league in rushing offense (104.0 ypg) and playmaking running back Brian Westbrook (886 rushing yards, 52 receptions, 14 total TD) is averaging a career-low four yards per carry, partly due to an assortment of health issues throughout the year and the fact that the club has been without its best run blocker, guard Shawn Andrews, for most of the season.
The Cowboys did a good job keeping Westbrook under wraps back in September and had been smothering enemy ground games until being outmuscled by the physical Ravens last week, with Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee both rushing for over 100 yards for Baltimore. A formidable interior core containing inside linebackers Bradie James (109 tackles, 7 sacks) and Zach Thomas (92 tackles, 1 sack) and Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff (49 tackles, 7.5 sacks) will be out to prove that subpar showing was an aberration. James has recorded double- digit tackles in five of Dallas' last seven games and had 10 stops and a sack versus the Ravens.
As good as Dallas has been defending the run over the majority of the season's second half, the unit's biggest strength is harassing the quarterback. The Cowboys compiled five sacks in Week 16 to extend their league-best total to 58 on the season, and All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (80 tackles, 6 forced fumbles) tops all individuals with 20 takedowns for the year. Eleventh- year veteran Greg Ellis (33 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 INT) is also a dangerous pass rusher on the opposite side, while Ratliff has excelled at collapsing the pocket from the inside. A secondary led by well-respected coverman Terence Newman (34 tackles, 4 INT, 9 PD) has endured its share of injuries throughout the year, yet Dallas still has given up the fourth-fewest passing yards in the league (189.1 ypg).
This game probably won't be the shootout that it was when these two teams squared off earlier in the campaign, but there's still plenty of appetizing options available for those whose fantasy seasons are still going on. McNabb has been terrific at home this year and will get plenty of opportunities in Philadelphia's pass-happy offense, while Romo is always a threat for 300 yards any time he steps out on the field. Witten and Owens are every-week starts on the Dallas side, but the Eagles' depth at receiver makes Jackson the only reliable source of points for the home team. It's a no-brainer to start Westbrook, who scored three of his 14 touchdowns in 2008 against Dallas in Week 2, but Barber owners should keep the hobbled back on the bench. Choice has plenty of value as the Cowboys' main threat out of the backfield, however, and is certainly worth using. Considering that 78 points were scored in the Week 2 meeting, it's a tough call as to whether to start two defenses that can rack up sacks.
The pressure is going to be on the Cowboys in this one, and how the embattled team is able to handle a must-win game in a hostile environment will go a long way in deciding the final outcome. Dallas has often crumbled in such late- season situations in the past, and last weekend's sloppy performance didn't offer any evidence that the Cowboys have changed their stripes. Although there's a good chance the Eagles will be out of the playoff picture by kickoff, the opportunity to end the season of a bitter rival should be more than enough motivation to keep them a hungry bunch. Look for Philadelphia to neutralize the Cowboys' pass-rushing prowess with an effective short-range passing game, and for an aggressive Eagles defense to capitalize on a fragile Dallas squad that has a dubious history of playing tight in December.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 30, Cowboys 24