8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Philadelphia -3.5
For the second time in three weeks, arch-rivals Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles get together, and this time the NFC East Title is on the line. With a win tonight, the Eagles (9-4) can clinch their second consecutive division crown, and wouldn’t you know it, but it would also be the second straight campaign in which they defeated the Cowboys to do so. When these teams met on Thanksgiving at AT&T Stadium, Chip Kelly’s charges ran wild in an embarrassing 33-10 drubbing. The visitors rushed for 256 yards, with LeSean McCoy accounting for 159 of that total and a score. From the opening kickoff it became readily apparent that it was going to be a vet one-sides contest; Philadelphia’s first two drives went 80 and 88 yards, both ending in touchdowns, leaving the hosts to look up at the scoreboard stunned at what happened. Mark Sanchez calmly dissected the Dallas Defense on 20-of-29 passing (68.9%) for 217 yards, and a touchdown and most importantly no interceptions, while also getting into the act and rushing for another score. Defensively, the Eagles punished Tony Romo, sacking him four times for a loss of 25 yards, and hitting him countless others, while forcing three turnovers. They also managed to relegate DeMarco Murray to just 73 yards on 20 carries, which marked the second time that the rushing leader has been held below 100 yards this season.
It’s a good thing that Kelly and Co. have the Cowboys to focus on, for last weekend the Eagles were physically manhandled at home against the Seahawks. The defending Super Bowl Champions had their way with them from the outset, limiting the high-powered Eagles to a mere 139 total yards, including a scant seventeen midway through the Second Quarter. Seattle’s top-ranked defense all but shut down the ground game, holding the hosts to 59 rushing yards, with all of nine of that total coming courtesy of McCoy. As efficient as he was against Dallas the previous week, Sanchez looked very pedestrian against his former College Coach’s defense; the former USC Trojan completed a dreadful 10-of-20 attempts for just 96 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and was sacked three times for a loss of fourteen yards. Furthermore; the Eagles could muster just 2-of-11 conversions on Third Down, and accumulated nine First Downs in the entire game! To put that last number in proper perspective, this is a team that had as many First Downs in their first three drives at Dallas alone. Sudden offensive ineptitude aside, for Seattle has done that to many teams (just ask the Broncos), the sieve-like performance of Kelly’s defense had to be alarming. The visitors hung up a whopping 440 yards of total offense, including 188 on the ground on 46 carries, allowing them to control possession for a ridiculous 41:56 of play. Hell, they even ran 85 plays to the Eagles’ 45. Even with the aid of a pair of turnovers, Philadelphia simply could not get Seattle off the field, conceding 7-of-16 Third Downs.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys (9-4) story arc heading into this pivotal matchup reads the exact opposite; after getting trounced at home on Thanksgiving, they stormed into Soldier Field and humbled the downspiraling Bears to the tune of 41-28. In the face of their disappointing history in the month of December, Dallas opened the final quarter of the campaign in style; they outgained Chicago 397- 376. Leading 14-7 at Halftime, the visitors erupted for twenty-one unanswered points in the Third Quarter, quelling any questions of the game being a competition. Tony Romo was solid, completing 21-of-26 passes for 205 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Two of those scores went to Cole Beasley, the unheralded Slot Reciever who hauled in three receptions for 42 yards, including a beautiful 24-yard catch early in the third stanza. However, the star of the night was Murray, who proved his resilience after his season-low output against the Eagles. The league’s leading rusher carried the ball a whopping 32 times for 179 yards and a score, pacing a team that gouged the Bears’ helpless defensive front for 194 total yards. Defensively, Rod Marinelli’s charges put forth an inspired performance against the Coordinator’s former employers; the visitors forced a pair of turnovers, and relegated Matt Forte; one of the game’s finest Tailbacks to a mere 26 yards on thirteen carries. Keeping their ground game contained was key, for they were able to keep Jay Cutler and Co. in long yardage situations all game, permitting just two of their ten Third Down opportunities to be converted.
And that is precisely what the game plan will be tonight, as Jason Garrett will look to put the ball in the hands of Murray which should limit the amount of touches the Eagles’ Offense will recieve. Murray has rushed for 1,606 yards on 320 carries this far, propelling the team’s rushing attack to third in the league. It has also gone a long way towards managing time of possession, which has been in their favor virtually all season; as a result, the defense has only seen 801 plays run against them this season, good for ninth-fewest in the NFL. Marinelli has worked wonders with this unit, which is void of many of the playmakers from years past. Remember, DeMarcus Ware (Denver) and Jason Hatcher (Washington) are playing elsewhere this year, while Sean Lee (knee) and Morris Claiborne (knee) continue to rehab from various season-ending injuries. On the surface this group has been around the league average in many categories, including 23.2 points allowed (17th overall), 365.0 yards allowed (22nd overall), 251.9 passing yards allowed (25th overall), and 113.1 rushing yards allowed (17th overall), but in terms of yards per play, the statistics are much more revealing. Dallas has relinquished 5.9 yards per play (28th overall), 7.1 net yards per pass attempt (27th overall), and 4.4 yards per carry (21st overall), which are much more in line with the franchise-lows they set in 2013. And that was why Philadelphia had so much success against them; when running 80+ plays against a team that is giving up so many yards per snap, it’s a recipe for disaster…or at least it is for the Cowboys. They have to control possession, otherwise they game will get out of hand.