8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Cowboys -3.5, Over/Under: 51.5
Bitter rivals renew acquaintances on primetime, as the Philadelphia Eagles travel to AT&T Stadium to face the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. After a disappointing 2020 in which they fell well short of expectations and failed to mount a legitimate challenge in arguably the most-winnable division race in the history of the National Football League, the Eagles (1-1, T-1st in NFC East) are beginning a new era this season, and after the first few weeks of play there appears to be room for tepid optimism. Heading into 2021, the bar was set admittedly low for Philadelphia, who looked to be starting over in many respects, welcoming in a new Coaching Staff led by (Head Coach) Nick Sirianni, along with (Heisman winner) DeVonta Smith (8 REC, 87 YDS, 10.9 Y/R, 1 TD), all the while looking forward to (Sophomore Quarterback) Jalen Hurts’ (67.2%, 454 YDS, 7.18 NY/A, 3 TD, 0 INT, 66.1 QBR) first full season as the starter. Indeed, the culture is much more positive and hopeful within the organization, which is in stark contrast to the previous campaign, in which the toxicity levels were approaching all-time highs. So with that said, has starting with a clean slate translated to success on the gridiron? Well, with two games in the books the jury is obviously still out on Sirianni & Co, though there have been plenty of positive signs to balance the negative ones. First and foremost, Hurts looks very comfortable in the starting role, while routinely providing glimpses of greater potential. In the Season Opener at Atlanta, a 32-6 thumping of the hosts, it was difficult to imagine the 23-year old enjoying a better start; Hurts deftly completed 27-of-35 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns, finding each of Philly’s last two First Round Picks, Jalen Reagor (8 REC, 54 YDS, 6.8 Y/R, 1 TD) and the aforementioned Smith for scores. Even against a much more formidable opponent in the form of the 49ers last weekend, a narrow 17-11 loss, he managed to make plays; Hurts made the most of poor field position in launching a 91-yard bomb from his own 3-yard line midway through the Second Quarter, and later drove the home side seventy-five yards downfield in just five plays, ripping off a season-best 27-yard scamper setting up touchdown to cut the deficit to six before eventually meeting defeat. Where this kid has been the most impressive is in using his legs, rushing for 144 yards on seventeen carries thus far, parlaying to a league-high 8.5 yards per attempt, giving Philadelphia a dimension to the attack that they hadn’t had over the past five seasons. However, in order for their young Quarterback (and the Offense as a whole) to level up there must be more consistency from the Receiving Corps. Needless to say, this particular position group had been the Achilles heel of the attack over the past few years, with (General Manager) Howie Roseman investing premium draft picks in bolstering his cadre of pass-catchers; Reagor was selected 21st Overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, while Smith was selected 10th Overall last Spring, with the former struggling to make an impact during his rookie campaign (31 REC, 396 YDS, 1 TD in 11 games in 2020). Remember, no team in the NFC last season featured a less-productive Receiving Corps, for only one of their number managed to register over 500 receiving yards, and that was the unheralded Travis Fulgham, whom they acquired via Detroit’s Practice Squad. Simply put, these kids need to grow, and after impressing early against the Falcons, they were met with far stiffer resistance against the Niners; Sirianni’s Wideouts totaled just six receptions last weekend, with all but one coming in the First Quarter, which played a direct role in Hurts struggling to complete a mere twelve passes. They’ll be looking to rebound tonight against the Cowboys, whom Hurts faced late last season in a 37-17 debacle; the Texas native was 21-of-39 for 342 yards, a touchdown and a pair of interceptions, while rushing for another sixty-nine yards on nine attempts in that late-December matchup. This particular meeting will mark the first in Arlington in which there will be fans in the stands, while also serving as the first encounter between Hurts and his counterpart, Dak Prescott (more on him shortly). Philadelphia is just 4-6 in their last ten meetings with Dallas, and losers of three of their last four trips to AT&T Stadium. These two teams are frequent adversaries on primetime, with at least one of their battles being viewed by a nationally televised audience every season dating back to 2004, though this is the first time that they’ve faced off under the bright lights of Monday Night Football since 2008; the Eagles are 8-9 against the Cowboys on primetime during that span, though 6-4 when those games are contested in the Lone Star State. Sirianni will be without a pair of high-end starters for tonight’s outing and for the foreseeable future, as (Defensive End) Brandon Graham (2 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH) ruptured his Achilles tendon last Sunday, while (veteran Guard) Brandon Brooks landed on Injured Reserve with a strained chest muscle.
Meanwhile, the Eagles aren’t the only team looking to rebound from a particularly disappointing campaign, for the Cowboys (1-1, T-1st in NFC East) are hoping that Year Two of the Mike McCarthy Era will be a significant improvement over the first. Simply put, 2020 was nothing short of a disaster for Dallas, who saw their roster absolutely decimated due to injuries while the influences of the pandemic made it nigh impossible for the new Coaching Staff to implement their ideas and philosophies in the first place. With that said, there is plenty of reason to believe that this team is indeed the favorite to win the division this season, and that confidence has only been validated through the two weeks of action. First and foremost, the biggest difference between this incarnation of the Cowboys and the one that preceded it is the presence of a healthy (Quarterback) Dak Prescott (76.5%, 640 YDS, 6.95 NY/A, NY/A, 3 TD, 2 INT, 61.7 QBR), who after missing the final eleven games of 2020 with a broken leg has looked like the franchise passer that (Owner) Jerry Jones handed a lucrative four-year, $160 million contract following a prolonged and often contentious negotiation. Make no mistake, this is a passing Offense now, with the 28-year old leading an aerial attack that has averaged 320.0 yards per game thus far (6th Overall) on 42.5 attempts (5th Overall) in comparison to a middling 24.5 rushing attempts (17th Overall), a far cry from a few years ago when the ground game was one of the most dominant in the NFL. Prescott quelled any doubts over his health in an entertaining Season Opener against (reigning Super Bowl Champions) Tampa Bay, completing a whopping 42-of-58 passes for 403 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in a narrow 31-29 defeat. Last weekend’s affair at the Los Angeles Chargers was another tightly-contested one, though this time it would be Dallas who came out the victor in the end, courtesy of a 56-yard field goal via (Place Kicker) Greg Zuerlein. After jumping out to a 14-3 lead in the First Quarter, McCarthy’s stalled repeatedly once the passed midfield, though the rushing attack proved that it still possessed the necessary power to control the game; the visitors rushed for a staggering 198 yards and two scores on thirty-one carries with the tandem of (All-Pro Tailback) Ezekiel Elliott (27 CAR, 104 YDS, 3.9 Y/A, 1 TD) and his understudy, Tony Pollard (16 CAR, 123 YDS, 7.7 Y/A, 1 TD) accounting for all but eighteen of that total and both touchdowns, with the former totaling seventy-one yards on seventeen attempts, while the latter showed out with a career-high 109 yards on only thirteen rushes. Indeed, the return of a healthy (All-Pro Guard) Zack Martin, fresh off the COVID-19 list, gave this unit the boost it needed after struggling to gain any traction in the trenches ten days prior in Tampa. Needless to say, the Offensive Line was a mess last season, with (All-Pro Left Tackle) Tyron Smith missing all but two games due to a back injury, and with (Right Tackle) La’El Collins dealing with a neck injury on top of serving a five-game suspension (substance abuse) it looked as if this once-vaunted group had fallen dramatically from the league’s elite. If they can develop the requisite chemistry to run the football like they did against the Chargers, then this Offense as a whole will become more balanced, which should benefit them greatly; despite moving the football between the twenties with ease, converting a healthy 55.6% on third down (2nd Overall), Dallas has frequently bogged down in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on only 42.9% of their opportunities in that particular area of the field (26th Overall). However, there is another development going on in Big D, and that is the growth of the Defense, which looks like a far more cohesive unit under the stewardship of (Defensive Coordinator) Dan Quinn. When McCarthy hired (longtime associate) Mike Nolan last year to lead the Defense, it was immediately viewed as a curious hire, for the personnel never seemed to fit the Coordinator’s preferred tactics, and the performance on the gridiron only cemented that notion as the run defense was the worst in franchise history, allowing a staggering 158.8 yards per game (31st Overall) on 5.0 yards per attempt (30th Overall). Given his background in Seattle, Quinn’s arrival signified a return to the familiar Seahawks Cover-Three scheme, which the Cowboys ran a variation of prior to last season. Simply put, the personnel is much better suited for this scheme, with the unit responding in kind; Dallas has been solid against the run, relinquishing just 73.5 yards per game (8th Overall), and more importantly stellar in the red zone, allowing four touchdowns in nine opportunities, parlaying to 44.4% (9th Overall). Furthermore, they currently lead the NFL in takeaways with six through two games, with (Sophomore Cornerback) Trevon Diggs (7 TKL, 2 INT, 3 PD) already snaring a pair of interceptions. How they matchup with the aforementioned Jalen Hurts and the Eagles tonight should be an entertaining game within the game, particularly when you consider the young Quarterback’s ability to escape the rush and extend plays. Getting back to Prescott, the two-time Pro-Bowler will be facing his bitter rivals for the first time since 2019, and is 5-3 in eight career meetings with Philadelphia, completing 63.9% of his attempts for an average of 234.6 yards on 6.46 net yards per attempt, with eight touchdowns opposed to seven interceptions.