Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Eagles-Cowboys: Season on the line

Posted by Eric Fisher On December 8

The Eagles need to defeat the Cowboys on Sunday (4:25 p.m.) to make the playoffs. A win is far from a guarantee that the Eagles make the playoffs, but it’s difficult to imagine them making it without a win Sunday.

The Eagles (6-6) are tied with the Redskins in the NFC East, one game behind the Cowboys (7-5). A win Sunday would lift the Eagles into a first-place tie. A loss would drop them two games off the pace with three games remaining. A loss would also give the Cowboys, who posted a 27-20 victory in the first meeting between these teams, the first tiebreaker (head-to-head competition) if the Eagles managed to tie them for the division title.

The circumstances are very different from when these teams met four weeks ago. The Cowboys were 3-5 and owner Jerry Jones was trying to squelch rumors that head coach Jason Garrett would be fired if they lost to the Eagles. The Eagles were 4-4, but had won two of three games before the bye week, with the loss, in which the Panthers scored 21 points in the fourth quarter, being a game they should have won.

The Eagles also enter this game on a bit of a roll. They defeated the Giants and Redskins the past two weeks, winning back-to-back games for the first time this season, after getting blown out by the Saints. Can the Eagles make it three in a row against NFC East opponents?

Here are 10 questions to consider prior to and during Sunday’s game.

Why is this game important?

As it says above, the Eagles (6-6) need this win to have a realistic chance to win the NFC East. With only three games remaining, including the Rams and Texans the next two weeks, if the Eagles lose Sunday, they would have to win all three games and hope the Cowboys lose all three of their remaining games in order to win the NFC East.  A win doesn’t guarantee an NFC East title, but it at least gives the Eagles a realistic shot.

With two straight wins for the first time this season, are the Eagles hitting their stride?

That’s a little difficult to gauge. The Eagles would not have beaten the Giants two weeks ago if not for some self-inflicted wounds by the Giants. The Redskins were playing with a third-string quarterback for the final three quarters and two third-string guards during the second half on Monday.  The Eagles pulled away against the Redskins because, with Mark Sanchez at quarterback, the Redskins had difficulty moving the ball during the second half. A victory over the Cowboys would signal that the Eagles have hit their stride.

Why are some people criticizing Carson Wentz?

Wentz has had a good year, but not a great year. That was evident against the Redskins on Monday. Not only did he throw an interception at the goal line, but he twice missed open receivers for large gains. His numbers (27 of 39 attempts, 306 yards, 2 TDs) were impressive, but missed opportunities and the interception prevent a “great” rating. Keep in mind that Wentz is having a fine season after undergoing major knee surgery, but a terrific game against the Cowboys might squelch some of the criticism.

How have the Cowboys turned their season around?

The constant all season for the Cowboys has been their defense. Aside from the 28-14 Monday night loss to the Titans that preceded their first game with the Eagles, the Cowboys haven’t allowed more than 24 points all season. In their most recent game, the Cowboys held the vaunted Saints offense to 10 points. One of the keys to their defense was the decision to draft Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick. With often-injured linebacker Sean Lee sidelined by a hamstring injury, the Cowboys defense hasn’t undergone the precipitous slide it used when Lee was sidelined. Vander Esch has been terrific in Lee’s role as middle linebacker. The turnaround has come because the offense has improved. The Cowboys have committed to running the ball, yet, at the same time, they’ve improved their passing game by getting the ball to Amari Cooper, acquired in exchange for a first-round draft pick.

What is the Cowboys’ biggest advantage on Sunday?

The Cowboys’ biggest advantage is their running game. Ezekiel Elliott, who is second in the NFL with 1,150 yards rushing, ran for 151 yards in the Cowboys’ first meeting with the Eagles. The Eagles are allowing opponents 5 yards per carry this season. It won’t help that two Eagles linebackers, Nigel Bradham and Kamu Grugier-Hill, are playing with casts on their hands due to broken thumbs, and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks is going to miss the game due a lingering calf injury. Quarterback Dak Prescott is also a threat to run.

How can the Eagles slow down the Cowboys’ rushing attack?

The first thing they can do is take the lead. Even with Monday’s opening-drive touchdown against the Redskins, the Eagles are last in the NFL with 28 first-quarter points this season. If the Eagles get an early lead and keep it, the Cowboys will be tempted to abandon their running game. If the Eagles are trailing from the beginning, the Cowboys will continue to pound the ball with Ezekiel Elliott until the Eagles prove they can stop it.

What else can the Eagles do to slow down the Cowboys?

The Eagles can keep the ball away from the Cowboys by running the ball successfully. Josh Adams had 20 carries in each of his last two games. Running the ball against the Cowboys is difficult due to linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith; however, the Eagles can’t have a repeat of the first game against the Cowboys, when the Eagles ran the ball seven times during the entire first half. Head coach Doug Pederson must maintain a commitment to the running game.

Is the Eagles’ offense “back?”

The addition of Darren Sproles against the Redskins and the development of Josh Adams as an effective and reliable runner certainly help the Eagles. Against the Redskins, receiver Golden Tate had his best game since being acquired by the Eagles, catching seven passes for 85 yards. Having three more weapons certainly benefits Carson Wentz and makes the offense better.

Can the Cowboys stop Zach Ertz?

Ertz had 14 receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting between the Eagles and Cowboys this season. He has 93 catches – a franchise record – this season with four games remaining. Will the Cowboys concentrate on stopping Ertz? If so, it should create opportunities for the players mentioned in the preceding answer.

Will the Cowboys being well-rested give them an advantage?

The Cowboys will have had 10 days to rest since defeating the Saints, 13-10, on a Thursday night. The Eagles have a short week after beating the Redskins, 28-13, on Monday night. But the first time these teams played, the Cowboys were on the road after playing on Monday night while the Eagles were coming off their bye, and it was the Cowboys who won. Consequently, the extra rest may not matter.

Prediction: The Eagles have won two straight games. The Cowboys have won four straight games. The Eagles have more weapons than they had in the first meeting. They also have Lane Johnson, who missed the first Cowboys game, back at right tackle. On the other hand, the Cowboys have a clear advantage running the football. Barring a sudden increase in producing turnovers, the Eagles would have to win by scoring a lot of points. That’s unlikely against a solid Cowboys defense. Cowboys 26, Eagles 24

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