3TFO: Eagles @ Cowboys, Week 17
Nothing goes by faster than an NFL season and after 16 weeks, 15 games, and numerous twists and turns, the NFC East comes down to one game. For the third straight year, the Cowboys will play a winner-take-all game for the division title on the final week of the season, but the opponent is once again different. The first two outcomes didn’t go Dallas’ way, losing to the Giants in 2011 and the Redskins in 2012. This year it is the Eagles’ turn to challenge Dallas and attempt to complete the division trifecta in a game that will crown the NFC East champ.
Philadelphia followed up one of their worst performances of the year with their best team effort last week. After no-showing against an undermanned Minnesota team in Week 15, the Eagles rebounded in a big way, dominating Chicago from start to finish last Sunday night. It has been an exciting journey for the Eagles and first-year head coach Chip Kelly, but a year that began with minimal expectations from the national media and plenty of naysayers after a 3-5 start has the potential to end in a division championship. The turnaround began when Nick Foles was inserted at quarterback for the injured Michael Vick and gained momentum during the second half of the year. Other than Foles’ elite play, a major reason for the Eagles’ late season surge has been their overall team health. Whether caused by luck or Kelly’s extensive use of sports science, having the same group of starters together for the bulk of the year has been a major bonus for Philadelphia.
The opposite can be said about the health of the Cowboys. In a year that has seen Dallas use 41 different defensive players, the rash of injuries spread to the offense this week. Quarterback Tony Romo fought through back pain to lead a fourth quarter comeback in Washington last week to keep the Cowboys alive, but the back pain turned out to be more serious and will likely keep him out of the season-defining game this week. Veteran Kyle Orton will have the reigns and will be making his first start since Week 17 of 2011 when he was with Kansas City. Orton won’t be intimidated by the bright lights and is one of the stronger backups in the league, making an upset of Philadelphia still extremely possible. Staring at a fourth straight season without qualifying for the playoffs, Orton might be the last hope before major change sweeps through Dallas. Of course, if he can pull off the upset and the Cowboys are division champs, the heartbreak of 2011 and 2012 will be forgotten. Orton’s performance will be closely critiqued, but these are the three matchups to keep an eye on.
Dallas’ Triplet of Playmakers
All eyes will be on Orton, but his main job will be to distribute the ball to his offensive weapons and let them make plays, something he is more than capable of doing. The obvious starting point will be the running game and DeMarco Murray, who in recent weeks has been contained by only his lack of carries. Murray hasn’t had a negatively-graded game since Week 5 and should be the workhorse this week. Murray is fourth in the NFL Elusive Rating, forcing 50 missed tackles on 248 touches this season and his lack of carries could serve him well for the finale. He figures to be healthy and can add stress to a Philadelphia defense that ranks 12th against the run. Murray missed the first game against the Eagles so this will be their first look at him this year.
Whether or not the Cowboys can get the running game going, they will still need their receivers to be a factor too. Orton is at his best when he makes quick decisions and gets the ball to his receivers. His main option on the outside will be Dez Bryant. In the first game in Philadelphia, Bryant was targeted 17 times working mainly against Eagles’ cornerback Cary Williams. Bryant caught eight of those passes and eclipsed 100 yards. In recent weeks, the Eagles have contained Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall by playing aggressive, so expect Bryant to get the same treatment. When targeting Bryant, Romo had a QB rating of 104.4, so it will be important for him to instantly develop the same chemistry with Orton.
If Orton is reluctant to force the ball outside, he will turn to steady veteran tight end Jason Witten. Witten rarely makes flashy plays anymore, but he is very reliable and may be a focal point on Sunday. In the first outing, Witten was covered by numerous different defenders and hauled in four passes. Witten is 18th among tight ends with a Yards per Route Run of 1.44, he ranked ninth in this stat last season. There was obvious comfort between Romo and Witten, but he will need his best effort without him this week. If the Dallas playmakers can create big plays and be there for Orton, his veteran leadership and decision-making will allow the Cowboys to score plenty of points.
Nick Foles vs. Dallas Defense
With all of the success that Nick Foles has had this season, it is easy to forget that he had a rough beginning. Making his second start of the year, he was absolutely baffled by the Cowboys’ defense before exiting the game in the fourth quarter with a concussion. Since that game, Foles has tied the single-game passing touchdown record and led the Eagles to a 6-1 record positioning them atop the division. Thus leading to the million dollar question, was his first game against the Cowboys just a bad day, or does Dallas have his number? We will get this answer on Sunday night and it will be a major deciding factor in the outcome.
Foles has been one of the best stories of the year. He has adapted to Kelly’s offense perfectly and runs it as if they have been together for years. His ability to throw the ball deep and get the ball to Philadelphia’s electric playmakers has been superb. On deep throws this year, Foles is 23-52 with 14 touchdowns. The Eagles are hoping he is saving his best play for the end of the year and it surely looked that way last week.
In the game against Chicago, Foles threw just four incompletions, three of which were throwaways and the fourth was a drop. This means that every pass he tried to complete, he threw accurately. A far cry from the Week 7 game against Dallas when he completed just 11 of his 27 attempts. He seemed timid and unsure of himself that entire game, as if he didn’t know what he was looking at. He will have a chance to redeem himself this week with everything on the line. Has he evolved from that outing and become a star quarterback, or will he have the same issues with the Dallas defense?
Jason Peters vs. DeMarcus Ware
A matchup between Jason Peters and DeMarcus Ware would have once been considered a battle between two of the best at their positions, but injuries and age have dampened the intrigue. However, this is still a crucial clash in this contest. Ware missed the first game against the Eagles because of an injury and Peters missed all of 2012, so this will be their first time seeing each other since 2011. The Eagles’ offense has been on such a tear lately that it will take a very strong defensive outing to slow them down and due to injuries and an overall lack of talent; Ware appears to be one of the only players capable of making that happen.
Dallas will have to generate pressure on Foles to rattle him and make him unsure of himself. His QB rating drops from 133.7 when not under pressure to 83.1 when under pressure, making it imperative for Ware to get after him. Ware ranks sixth among 4-3 defensive ends in Pass Rush Productivity, generating 47 total pressures and six sacks on 332 pass rushes. He still has the ability to take over a game, but he hasn’t been the force he once was and dominating Peters is no small task.
Peters has been working his way back from an Achilles injury that cost him his entire 2012 season, but sure looks like the Peters of old in recent weeks. He is the fifth-highest graded offensive tackle in the league and ranks 22nd in Pass Blocking Efficiency, surrendering 34 pressures and four sacks on 523 pass blocking plays. However, just 10 of those pressures have come since Week 7 and Peters had his highest grade of the year last week, clearly showing signs of progression. Ware is one of the few Cowboys’ defenders who can upset the rhythm of the Philadelphia offense, but can he do it against Peters?
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