Freefalling Eagles can hurt Cowboys' hopes - NBC Sports

Freefalling Eagles can hurt Cowboys' hopes
Mired in seven-game skid, Philadelphia can still deal devastating blow to Dallas
December 2, 2012, 1:12 pm

Sure, the long-time NFC East rivals despise each other. And the Eagles would like nothing better to return the favor and deal Dallas a serious post-season blow, just like the Cowboys did to the Eagles on Nov. 5 with a 28-13 win at Lincoln Financial Field.

But at this point, with a team in turmoil and injury-ravaged, the Eagles (3-8) would like any win, not just because it's the Cowboys.

"There's a fine line between winning and losing in the National Football League and I know the only way that you're going to get better is [if] you keep working hard and keep pushing forward and you get a couple breaks here and there and games can turn right around," coach Andy Reid said this week. "Anybody can win any Sunday."

The Eagles, who will be without quarterback Michael Vick, running back LeSean McCoy and receiver DeSean Jackson (injured reserve), are sticking with the one-game-at-a-time mantra.

"You can't focus on the fact that you're losing. You have to focus on the game. One game at a time," guard Evan Mathis said. "Focus on the little things. Look yourself in the mirror [and] scrutinize every single thing you do as a player and work to correct everything."

The Cowboys (5-6) aren't exactly humming coming into this game either having dropped a disappointing 38-31 decision to the Redskins after posting two-straight wins.

Dallas has its own injury problems with running back DeMarco Murray (sprained foot) questionable to play after missing six games, and a beat-up offensive line where left tackle Tyron Smith and center Ryan Cook missed last week's game.

On defense, the Cowboys will be without nose tackle Jay Ratliff again, inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are out for the season, and standout nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick is out indefinitely.

Still, the Cowboys know they have to have this game. They are two games behind the Giants in the NFC East, one game out of the final wild-card spot.

""I do know this game right now, we have a chance," quarterback Tony Romo said this week. "Leading up to this football game, knowing that, I know it's not the record we want at this point. But I also know that we can change that from this point forward. It's what we do now that matters. I've tried to instill that with the different guys. I think they understand that."

Here are the three keys for each team:


Shut down Witten and Bryant: Tight end Jason Witten has 82 receptions and continues to be the security blanket. Receiver Dez Bryant, despite his troubles with focus and the playbook, has been on fire of late with 290 yards and three touchowns in the past two games. Conversely, the Eagles have been torched in the secondary with 13 passing touchdowns and zero interceptions in the past five games. And it's not just a talent deficiency: the Eagles are just flat-out blowing coverages and assignments at time. Eagles cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha have the size to match up with Bryant, but they haven't been playing well. Either way, they are going to have to take care of Bryant. As for Witten, linebacker Mychal Kendricks did a nice job against the tight end in the first matchup, but he'll need more help from the Eagles' subpar safeties.

Help Dunlap: Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware continues to be one of the best players in the league with 10 sacks and four forced fumbles. Eagles left tackle King Dunlap has issues when he's healthy, but now he's been battling a knee issue. The Eagles will have to give him help because Dunlap won't be able to sustain one-on-one against the explosive Ware.

Continue to run the ball: The Eagles looked like they found a keeper with rookie running back Bryce Brown, who had 178 yards in his first start against the Panthers. He's a big back at about 235 pounds, but Brown also runs with terrific burst through the line, and then surprising speed at the second level. The run-heavy approach the Eagles took against the Panthers was successful at limiting backup quarterback Nick Foles' exposure to opposing defenses. He has to be a game manager; he's not going to win it on his own. The Eagles need Brown to carry the load again.


Stop the run: If the Cowboys can limit Brown in the run game, that means the Eagles will have to rely on Foles, who has not looked good since his action against the Cowboys the first time around. Stopping the run is easier said than done for the Cowboys with Ratliff on the shelf, and having to rely on backup journeymen at linebacker in Dan Connor and Ernie Sims. The Cowboys will need big games from ends Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher up front.

Be more balanced on offense: It looks like Murray will return for this game, and it couldn't come soon enough. Backup Felix Jones has averaged just 2.8 yards the past two games, and the Cowboys have gone way too pass heavy with 112 pass attempts from Tony Romo in the same span. With the offensive line continuing to be shaky, Romo will be running for his life without a running game. Romo needs to get back to running the play-action game in which he has excelled at times.

Watch the pass rush: Even if the Cowboys get Tyron Smith and Ryan Cook back at left tackle and center, respectively (both are questionable), the line is still going to have to be better against an improved Eagles pass rush. With the release of end Jason Babin, the Eagles will see how their youngsters will perform. Brandon Graham has really come on at left end after a disappointing start to his career. Second-round pick Vinny Curry showed some impressive speed last week against the Panthers. Veteran Trent Cole isn't what he once was, but he's still a good player and could be better in a rotation with Graham and Curry. If Smith and Cook can't go, then Jermey Parnell, who was decent against the Redskins, will have to go at left tackle, and right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau will move to center again, with Derrick Dockery at right guard. The middle of the Cowboys' line, including left guard Nate Livings, were not good enough against the Redskins.

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