Eagles-Cowboys thoughts: A chance to bury desperate Dallas

Eagles-Cowboys thoughts: A chance to bury desperate Dallas

8:30 p.m. on NBC
Eagles favored by 3 

The Eagles will need to come out of their bye week with guns blazing as they prepare to duel the NFC East rival Cowboys in Dallas at AT&T Stadium on Sunday Night Football.

This is a pivotal game for the Cowboys, who, at 5-4, are currently out of the playoff picture. A defeat would all but erase their already long odds of winning the division, and possibly put them as many as two games back of a wild-card spot. That would be a tough hole to climb out of.

Win or lose, the Eagles are in good shape as they come in with the best record in the NFL at 8-1. However, they don’t need to give the Cowboys hope. Plus, the attention will soon turn to playoff seeding, with the prospect of another bye, possibly even home-field advantage throughout.

There’s a lot on the line for both teams already in Week 11. But it’s Eagles-Cowboys, so would you want things any other way?

Not the same ol’ Cowboys
So what did happen to the Cowboys? This team looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2014 and 2016, and the break in between can be chalked up to an injury under center. Seeing as the quarterback is fine, why exactly is Dallas struggling to stay above .500?

The answer is simple: The offensive line’s performance has fallen off dramatically, which in retrospect, was actually predictable.

The Cowboys' playoff squads of recent years were built around the O-line. It’s no coincidence Dallas had the NFL’s leading rusher in both 2014 (DeMarco Murray) and 2016 (Ezekiel Elliott). The offense leaned on the ground attack and asked less of the quarterback — mostly don’t turn the ball over — using a ball-control style to cover up deficiencies elsewhere.

Of course, the O-line largely remained the same and intact for those two years. Not the case in 2017.

Right tackle Doug Free retired and was replaced by La’el Collins. Left guard Ronald Leary departed as a free agent, his place taken by Chaz Green, then Jonathan Cooper when he wasn’t cutting it. The unit’s core is still in place in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, but the departures also hurt depth. With Smith hurt (back/groin), the Cowboys are down to Byron Bell at left tackle.

It’s a mess, and the Cowboys are one injury away from falling into complete chaos up front. So much of success in the NFL is predicated on strong offensive line play, and Dallas has not had its finest year there.

Facing the Eagles’ front four and No. 1 run defense Sunday, the Cowboys aren’t likely to turn it around overnight.

Cry the Eagles a river
The Cowboys will be without their All-Pro left tackle Sunday night. They will be without their starting middle linebacker and the heart and soul of their defense, Sean Lee (hamstring). They’re even going to be without their Pro Bowl kicker, Dan Bailey.

Sound familiar? It should. The Eagles have gone through more or less the exact same situation in 2017.

There’s no denying Dallas is in a precarious state due in large part to all the absences. That’s also no excuse. The Eagles lost left tackle Jason Peters, and so far they’ve kept on ticking. They lost middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, and there’s been little to no drop-off whatsoever. They lost kicker Caleb Sturgis, then went out and found Jake Elliott.

And as for the suspension to Cowboys running back and reigning rushing champion Elliott, his behavior was bound to catch up with him eventually. Another parallel, regardless, as the Eagles are without running back and return specialist Darren Sproles, too.

If Dallas can’t withstand the losses, the team probably wasn’t good enough in the first place. After all, you don’t hear the Eagles complaining.

On Carson Wentz vs. Dak Prescott
There’s been a great deal of debate over the past two seasons about whether Wentz or Prescott is better, and in all likelihood, it’s a discussion we will continue to have for years to come. It’s also a pointless conversation because one number and one number alone will eventually become the decisive factor... wins.

Specifically, Super Bowl wins, assuming either player ever has the privilege. Look no further than their first two seasons in the league for evidence.

Last season, when the Cowboys finished 13-3 and went to the playoffs, the team was riding high, and Prescott received a lot of the credit and attention for that. Meanwhile, the Eagles slogged through a 7-9 campaign, and Wentz faced many doubts leading up to this year.

Now it’s 2017, the Eagles are 8-1 thanks in part to an infusion of talent, and Wentz is widely considered the frontrunner to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player. On the flipside, Dallas is struggling for various reasons, so this time Prescott looks like a work in progress.

See how this works?

To look at the quarterback comparison from a historical context, take Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. Manning was almost always the more prolific of the future Hall of Fame signal callers, but Brady often bested him head to head on the field and is running away with the competition in terms the Super Bowl rings — five, and counting, to two.

That’s what it’s going to boil down to for Wentz and Prescott — head-to-head wins, NFC East supremacy, Super Bowls. Only a year-and-a-half into their careers, there’s little use trying to make a case either way, as their stories are yet to be written.

Colin Kaepernick? RG3? Again ... not happening, Pederson says

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Colin Kaepernick? RG3? Again ... not happening, Pederson says

If you're playing that whole Colin Kaepernick vs. RG3 game, don't bother.

The Eagles aren't bringing in a veteran quarterback.

Nick Foles is the starter. Nate Sudfeld is No. 2. And that's that.

Judging by Twitter and callers to sports talk radio, there are a ton of fans out there who believe the Eagles should sign a veteran off the street, like Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III or even Michael Vick, to back up Foles.

With Carson Wentz out for the year, Foles and Nate Sudfeld are the only quarterbacks on the Eagles' roster.

Kaepernick quarterbacked the 49ers to a Super Bowl in 2012 and very nearly to another one in 2013 and started 11 games for the 49ers last year (going 1-10). 

RG3 is only 27 and was the Browns' opening-day starter last year — against the Eagles.

Vick hasn't played since 2015 with the Steelers, but he always seemed kind of ageless, right?

What if Foles gets hurt? What if he gets hurt in the NFC Championship Game?

Sudfeld has never thrown a regular-season pass. He spent training camp with the Redskins and was on the Eagles' practice squad at the beginning of last month. 

Would the Eagles honestly rather go into the Super Bowl with Nate Sudfeld at quarterback than Colin Kaepernick?

It's a valid question, and on Monday, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson answered it with a resounding yes.

"Probably the biggest reason is the time invested," he said. "If you bring in a guy off the street this late in the season, you're talking about spending time with that player trying to get him just caught up to speed on our offense. 

"We've already spent the time with a guy with Nate. We've developed him and worked with him. So that's probably the biggest reason right there."

Guys like Kaepernick, RG3 and many of the other veterans whose names have been bandied about not only haven't played this year, they also weren't in training camps and haven't participated in any sort of practice in a year.

The Eagles believe it would be impossible to bring in a quarterback now, get him into football shape after being out of the league all year, and teach him the offense in a matter of weeks.

Sudfeld has been with the Eagles since they signed him to the practice squad on Sept. 4, so that's three months of meetings, film study and practice in Pederson's offense alongside Foles and Wentz.

And for the Eagles, play recognition is much more important than name recognition.

To rest or not rest is Doug Pederson's question

To rest or not rest is Doug Pederson's question

It's a pretty good problem to have, but it's still a problem that needs sorting. 

By the time the Eagles play the Raiders on Christmas night next Monday, they might have already wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. 

Then what? 

Do they rest some starters? Do they play everyone and try to win? What's the plan for the next two weeks? 

"I've begun thinking (about it), but my focus is winning the game on Monday night," head coach Doug Pederson said on Monday. "Because that, to me, is the most important thing. Once we get to next week, we'll figure out next week. But my mindset this week is all about the Oakland Raiders, Monday Night Football."

To put it in baseball terms, over the last two weeks of the season, the Eagles' magic number to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is one. So either a win from the Eagles or a loss from the Vikings would ensure that the Birds have the top spot. 

That means if the Vikings lose to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Saturday night, the Eagles will have clinched and will have a couple days to make a decision before playing on Monday. (Whether Rodgers faces Minnesota may depend on tonight's Falcons-Bucs game. If Atlanta wins, Green Bay is eliminated from the playoffs.)

Even if the Vikings win, the Eagles could beat the Raiders and still clinch the top spot this weekend, which would set up a situation where that last game of the season is meaningless. 

"You just make the best decisions for your football team," Pederson said. "If that means resting a guy, you rest a guy or two or three. But you also have to maintain the edge with these players, and you've got to maintain that confidence and that dominating swagger and you've got to keep that alive.

"You just can't go — it's not a preseason game, you know what I'm saying, where you can rest in Week 4 and rest all your guys. You can't do that because you're still limited to the roster limits on game day. Guys are still going to have to play, but at the same time, I'm going to be smart about the decisions we make moving forward and getting guys who need it rest, if possible."

While rest is obviously helpful at this time of year, the Eagles could be in a spot where they have three straight weeks — two nothing games and a bye — without a meaningful game. Good for rest, potentially bad for momentum heading into the postseason. 

The quarterback position, specifically, is a bit of a quandary. Had Carson Wentz not torn his ACL, it would be a fairly easy decision — rest him. But Nick Foles hasn't played a lot this year and could probably use the work, especially with his relatively unfamiliar receivers. The problem with that is, if he gets hurt, the team is down to Nate Sudfeld. Pederson also said that he'd ideally like to get Sudfeld some work. 

The Eagles haven't been in this position in quite some time. You'd have to go all the way back to the 2004 Super Bowl season to find a similar situation. Like what could happen with a Minnesota loss on Saturday, the 2004 Eagles had home-field clinched with two games to go. Donovan McNabb and the Eagles' starters played just one series in Week 16 and then most key players were rested in Week 17 before the bye in the wild-card round. 

Because of the rest, the Eagles lost their last two games heading into the playoffs, but it didn't matter. In the divisional round, they went up 14-0 early in the second quarter and took down the Vikings 27-14, their first step in the playoffs toward the Super Bowl. 

On Monday, Pederson didn't want to answer too many specific questions about hypothetical situations, but he and his coaches will probably have some sort of plan in place if the Vikings lose. That plan could either be to play like normal or begin the coasting process into the playoffs. 

"Like I've said pretty much these last few weeks, we control our destiny right now," Pederson said. "So that's the focus for me."