Eagles vs. Cowboys in November was supposed to at least pit two NFC East rivals vying for playoff spots against each other. But what we have instead is the 3-5 Disappointment Bowl.
The teams are mirror images of each other. The Eagles and Cowboys are mistake-prone and among the league leaders in turnovers and penalties. They have offenses that can gobble up yards but can't produce in the red zone.
They have two quarterbacks who have given the ball away at an alarming rate - Michael Vick has 14 of the Eagles' 19 turnovers and Tony Romo has 15 of the Cowboys' 19. And they have head coaches on the hot seat, although Jason Garrett seems to have more security with Dallas than Andy Reid does with the Eagles.
Someone will win this game, however, and one team will go on thinking it still has a shot at the playoffs, while the other is one last breath away from dead.
When the Eagles run
After a three-game stretch in which he averaged just 2.7 yards a carry, LeSean McCoy busted out for 119 yards on 19 carries last week in New Orleans. He ran only six times for 18 yards in the second half, though, as the Eagles tried to rally. McCoy did not practice most of last week because of an illness - insert offensive line joke here - but he is expected to play Sunday. Maybe the additional practice time with the first team will give Bryce Brown more than the four carries a game he is averaging. The injuries on the line - right tackle Todd Herremans became the latest to go on injured reserve - could force Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to go heavy on the ground. The Cowboys have been good, if not great, against the run. But they lost one of their top run-stoppers in linebacker Sean Lee, and now his backup - Dan Connor - is likely out with a neck injury. If he can't go, Ernie "Shark in the Water" Sims will start. The Eagles have been one of the best teams in the NFL running up the middle, averaging 5 yards a carry, but defensive ends Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman and nose tackle Josh Price-Brent have been stout inside for the Cowboys.
When the Eagles pass
With left guard Evan Mathis the only remaining starter from last season, the line is hanging by a thread. There might not be a more frightening matchup for the Eagles this season than left tackle Demetress Bell's assignment to block Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (nine sacks). Ware spends two-thirds of his time rushing from the right. King Dunlap moves to right tackle this week and will see a healthy dose of Anthony Spencer (three sacks), the Cowboys' other pass-rushing linebacker. After several weeks of steady improvement against the blitz, Vick had plenty of issues when the Saints sent extra rushers. Much of the fault lay with the line, but Vick has to do a better job of getting rid of the ball. Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan likes to dial up the pressure, but he blitzed only seven times the last two games. The opposing quarterbacks were named Eli Manning and Matt Ryan, so that may have had as much to do with why Ryan sat back. New additions Brandon Carr (free agency) and Morris Claiborne (first-round pick) have improved Dallas' secondary, but the cornerbacks have only one interception combined. Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson (37 catches for 624 yards) could see a healthy dose of Carr with help from either safety - Gerald Sensabaugh or Danny McCray. Mornhinweg will need to find ways to buy Vick time - roll-outs, max protection - in light of the protection issues.
When the Cowboys run
Since DeMarco Murray went down with a sprained foot in Week 5, Dallas has had little success rushing the ball. The Cowboys weren't exactly tearing it up on the ground when he was healthy, however, and are averaging a 29th-in-the-league 83.4 yards a game. They managed just 65 yards on the ground in last week's 19-13 loss at Atlanta, but some of the issues with the Dallas run game have centered on Garrett's reluctance to hand the ball off. Murray practiced some last week, but he will likely be sidelined and Felix Jones will start again. The Eagles have gotten increasingly worse against the run. They allowed the Saints, who entered last week's game averaging just 3.7 yards a carry, to run for 140 yards on 25 carries (5.6 average). New Orleans took advantage of overpursuing defensive ends (cough, Jason Babin, cough) and the shoddy tackling in the Eagles secondary.
When the Cowboys pass
The Eagles went with larger cornerbacks for games like this. The Cowboys have two big-bodied receivers in Miles Austin (6-foot-2, 217 pounds) and Dez Bryant (6-2, 220). Nnamdi Asomugha (6-2, 210) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (6-2, 182) did a fine job against the duo in the second-to-last game of last season, holding Austin and Bryant to a combined 10 catches for 102 yards. Rookie corner Brandon Boykin could see a lot of Austin out of the slot. Romo was knocked out of that game, though, and Asomugha spent some time covering Jason Witten inside. The Cowboys tight end caught just eight passes for 52 yards in two games against the Eagles last season. He leads all NFL tight ends with 58 catches this season. Romo, meanwhile, has struggled with turnovers, as mentioned above. He's thrown a league-worst 13 interceptions and has just 10 touchdowns through eight games after throwing 31 last season. Romo has been particularly bad on third down (4 INTs, 0 TDs, 62 passer rating). He has thrown for a boatload of yards, though. Like the Eagles, the Cowboys don't have a dominating line. But the unit has improved over the season and still has an anchor in left tackle Tyron Smith. He should have the advantage over defensive end Trent Cole, who hasn't recorded a sack in five games.
The Eagles' special teams finally delivered a momentum-changer when Chris Polk forced a fumble against the Saints. They also nearly pulled off the Boykin-lateral-to-Riley Cooper trick play on a kick return, but the resulting touchdown was called back because of an illegal forward pass. The return units still need a spark and rank near the bottom of the league in punt (27th) and kickoff (29th). The Cowboys are marginally better in the return game (19th in punt and 23d in kickoff), but they have the best punt cover team in the league, holding returners to just 3.2 yards a return.
The Eagles won both games last season and have won three of their last four against the Cowboys. They have never lost five straight under Reid. Of course, Reid had never lost after the bye until two weeks ago. If there's a season for dubious firsts this might as well be it. Both teams' struggles can be summed up this way: They've been terrible in terms of turnover ratio (Eagles are minus-9, the Cowboys minus-11) and their offenses can't punch the ball into the end zone from inside the 20 (The Eagles are 10 of 27 in the red zone, the Cowboys 11 of 25).