1. How will the Eagles offense do?
Jeff McLane: Doug Pederson’s offense has struggled to find a groove since Halapoulivaati Vaitai took over at right tackle. Pederson has had to contract the field even more than he did during the first four games as Carson Wentz got acclimated to the NFL. Almost all of the quarterback’s throws on Sunday against the Vikings were to receivers running short, timing routes. Vaitai and Wentz haven’t been the only reasons why the Eagles haven’t gone down the field. The receivers, particularly, Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham, haven’t been able to consistently get separation or make plays on deep balls. The Cowboys secondary has been very good this season, but the cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr and safeties Barry Church and Byron Jones don’t all have the greatest track records. Claiborne used to be a defender quarterbacks could attack and have great success against. He’s playing his best football, though. Church has been a thorn in Zach Ertz’s side for years. Wentz may want to look Jordan Matthews’ way even more than he already has. Anthony Brown is a solid slot corner, but Matthews should have the advantage.
The Cowboys aren’t especially strong up front, but they do have defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence back after he missed the first four games with a suspension. He’ll face off mostly with left tackle Jason Peters, who has been solid, per usual. Peters has a biceps injury that bears monitoring. Jack Crawford and David Irving line up on the other side. Neither should be frightening for Vaitai, but Pederson is likely to keep on helping the rookie. Sean Lee is still the Cowboys’ best linebacker. He plays outside in the base. He can wreck a run game. He’s done it to the Eagles before. Pederson has stuck with a balanced offense – 54-46 in favor of the pass – and will need production from Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood on the ground to keep Dallas’ potent run offense off the field. Mathews, who fumbled in two of the last three games, may be down to his last strike.
Zach Berman: Wentz should have a bounce-back game on Sunday. The Cowboys defense is playing well this year, but they’re still allowing 266 passing per game yards and have allowed 10 touchdowns – both middle-of-the-pack statistics. Some of the way Wentz played should be attributed to a tough Vikings defense, and Wentz will have a better chance of moving the ball this week. Obviously, Wentz needs similar protection from his offensive line and his pass-catching options to come through. I keep saying this is the week for Ertz, so at some point I’ll be right – or I’ll just be the boy who cried wolf. But the Cowboys are 28th in the NFL against tight ends, and Ertz is much better than a one-catch tight end. One concern, though, is that a lack of a vertical game is making it easier for defenses to take away the Eagles’ intermediate passing game. It would help if they can hit on one deep, but they have demonstrated that will be the case. The Cowboys have the 10th-ranked rush defense, although they allow 4.4 yards per carry. The Eagles will try to establish a ground game. Other than the fumbles, Mathews has been more effective in recent weeks. Still, I’d look for Smallwood to get more involved on Sunday. The Eagles will keep the balance in their offense, although this is going to be an evening for Wentz. If the Eagles win, it’ll be on his shoulders.
2. How will the Eagles defense do?
McLane: The key to this game will be the Eagles’ front seven vs. the Cowboys offensive line. Jim Schwartz’s unit brought it’s “A” game against the Vikings, but Dallas’ ground attack is on another level. The o-line, led by left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin, may be the best run-blocking group in the NFL. It does a great job of creating lanes, whether with stretch plays or outside zones, for running back Ezekiel Elliott. The rookie back running back, who leads the league in rushing, does the rest. He’s quick at getting to the second level and is elusive once he gets there. Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks will play a significant role if the Eagles are to keep him in check. Hicks is coming off his best game of the season.
The Eagles will likely be without defensive tackle Bennie Logan. He’s as good a run stopper as Fletcher Cox. Beau Allen, Destiny Vaeao and maybe Taylor Hart will have a hard time filling Logan’s shoes. But if the Eagles can put the Cowboys into second and third and longs, they can force rookie quarterback Dak Prescott into deeper drops. He’s done a wonderful job this season, but a lot of his success has been contingent upon the run game. Prescott will be aided by the return of receiver Dez Bryant. And he still has tight end Jason Witten and leading receiver Cole Beasley in the slot.
Berman: Remember when Schwartz said the Redskins game was about the Redskins' offensive line against the Eagles' defensive line? The same will be applicable this week. But the question entering the game on Sunday won’t be as much about the pass blocking as the run blocking. You saw what Washington did to the Eagles on the ground, and they didn’t do it with the NFL’s leading rusher and best run-blocking line. Simply said, Elliott’s performance will dictate this game. If the Eagles can win at the point of attack – and they’ve done it against this line before – they’ll win the game. But Elliott is a special running game who is on a roll right now, and the lack of gap integrity against Washington was a concern. Elliott is averaging 6.5 yards per carry in October, and even if that’s 2 yards fewer per carry, he could top 100 yards for the fifth consecutive game. I’ll be watching how Allen replaces Logan, whether Hicks can have a repeat performance at middle linebacker, and how the defensive ends do setting the edge. In the passing game, the Eagles need to pressure Prescott, who has been sacked only nine times this season. That would make him a different quarterback. He will benefit from the return of Dez Bryant, who will be a tough assignment for Nolan Carroll. I’m curious to see how the Eagles handle Beasley in the slot. I don’t think it’ll be Jenkins the whole game – my guess is it’s also Leodis McKelvin or Jalen Mills, with Jenkins helping on Jason Witten and staying close to the line to help with the run.
3. Who’s a player to watch?
McLane: Beasley torched the Eagles, particularly safety Malcolm Jenkins, in Dallas last season. The loss of slot corner Ron Brooks couldn’t have come at a worst time. Beasley would have been a tough matchup, but Brooks is better equipped to run with the small, lightning-quick receiver. Jenkins struggles against shifty slot receivers. I’d be surprised if he gets the call on Sunday. Safety Jaylen Watkins could get the nod because of his recent experience at corner, but my guess is that either McKelvin or Nolan Carroll moves inside in the nickel and Mills takes one their spots on the outside.
Berman: I want to watch Leodis McKelvin on Sunday. The Eagles limited his workload last week to keep him fresh, and he hasn't handled a cornerback’s full workload yet this season because of a hamstring injury. With Brooks out, the Eagles are thin. McKelvin was signed to be a starting cornerback for the Eagles, and they need him to play like one going forward. That starts with staying on the field. If his health remains a problem, then the Eagles’ top three cornerbacks will include Mills and undrafted rookie C.J. Smith.
4. What’s your prediction?
McLane: I’d rather skip this portion after going 1-5 in the first six games. I’m a pathetic prognosticator, there’s no other way around it. I was going to pick opposite my gut last week, but ended up choosing the Vikings at the last second and, of course, was wrong again. This will be a tough game for the Eagles, but it’s not like the Cowboys are invincible. Schwartz needs to make Dallas one-dimensional and force the issue to Prescott. He blitzed out of character last week and it worked against the immobile Sam Bradford. Prescott can be elusive. He’s also a part of a run game that utilizes the zone read and bootlegs. But any quarterback can be got. The Cowboys o-line is good, not great, in pass protection. Brandon Graham should have opportunities against right tackle Doug Free. Under normal circumstances, I’d pick Dallas this week, but I’m going with the reverse prediction, which is probably bad news for the Eagles. Eagles 26, Cowboys 24.
Berman: The games are hard to predict because this team is tough to read. They excelled as home underdogs against Pittsburgh and Minnesota, but lost as road favorites in Detroit and Washington. Anyone with a good feel on this team should move to Vegas. This matchup will be determined on the line of scrimmage when the Cowboys have the ball. The Eagles can win that matchup – and the game. If they do, I’ll admit I was wrong, because I think the Cowboys have the edge there in the running game. My guess is the pass rush is effective, but not the run defense. Give me Cowboys 23, Eagles 21.