COWBOYS OFFENSE vs. Eagles defense. That's where I see the root of the problem. How do you get Tony Romo off the field, so your offense has a chance to get into rhythm?
If Sunday's Eagles defensive performance were the exception, maybe you'd have faith in Sean McDermott's ability to change the vibe in a 6-day span. But this is the same defense that gave up 512 yards to the Giants Dec. 13, that held opponents under Jim Johnson's old, cherished standard of 17 points or fewer only twice in the final nine games. At some point, you are what you are.
I don't think McDermott has the goods. The Eagles' offense will have to hoist this game on its back; Donovan McNabb will have to come up with a legacy-defining performance. The Birds have a puncher's chance. This is a good group, overall, tough, talented and united. Not to mention young and energetic.
The same can be said of the Cowboys, though, and they have the horses up front to get it done. The Eagles, who could have gone on another nice playoff run, if not won the Super Bowl this season, are facing the wrong foe at the wrong time. Yes, Andy Reid is 7-0 in his initial playoff game each year, but Dallas has made a crusade out of winning a postseason contest for the first time since 1996. The Cowboys' season, their identity in some ways, has been built around redressing that 44-6 humiliation at Lincoln Financial Field that ended their year last December. I wouldn't mind being wrong, but I see the Birds standing on the wrong side of history.
Cowboys 26, Eagles 16
Once more unto the breach, brave lads, once more into the breach . . .
So, for the second time in 6 days Andy Reid's obviously light brigade of Eagles will be back inside the world's largest video-game parlor trying not to look ridiculous. Trying not to look as if they practiced for a game that had a bye week and division series home game riding using one of those Rich Kotite charts where the ink used to run in the rain like a showgirl's mascara.
Riding against Tony Romo's suddenly accurate cannon and the rest of the weaponry that left the Birds littered across the Big Jones turf, pinned there by four giant goose eggs, the question is: What can possibly change in 6 days?
Well, one supposes the Cowboys could spit up the bit, as they have in so many playoff situations since the glory years. Donovan McNabb could be rolled away from the pressure certain to come rushing through a leaking dike created when center Jamaal Jackson went down. Brian Westbrook could reach into his memory for one final all-purpose burst of brilliance. DeSean Jackson could run his routes with the same swiftness with which he has moved his mouth this week. Tackling would help, as would NFL-level clock management.
Lacking any of those imperatives:
Cowboys 30, Eagles 24
In a column this week, my colleague Bill Conlin suggested that an Eagles win would rank right up there with the loaves-and-fishes miracle and Lazarus rising from the dead. I wouldn't go that far, but having been a witness to Sunday's 24-0 car wreck, I understand where he's coming from. After watching that lopsided game, it's hard to make a case that the Eagles can win the rematch.
In my scouting report this week, the only positions in which I gave the Eagles an edge were receiver and defensive line, and frankly, both of those could have gone either way. I didn't give the Eagles an advantage in any of the game's three key matchups, either.
I'm not sure they can stop the Cowboys' run game. I'm not sure they can get pressure on Tony Romo. I'm not sure their patchwork offensive line can protect Donovan McNabb. And even if it can, I don't feel all that confident that McNabb can snap out of his 25-for-52, six-quarter funk.
But I just have this crazy hunch that, against all odds, the Eagles will win. Don't know how, but sometimes, you just get a feeling and you have to run with it. So . . .
Eagles 31, Cowboys 30
An old coach once told me: Trust your eyes. Believe what you see out in front of you, not what you heard, what you read, or what happened among people who once stood where you now stand.
So this is what I think. I think Tony Romo is the experienced one now, toying with a young Eagles defense that easily becomes uncertain and tentative. I think the Dallas Cowboys defense has come together at the right time of the year, is playing with the all-out aggressiveness that marks supremely confident teams. I think the Eagles are again too saddled with too many young guys and too many uncertainties, whether it is the play of their rebuilt (again) offensive line, or their assortment of suspect middle linebackers.
I think what you saw Sunday was no aberration. I think we'll all think that tomorrow.
Cowboys 27, Eagles 10
To review: One touchdown in eight quarters. The Eagles' highest-scoring offense ever has one TD and 16 points against the Cowboys this season. That's two points per quarter.
The defense hasn't been smoked by the Pokes, but the Cowboys have handled the Eagles' return game . . . wait.
When you can't get into the end zone - in a dome - what else matters?
Cowboys 24, Eagles 17
Trying to patch together some kind of roadmap for an Eagles victory over Dallas is a pretty difficult bit of business. It won't be 24-0 again, but you cannot pretend that the game didn't happen, or that it didn't expose serious concerns.
The Eagles' defense would seem to have one chance: hit Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo repeatedly. That's it. They were blocked severely up front in the run game, and Miles Austin really looks like a budding star as a receiver, and tight end Jason Witten remains the demon they cannot exorcise. There is no reason to see that changing. They need to bang Romo around, period.
On offense, they should be able to score some points. The protection of Donovan McNabb, when you look at the videotape a second time, was solid Sunday. If he gets that time again, the quarterback needs to make a few plays. Truth is, he needs to be their best player or they probably don't have a shot.
Cowboys 27, Eagles 20
This is a bad matchup for the Eagles. Dallas isn't 24-0 better, but two regular-season victories indicate a difference between the teams.
The pressure DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer put on Donovan McNabb throws off the timing of the Eagles' offense. The protection the Cowboys offensive line gives Tony Romo allows him to go through progressions and find the right target.
The Eagles will play better, but still need Dallas to make a few mistakes to win.
Cowboys 27, Eagles 17. *