Scouting the Eagles and the Cowboys
The Eagles are 3-3 and playing their backup quarterback, yet there's a discernible optimism in Philadelphia entering Sunday's game against the Cowboys.
Perhaps it's because the NFC East is wide open - the winner of Sunday's game will take the division lead approaching the halfway point of the season. It might also be because that backup quarterback, Nick Foles, could make a compelling argument that he should be the starting quarterback.
Coach Chip Kelly has not been in Philadelphia long enough to experience the rivalry between the two teams, but he's savvy enough to understand the fans' distaste for divisional opponents and the importance of NFC East games in the overall scheme of the season.
The Eagles drew the Cowboys at a good time. Top running back DeMarco Murray is doubtful, and star defensive end DeMarcus Ware might miss his first game since entering the NFL in 2005.
Considering the Eagles' next two opponents have three combined victories, it's not unrealistic to consider what this current two-game winning streak could look like come November if the Eagles extend it to three games on Sunday. And if they don't, they might be chasing the Cowboys until the two teams meet again in the season finale on Dec. 29.
When the Eagles run
The Eagles had no trouble running last week with Foles at quarterback, proving the offense can work without a mobile quarterback threatening on the zone runs. LeSean McCoy already has 630 yards in six games and averages 5.1 yards per carry, and the offensive line improved last week. Dallas has the No. 14 rush defense in the NFL and allows 105 rushing yards per game.
The Cowboys' new defensive coordinator is Monte Kiffin, a Super Bowl-winning coordinator who spent the last three seasons at Southern California. His defenses struggled against Chip Kelly's Oregon offenses. In last year's game, Oregon rushed for 426 yards. Don't expect that kind of total on Sunday, but the Eagles can still have a big game. Although there are some scheme changes in Dallas, Kiffin's biggest change is his personnel. Linebacker Sean Lee, a Penn State alumnus, is one of the NFL's best defensive players.
When the Eagles pass
Foles has been an effective passer this season, and he faces a defense susceptible to the pass. The Cowboys are 30th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 308.2 yards per game. Their pass rush will be hindered by the expected loss of Ware. They get a strong rush from defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who already has five sacks from the interior. Preseason sensation George Selvie has three sacks and must be accounted for on the edge.
The matchup to watch is DeSean Jackson against cornerback Brandon Carr, who has followed the opposing team's top receiver around the field. Jackson has already faced top cornerbacks such as Brandon Flowers and Darrelle Revis this season, and the Eagles will search for creative ways to get him the ball. It will help if Riley Cooper has another strong game after the finest outing of his career last week. It's also worth watching Zach Ertz. The rookie tight end improves each week, and the Cowboys defense has struggled against tight ends this season.
When the Cowboys run
The Cowboys' rushing offense will take a major hit without Murray, who is doubtful with a knee injury. Murray has 84 percent of the Cowboys' rushing yards this season and has averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Dallas will count on fifth-round pick Joseph Randle, a talented rookie from Oklahoma State who has just 17 yards this season. It helps that Dallas has a strong offensive line this season, and first-round pick Travis Frederick has been a big help at center.
The Eagles defense is getting better against the run, which has been an emphasis in recent games. Cedric Thornton has been the Eagles' finest defensive lineman, and DeMeco Ryans is a reliable tackler. They've been able to keep opponents below 100 rushing yards during the last two games - both wins.
When the Cowboys pass
This matchup has the potential to swing the game. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is on pace for his finest season yet. He has completed 70 percent of his passes and has 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said the key for Romo has been limiting his mistakes, and the low interception total is an indication of the improvement. The Eagles have the No. 31 pass defense in the NFL and were inconsistent last week against an unproven rookie.
It helps that Romo has an impressive stable of pass catchers. Dez Bryant has developed into one of the NFL's finest receivers, and he leads the team with 34 catches for 459 yards and six touchdowns. Bryant will be a difficult matchup for the Eagles cornerbacks. Both Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams will have their turns. Brandon Boykin might need to cover Bryant if he goes into the slot.
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has 1,233 career yards against the Eagles, which is the most yards he has against any opponent. The Eagles must improve covering tight ends, and Witten is so effective at finding space. Don't expect safety Patrick Chung to play, which puts the onus on rookie Earl Wolff.
Veteran receiver Miles Austin is probable despite missing practice this week, but one player the Eagles must account for is rookie receiver Terrance Williams. He has emerged in recent weeks and has caught 18 of 21 passes intended for him.
The Eagles need a better pass rush against Romo. Fletcher Cox is coming off his finest game, but the rush must also come from the edge. This would be an opportune week for Trent Cole to show he's still an effective pass rusher.
The Cowboys beat the Redskins last week in large part because of special teams. Returner Dwayne Harris had an 86-yard punt-return touchdown and a 90-yard kickoff return and was named NFC special-teams player of the week for the second time this season. The Eagles' coverage units have had lapses, and any breakdown could result in points and prove to be a difference.
Eagles punter Donnie Jones will play despite an injured kicking foot, and Alex Henery has not had any issues after struggling early in the season. Returner Damaris Johnson has not been a threat, and the Eagles snuck Jackson back on a punt return last week.
The home-field advantage has not been much of an advantage for the Eagles. Philadelphia fans have not witnessed a win at Lincoln Financial Field since Sept. 30, 2012. This is the first time the Cowboys are seeing Chip Kelly's offense, but Garrett and his staff have been preparing for the Eagles since the spring. Both teams are 2-0 in the NFC East and 3-0 in the NFC.