A surprising showdown for first place
One of the many great things about the Internet is that no trees have to be sacrificed for the sake of making preseason predictions. You'd have to Google-search high and low to find somebody who believed in early September that the Eagles would be good enough to win the NFC East in Chip Kelly's first season as the team's coach.
Here we are, however, in Week 7, and the Eagles are going to play a home game (uh-oh) Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field against the Dallas Cowboys with first place on the line. Sure, it's for first place in the NFC East, the least impressive division in the NFL. And sure, it matches one team (the Eagles) that hasn't won a home game since September 2012 against another (the Cowboys) that was once known as America's Team but is now known as America's Most Disappointing Team.
This is the It Is What It Is Bowl, and the Eagles belong here every bit as much as the Cowboys. If the Eagles win Sunday, the midseason revisions on which team will win the NFC East will include a lot of kind words about the Eagles because they will be the one team in the division that is considered an overachiever.
Tony Romo, winner of one playoff game (it was over the Eagles) since he became the Dallas quarterback in the middle of the 2006 season, isn't all that surprised that he is coming to Philadelphia for a first-place showdown against a team that went 4-12 a year ago.
"I think more than anything, the game is so close and the teams are so close that it comes down to just a few little things that make the difference in football games," Romo said during a conference call Wednesday. "For whatever reason, the Eagles had not been doing that up until this year, and I think they're doing that now.
"You can see it on tape. They are winning games because of the small things that they may or may not have done in the past. It's not unlike any other team. The talent level is similar on most teams, and you have to do those things to separate yourself, and they are doing a lot of those little things right."
The 3-3 Eagles and the 3-3 Cowboys could not be more similar. Their three losses are to Denver, San Diego, and Kansas City, which is proof that neither team is good enough to win the AFC West. The Eagles have beaten the New York Giants, Washington, and Tampa Bay, three teams with a combined 1-15 record. The Cowboys have beaten the Giants, Washington, and St. Louis, three teams with a combined 4-13 record.
Both teams have the ability to score 30 points or more in any given game. They've each done it four times in their first six games. Both teams also yielded more than 50 points to Denver. The Eagles switched from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 before the start of this season. The Cowboys switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the man who masterminded the Tampa Bay defense that closed down Veterans Stadium with a sigh of disbelief.
The growing pains (and lack of talent) have been obvious for both defenses, but the injuries have been an even bigger problem for the Cowboys, with the most crushing loss coming in last week's win over Washington. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware went down with a strained right quadriceps and is not expected to play Sunday. The Cowboys were already without Anthony Spencer, who had 11 sacks last season, and nose tackle Jay Ratliff, a four-time Pro Bowler who was released from the team Thursday after failing a physical.
The Cowboys also figure to be missing running back DeMarco Murray, who left Sunday night's game against Washington with a sprained knee. In his absence, rookie Joseph Randle ran 11 times for 17 yards in the second half, which means even more pressure will be placed on Romo and the Cowboys' passing offense.
"It's just a challenge," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "It's a challenge that really happens in 32 cities around this league. Injuries are always a part of the NFL. The teams that can absorb those injuries the best are typically the ones that are playing at the end of the year."
With star receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten, the Cowboys have enough talent to overcome the lack of a running game, but it certainly makes things easier on an Eagles defense that believes it is getting better and more comfortable with coordinator Bill Davis' scheme.
There will be a showdown for first place in the NFC East Sunday in South Philly between two flawed teams that are as evenly matched as Nick Foles and Michael Vick. Given the Cowboys' injury issues, the team that most people pegged for last in the division before the season appears to be slightly better right now.
Nobody predicted that.