Eagles (4-2) at Cowboys (5-1)
8:30 p.m. Sunday on NBC
Cowboys favored by 4; over/under 43
Sizing up the Eagles' highly anticipated Sunday night showdown with the Cowboys:
When the Eagles have the ball
Here we go. Biggest game of the season so far for the Eagles, who have already beaten two of the NFL's best in the Steelers and Vikings.
The Cowboys are surprisingly playing like the class of the NFC, making this an enormous game. If the Eagles win, they'll be in first place in the division at the beginning of November, and they'll have three high-quality wins under their belt. Winning a tough road game like this would do wonders for the confidence of Carson Wentz and whoever else plays a key role.
But a victory is far from certain. The Cowboys have exceeded expectations on both sides of the ball this year. We all know about the offensive attack led by Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott (more on that below), but Dallas' defense has also done its job well.
The Cowboys' secondary had been a mess for several years, but the unit has gotten better since the arrival of last year's first-round safety, athletic freak Byron Jones.
In one of the most important developments for Dallas, Morris Claiborne, the sixth overall pick in 2012 who was a straight-up bust in his first four seasons, is playing the best football of his career. He's been targeted 40 times and allowed just 21 catches for 191 yards (9.1 average) and no TDs. Over the last two games, Claiborne has faced A.J. Green and Jordy Nelson and given up just three catches for 37 yards, breaking up two passes.
Claiborne signed a one-year, $3 million prove-it deal to stay with the Cowboys, and he's earning himself some money before heading into unrestricted free agency.
Veteran cornerback Brandon Carr plays opposite Claiborne and is also having a decent year after a few disappointing ones. Carr has two inches and 20 pounds on Claiborne, so one would think the Cowboys would try to match Carr up with the Eagles' biggest receiver, Dorial Green-Beckham.
Last season, Sam Bradford targeted Jordan Matthews five times when he was being covered by Carr and all five were completions, for 24 yards and a TD. In this one, Matthews will likely line up opposite Jones or Tyler Patmon in the slot.
Coverage has been the best aspect of Dallas' defense this season. Getting to the quarterback has been the worst. Lacking an explosive pass rusher, the Cowboys have just 11 sacks on the year and four came against the Bengals. Per Pro Football Focus, the only team in the NFL that has rushed the passer less effectively than the Cowboys is the Lions, who did sack the Eagles three times in Week 4.
If the Eagles can protect Wentz against this mediocre pass rush, they have a real chance to win. Wentz has been accurate and decisive when he's had a clean pocket, and while the Cowboys have made those aforementioned improvements in the secondary, this is still a defense you can move the ball against.
When Wentz has been kept clean — i.e. not faced pressure — he's 100 for 146 (73 percent) for 1,097 yards with seven TDs and two INTs. When under pressure, he's 18 for 39 (46 percent).
The Cowboys have been much better this season at stopping the run, thanks in large part to the health of linebacker Sean Lee. The former Penn Stater is instinctive and fast, a sure tackler and a sound coverage LB. He really does everything ... except stay healthy. In the four seasons prior to 2016, he missed 33 of 64 games to various injuries. Annually, the Cowboys' defense has fallen off a cliff without him.
Dallas is allowing just 92.2 rush yards per game, 10th-fewest in the NFL, and no RB has exceeded 75 rushing yards against them. The Eagles have not been a particularly effective running team so far, ranking 20th with 4.1 yards per carry and 17th with 111.5 rush yards per game. For reference, that's 50 fewer rushing yards per game than Dallas, which leads the NFL.
Look for the Eagles to try to get that ground game going quickly in the first quarter. If they can, it will open up the play-action game in which Wentz has thrived. It would also further mitigate the Cowboys' pass rush by making them a step slower reaction-wise.
The best formula for success would seem to be involving Ryan Mathews early, letting Wentz complete some short passes to Darren Sproles, Matthews and the tight ends, and then opening up the deeper stuff once an amped-up Dallas defense has been forced to adjust.
When the Cowboys have the ball
The Eagles have a very good defense and the Cowboys have a very good offense. Based on how the Cowboys move the ball, this is the worst possible game to be without defensive tackle Bennie Logan, who's missing his second straight week with a groin injury.
The Dak Prescott-Ezekiel Elliott tandem has worked wonders.
Elliott has averaged 142 rushing yards and 5.9 yards per carry in his last four games.
Prescott, like Wentz, has quickly become more than just a game manager. Over his last four contests, Prescott has completed 73 percent of his passes, averaged 9.0 yards per attempt and totaled nine touchdowns with one interception. He hasn't been much of a threat running himself, except on the goal line, where he has rushing TDs of one, five and six yards.
But before getting to the Cowboys' passing game, it's obvious that this defensive game plan will begin with stopping Elliott. That's no easy task. Elliott is a world-class running back behind the best offensive line in football. And stopping Zeke only becomes tougher with the expected return of All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith.
The Eagles know they must rally to the ball when Elliott has it. Gang tackles are a necessity. Of Elliott's 703 rushing yards this season, 383 have come after contact.
The return of wide receiver Dez Bryant should also benefit Elliott. Bryant simply cannot be covered one-on-one in crucial third-down or red-zone situations. He excels at making tough catches when being well-defended.
Bryant torched Nolan Carroll last season, catching a 51-yard pass and an 18-yard TD against him. And that was with Matt Cassel at the helm.
Cole Beasley and Jason Witten are factors over the middle. Malcolm Jenkins was great last year as the Eagles' slot corner but not against Beasley. In the first meeting, Beasley caught nine passes for 112 yards and two TDs and both scores were against Jenkins.
It seems that all small, white wide receivers get compared to Wes Welker, but that really is the type of player Beasley is. He's the go-to option on third down because of his shiftiness and ability to get that one foot of separation with a quick move. Prescott has targeted Beasley often, and without Bryant, Beasley has caught three TDs in his last three games. Prior to that he had never really been a red-zone threat.
The slow-footed, ageless Witten still somehow gets open, though it would seem the Eagles are equipped to defend him with Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks and the safeties.
As it always is, the key here is pressure. The Eagles made Bradford uncomfortable all day last Sunday and that was the main reason the Vikings got nothing going offensively. But Minnesota was playing with two backup tackles. The Cowboys are playing with an O-line filled with first-round picks who've lived up to the hype.
Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox have played well this season, but this needs to be their best game if the Eagles are to have a chance.
The Eagles are the only team in the NFL with a kick return TD this season and they have two, courtesy of Wendell Smallwood and Josh Huff. Both are good runners, but that has just as much to do with the other special teamers' preparation, scheme and blocking ability.
Since ST coordinator Dave Fipp arrived, the Eagles have 21 return TDs — that includes kick returns, punt returns, interceptions, fumbles and blocked kicks. No other team in the NFL has more than 15 over that span.
Speedy second-year receiver Lucky Whitehead returns the kicks and punts for Dallas. He's yet to score in that role, but did return a kick 79 yards last year.
Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey is the most accurate in NFL history. In his six seasons, he's converted 90.1 percent of his field goals. He's also 222 for 222 in extra points. And at home, in Dallas' dome, he just does not miss (82 for 88, 93.2 percent).
I think this is going to be a great game decided by fewer than seven points that comes down to the final two minutes.
But, while the Eagles have played up to the level of competition in their two toughest games, I just don't see them going into Dallas after a Cowboys bye week and beating a balanced offense. This just is not a great matchup for a pressure-oriented defense against a gargantuan offensive line.
For the Eagles to win, they'll need surprising performances from a few players, whether it's Nelson Agholor or Josh Huff catching a deep ball, or Connor Barwin or Vinny Curry having a standout game.
My score predictions have been wrong four weeks in a row, so let's hope this makes five.
Cowboys 27, Eagles 24