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NFL Preview - Dallas (5-2) at Philadelphia (5-2)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Sole possession of first place in the NFC's East Division will be on the line when the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles renew their spirited rivalry with a Sunday night showdown at Lincoln Financial Field to highlight the Week 9 schedule.
With both teams fresh off impressive wins and sporting identical 5-2 records, not to mention a genuine dislike of one another, this pivotal midseason clash didn't need any additional intrigue to draw the interest of the fans. There's a good chance, however, that the Cowboys are viewing this game as something more than simply an opportunity for bragging rights.
Dallas last visited the City of Brotherly Love in the 2008 regular-season finale, needing a victory over Philadelphia to secure a spot in the NFC's postseason parade. The Cowboys didn't come close in a 44-6 shellacking that not only served as the team's most lopsided defeat since patriarch Jerry Jones purchased the franchise 20 years ago, but vaulted the hated Eagles into the playoffs as the conference's final Wild Card.
If recent results are any indication, the Cowboys seem to have put that devastating loss in the rearview mirror. Dallas comes into Sunday's tilt on a three-game winning streak, highlighted by a convincing 37-21 verdict over a quality Atlanta squad in Week 7, and backed that strong effort up with last weekend's 38-17 besting of the overmatched Seattle Seahawks.
Tony Romo has spearheaded the surge with a superb three-week stretch in which the highly-scrutinized quarterback has amassed 918 passing yards and eight touchdowns without an interception. The two-time Pro Bowl participant, who's completed nearly 63 percent of his attempts over that span, delivered three scoring strikes in last Sunday's rout of the Seahawks.
Romo's near-flawless play under center figures to be put to the test this week, however, by an opportunistic Philadelphia defense that's racked up 21 takeaways through the team's first seven games. The group was at its havoc- causing best in its last outing, forcing three turnovers that played a key role in a 40-17 dismantling of the slumping New York Giants.
The offense did its part as well, with quarterback Donovan McNabb throwing for 240 yards and three touchdowns and a resurgent running game generating 180 yards despite the absence of standout back Brian Westbrook, who sat out the contest with a concussion that isn't expected to keep him out of the lineup for Sunday's matchup.
That win moved the Eagles to 2-0 against NFC East competition this season, with the club having posted a 27-17 triumph over Washington the previous week. Dallas is 0-1 thus far in divisional play, having dropped a 33-31 decision at home to the Giants back in Week 2.
The Cowboys hold a 53-43 advantage in their all-time regular season series with the Eagles, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home. Dallas won a 41-37 home thriller when the teams met in Week 2 of last season, but as previously mentioned, were drilled by a 44-6 count with a playoff berth on the line at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 17. Dallas last won in Philly in 2007, coming up a 38-17 winner in a primetime game there.
In addition to their regular season advantage, the Cowboys have a 2-1 edge in the postseason series. The Eagles were 20-7 winners in the 1980 NFC Championship, while Dallas won NFC Divisional Playoff games over Philadelphia following the 1992 and 1995 seasons.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid has a career record of 14-6 against the Cowboys. Dallas' Wade Phillips is 3-2 all-time against both Philadelphia and Reid all- time, with the first of those wins coming in the form of a 26-0 rout for Phillips' Bills over the Eagles in 1999.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
With Romo (1908 passing yards, 12 TD, 4 INT) playing arguably the best football of his four-year tenure as a starter and a strong ground attack in place to complement the triggerman's talents, Dallas enters this week's play ranked second in the NFL in total yards (411.1 ypg). The sudden emergence of Miles Austin (26 receptions, 563 yards, 6 TD) as a big-play receiver alongside perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten (37 receptions, 1 TD) has also aided the cause. Since being inserted as a starter in mid-October, Austin has compiled an eye-popping 482 yards and five touchdowns on 23 catches over three games. The Cowboys' sixth-rated rushing offense (147.6 ypg) is led by rugged running back Marion Barber (397 rushing yards, 4 TD, 6 receptions), with the speedy Felix Jones (288 rushing yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions) utilized as a dangerous change-of-pace out of the backfield and on returns. Romo has thrown 120 straight passes without being intercepted, the longest stretch of his career, and has been picked off only once over Dallas' last five games.
Romo will be taking on a Philadelphia defense that's recorded 14 interceptions already this season, just one less than the team's entire 2008 total, and possesses one of the league's premier ballhawks in two-time Pro Bowl honoree Asante Samuel (20 tackles, 5 INT, 6 FD), who teams with the steady Sheldon Brown (21 tackles, 3 INT, 7 FD) to form a high-caliber cornerback tandem. The aggressive Eagles also excel at pressuring the passer, with disruptive end Trent Cole (31 tackles, 6.5 sacks) the most accomplished member of a unit that has produced 23 sacks so far, tied for second-most in the league. Middle linebacker Will Witherspoon (47 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), acquired from St. Louis at the October 20 trade deadline, has quickly proven to be a playmaker as well, with the eighth-year pro garnering 14 tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and a touchdown in just two games with his new team. Philly could be without strongside regular Chris Gocong (26 tackles, 1 sack) for Sunday's tilt due to quad and hamstring injuries incurred in the Giants game. If he can't go, rookie seventh-round pick Moise Fokou (6 tackles) would be in line for his first career start.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
The Philadelphia offense has the ability to score from any point on the field, which was evidenced in last Sunday's thrashing of the rival Giants. Running back LeSean McCoy (294 rushing yards, 2 TD, 15 receptions) had a 66-yard touchdown run, wide receiver DeSean Jackson (24 receptions, 501 yards, 6 total TD) hauled in a 54-yard scoring bomb from McNabb (1008 passing yards, 9 TD, 1 INT) and seldom-used fullback Leonard Weaver (91 rushing yards, 1 TD, 7 receptions) got into the act with a 41-yard touchdown burst on the game's opening drive. The Eagles lead the NFL with 12 plays of 40 yards or more, many of which have been provided by the dazzling Jackson, who's averaging better than 20 yards per catch as McNabb's primary target. Rookie receiver Jeremy Maclin (22 receptions, 3 TD) has shown plenty of game-breaking potential as well in his short stint, while third-year tight end Brent Celek (37 receptions, 447 yards, 3 TD) is beginning to blossom into one of the elite performers at his position. Westbrook (197 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 2 total TD) should be back in the mix after being held out of last week's test for precautionary reasons, giving the Cowboys another weapon to prepare for. McNabb hasn't shown any ill effects from the broken rib that caused him to miss a couple of games earlier in the year, as the 11th-year vet has tossed seven touchdowns and no interceptions in four starts since returning from the injury.
Expect the Eagles to attack a Dallas stop unit that ranks just 22nd in pass defense (237.3 ypg) and has come up with only four interceptions in its seven games. They'll have to keep a close eye on pass-rushing terror DeMarcus Ware (26 tackles, 2 forced fumbles), who's back to his destructive ways following a slow beginning to the season, however. The All-Pro outside linebacker, who topped the NFL with 20 sacks a year ago, has gotten to the quarterback five times over the course of this three-game winning streak, a big reason why the Cowboys have five takeaways over the last two weeks. Dallas has also been tough to run on as of late, with opponents averaging just 92.8 rushing yards in the last five games against a defense that's been getting very good play out of inside linebackers Keith Brooking (50 tackles, 2 sacks) and Bradie James (49 tackles, 1 sack) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff (18 tackles, 2 sacks).
With both teams having offenses capable of lighting up the scoreboard, there's a wealth of tasty options on the menu in this matchup. Austin and Jackson have been fantasy gold for their owners as of late, and there's no reason not to keep riding the hot hand in a game with the potential of being a shootout. Celek and Witten are two legitimate starters at the tight end position, with Maclin and the Cowboys wideout Roy Williams (14 receptions, 2 TD) offering some value as flex players. The Eagles will likely throw it a lot on Sunday, which is good news for those with McNabb on their roster, but it's hard to gauge how much Westbrook will contribute coming off a serious head injury, although his track record says start him. Barber always gets enough touches and goal-line looks to be a recommended choice on the Dallas side. Romo's been excellent during Dallas' current run, but keep in mind that he'll be facing a Philadelphia defense that's terrific at forcing the opposition into mistakes.
Dallas comes in both confident and motivated to atone for last season's disaster, but history says the Cowboys could be in for a rough ride. Dallas has left with a loss in eight of its last 10 trips to Philadelphia, and the Eagles have won easily in each of their last three home games. Add in the theory that Romo's overdue to make a costly miscue or two after three almost spotless games, and the Eagles are one of the best in the business at creating pressure and inducing turnovers. That could be the difference in a contest that should offer plenty of excitement and determined play from two fierce rivals.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 30, Cowboys 21
11/05 17:55:18 ET