Eagles-Cowboys round two, with first place in NFC East on line this time

Eagles seem like a different team than the one that lost the first meeting just last month

Inside slant

It is less than a month since the Eagles and Cowboys last played each other, but even in that relatively short period of time the Eagles have become a different team.

After losing to Dallas 27-20 at Lincoln Financial Field on Nov. 11, the Eagles were hammered mercilessly by the New Orleans Saints. Since that 48-7 beat down, though, the Eagles have turned around their season, and will now play the Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday for first place in the NFC East.

“We've talked about the New Orleans thing before, but listen, the New Orleans deal was, I think for us as a team, it wasn't us, No. 1,” said head coach Doug Pederson. “It wasn't how we expect to play or expect to finish a football game in that game. So we've kind of put ourselves in a position where each game from then on, really matters, and just focusing in on each week.

“The guys have done a great job during the week of practice, preparing themselves and understanding the game plan and I think what you're seeing, too, is we had a lot of young guys - we had some injuries in that game and a lot of young guys play in that game. And what you're seeing now is those young guys getting a little more confident each week every time they are out on the field defensively. And then the offense is catching a little bit of rhythm right now. It's been a good last couple of weeks against two quality division opponents.”

Since losing to the Saints, the Eagles have beaten the New York Giants, 25-22, and the Washington Redskins, 28-13, to reach 6-6 and pull within a game of the 7-5 Cowboys.

When the Eagles last played Dallas, they played without running back Darren Sproles, cornerback Sidney Jones, and right tackle Lane Johnson running back Josh Adams hadn’t yet seized control of the position, and receiver Golden Tate was playing his first game as an Eagle since being acquired in a trade with the Detroit Lions.

Against Washington on Monday night, Sproles played in his first game since Sept. 6 and scored a 14-yard touchdown. His presence infused the offense with some life.

Adams had just seven carries for 47 yards in the first meeting as the Eagles ran for just 71 yards as a team. During their two-game win streak, he has carried the ball 42 times for 169 yards and a touchdown. Adams began the season on the practice squad but has made great strides recently.

Meanwhile, Tate is becoming more of a force on offense, and the team no longer looks like it is forcing the ball to him to get him involved. He scored his first touchdown as an Eagle, added a two-point conversion catch, and had seven catches for 85 yards on Monday night, and Jones is healthy again.

For the most part, Johnson has healed from knee and ankle injuries and helped the offensive line become more consistent.

SERIES HISTORY: 116th regular-season meeting. Cowboys lead the series, 64-51. Dallas won the first meeting this season, scoring 14 fourth-quarter points to outlast the Eagles in Philly, 27-20. Dallas got 151 yards rushing and 36 yards receiving from Ezekiel Elliott while the Eagles managed just 71 yards rushing.

NOTES, QUOTES:

  • Carson Wentz did not get sacked against Washington, the first time this season that has happened

“Hats off to the offensive line,” said the Eagles quarterback. “They played a great football game, both in running the ball and keeping me upright. It’s hard to say exactly what the difference is but again just as an offensive unit, we are finally starting to kind of mesh and play together. Again, we are leaving plays out there. There are plenty that I want back, but I think the offensive line is starting to mesh and play together.”

  • Tight end Zach Ertz established a new single-season franchise record for receptions (currently 93), surpassing the previous mark of 90 set by Brian Westbrook in 2007. Ertz’s 93 receptions are tied for the 13th-most by a tight end in NFL history. He is only seven receptions shy of becoming just the fourth tight end in NFL history to reach 100 in a season, joining Jason Witten in 2012 (110), Tony Gonzalez in 2004 (102) and Dallas Clark in 2009 (100). Ertz now has 978 receiving yards, which are the 2nd-most by a tight end in single-season team history, trailing only Pete Retzlaff in 1965 (1,190).

Ertz said he patterned his game after Witten.

“I’ve studied him for so long, finding the intricacies of how he ran routes from the moment I came into the league,” said Ertz. “He was the guy I was always watching because it seemed like on third down, he was always getting his number called. He was always attacking leverage. So I really just modeled my game after him.

“There are some differences, but there are also a lot of similarities. I’ve said it since I was 16, he was the guy that was always on TV in California. He was the perfect guy for me to watch, because I got to see at 16 years old how a tight end should play. I have the ultimate respect for him, and we have a good relationship. I wish he didn’t play for the Cowboys, but it was fun playing against him too for a couple of years.”

  • Second-year linebacker Nate Gerry played just 11 defensive snaps, but seemed to make them count. He had two tackles and recorded his first career interception, picking off Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter and returning it seven yards to put the Eagles at the Washington 40. The turnover led to a field goal that opened up a 25-13 lead for the Eagles with 11:41 to play in the game. A fifth-round draft pick out of Nebraska, Gerry was converted from a college safety to an NFL linebacker as a rookie.
  • The Eagles run defense allowed a 90-yard touchdown run to Washington’s Adrian Peterson on Sunday, which was the longest run from scrimmage against an Eagles defense in club history breaking the previous mark of 87 set by John Henry Johnson of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1960

BY THE NUMBERS: 5. Number of times the Eagles have tried a two-point conversion this season. They have converted all five times.

PERSONNEL PLAYER NOTES:

  • Cornerback Jalen Mills (foot) was placed on Injured Reserve on Saturday, ending his season. He is the third member of the team's defensive backfield to go on IR this season, joining safety Rodney McLeod and cornerback Ronald Darby.
  • Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan wasn’t able to play against Washington due to back spasms. Head coach Doug Pederson is hopeful that Jernigan will play Sunday.
  • Pederson said left tackle Jason Peters, who got rolled up on late in the game, should be OK to play against the Cowboys.
  • Linebacker Jordan Hicks and cornerback Avonte Maddox habe been ruled out.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Darren Sproles. The 35-year-old running back decided to return this season after suffering an injury early last year that ended his season because he did not want to end his career like that. But he was injured in the season opener on Sept. 6, and is now unsure if he will retire at season’s end, like he announced he would last summer.

If he returns or not may depend on how he finishes this season. Sproles returned to the lineup against the Redskins and contributed a 14-yard touchdown run and had 22 yards on four carries with another 19 yards on three punt returns. His role could increase against the Cowboys.

“He's such a class act, and a great leader on this football team,” said Pederson. “Obviously, it's unfortunate his situation and the injuries that have set him back. But for him to come out (Monday) and do the things he was able to do, and then the guys - I do believe the guys really wanted to get him a touchdown at some point, you know?”

Added quarterback Carson Wentz: “Having Darren back is awesome; he’s a little spark for us offensively. I was extremely stoked to see him back in the end zone. It seems like it’s been a while since he’s been out – it’s been a while since him and I got to play together. So having him back in the huddle, having him make some plays like he did definitely gives the offense a little motivation, a little spark. It was great to see him in.”

GAME PLAN: The Saints did a good job of pressuring Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott last week, sacking him seven times. Yes, New Orleans lost, but the Cowboys scored just 13 points in the win. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has been hesitant to blitz the past couple of games because of a secondary that is undermanned, so he has relied on his front four to get to the quarterback.

“In the back end we've had a different cast almost every week,” said Schwartz. “As soon as you start getting a feel as a play caller, and think okay, this is what we can execute and this is what's good for our matchups, you have another injury and the next week it's a little bit different. Then you sort of start over again trying to find that.

“That's sort of where we are right now. I think the other part that goes into that is our D-line has done a good job of pressuring and they've done a good job of getting pressure without blitzing. When you can do that, it really doesn't make a lot of sense to subject your secondary to more one-on-ones and a heavier load when those guys could.”

Certainly pressuring Prescott will help, but the ever-present threat of Ezekiel Elliott must be contained, too. Elliott shredded the Eagles in the first meeting with 187 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. The Eagles must figure out a way to contain Elliott, much the way New Orleans did when they held him to 75 yard on 23 carries, though Elliott still dinged the Saints in the pass game with six catches for 60 yards.

“They are not very complicated in the run game and they don't need to be,” said Schwartz. “Just sort of hand him the ball, and even if there is an extra guy, he can run through them or make them miss.

“He has also really increased his load as his career has gone on in the passing game also. He is a dangerous screen runner. You have to account for him. He's obviously one of the best backs in the league. If we're going to come out with a win, we're going to have to get him stopped.”

Offensively, the Eagles seem to be clicking lately, with an offensive line that is getting healthier each week and playing its best football of the season. Being able to run the ball against a strong Cowboys defensive front will the key to a win, with Carson Wentz making enough plays to keep Dallas off balance.

QUOTES TO NOTE:

  • “Unfortunately we put ourselves in this situation because we’ve lost a lot of close games,” said center Jason Kelce. “At this point, this is a big one for us this week in Dallas.”
  • “Obviously we played these guys a couple weeks ago,” said tight end Zach Ertz. “This is going to be my 12th time playing them. So they know me, I know them. It’s going to come down to how fresh can we be for that game. That’s going to be the most important thing for a lot of guys is trying to get your body right. Obviously it’s going to be week 13 for us so that’s how your body feels right now. Guys are going to be in the training room, living in the training room.”
  • “Their front four is putting a lot of pressure on the quarterback,” said offensive coordinator Mike Groh. “They have a really good pass rush unit. This unit flies around. They all run to the ball. They’re a really good tackling unit and they're covering well. Playing a lot of man coverage and covering well. I think they're playing very confidently right now. They have good players. They have a lot of team speed. They were a top five defense the last time we played them, so we have a lot of respect for them on defense.”

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

  • Eagles cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas vs. Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper. These weren’t the starting corners the Eagles started the season with, but Ronald Darby (out for year with knee injury) and Jalen Mills (likely to miss fourth straight game with foot injury) are out. Jones, though, returned to the lineup after missing four of the previous five games with a hamstring injury and played 100 percent of the defensive snaps against the Redskins.

Cooper, of course, wasn’t with the Cowboys until being acquired for a first-round draft pick at the trade deadline. He has made a big impact on the offense. Twenty three of his 30 catches with Dallas have gone for first downs.

  • Eagles offensive line vs. Cowboys linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch leads the Cowboys with 128 tackles, second-highest ever by a Dallas rookie, and Smith is second with 105. The Eagles offensive line is getting healthy again and playing more consistently. The unit may have played its best game of the season on Monday night. Center Jason Kelce certainly had his best game of the season.

PREDICTION: EAGLES 23, COWBOYS 21

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