Eagles vs. Cowboys for NFC East Crown Is the Best Possible Ending

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterDecember 23, 2013

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 20: Tight end Brent Celek #87 of the Philadelphia Eagles makes a first down catch and is tackled by linebacker Sean Lee #50 of the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth quarter during a game at Lincoln Financial Field on October 20, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Cowboys defeated the Eagles 17-3. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

"We're from Philadelphia and we fight."

If Chip Kelly doesn't lead the Eagles to the playoffs, he can always fall back on an obviously lucrative T-shirt slogan career.

Kelly told reporters after Sunday's game that his team lines up and plays the opponent it is asked to play, no matter what. This Sunday it was the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears, who Kelly's Eagles waxed to the tune of 54-11 on Sunday Night Football

Next Sunday, the Eagles get NFC East rival Dallas Cowboys, in Dallas, also on Sunday Night Football. Kelly is ready for another fight.

 "Very simply, we're from Philadelphia and we fight. That's it," Kelly told reporters following the victory over Chicago (h/t CSNPhilly.com):

If there's a game on, we're playing. End of story. And all this stuff about backing in and not worrying about things, I have no idea. So many different scenarios…What if there's a tie when we play Dallas next week and then we gave a game away (the) last week?

If we're going to line up and kick off, you tell us what time to show up and we'll be there. 

I guess he wasn't watching the halftime show on Sunday night. Yeah, that's right, he was a little busy.

Well, Bob Costas told everyone what time. It's 8:20 p.m. ET, right after that song where Carrie Underwood tells us that she has been waiting all day for Sunday night even though there are, I don't know, five or six amazingly important games on during the day. 

In two cities at least, it doesn't matter how many big games are scheduled earlier in the day, Eagles fans and Cowboys fans will be waiting all day—hell, all week—for Sunday night.

Dec 22, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly watches his team during pre game at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports


Nobody Saw The Eagles Coming

Everything is on the line for the final NFC East matchup of the year. The NFL schedule-makers could not be happier with the way this season has unfolded, with Week 17 deciding a division nobody could have expected to come down to the last game between these teams. 

Seriously, nobody.

Try to find one preseason prognostication that suggested the Eagles and Cowboys would be battling out in Week 17 with the winner going to the playoffs.

(Note: I always hasten to say "nobody" because there are so many voices in our industry it's impossible to say with any assurance that not one person in the entire football world saw this coming, but I digress.)

Nobody saw this coming!

A quick prance around some of the national predictions and, best I can find, there was one national pundit—NFL.com's Adam Schein—who picked the Eagles to make the playoffs. Of course, he then changed his prediction to the Cowboys when the same group of experts offered updated picks after eight games.

And who could really blame him? The Eagles had just come off a demoralizing 15-7 loss to the Giants, having scored just 10 points combined in two division games against Dallas and New York. Chip Kelly's first season in Philly looked like a work in progress, a foundation on which to build for next year and the year after. It did not look like this team would go on a second-half run like it has.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 22: Running back LeSean McCoy #25 of the Philadelphia Eagles is congratulated by quarterback Nick Foles #9 after scoring a touchdown against the Chicago Bears in during the third quarter of a game at Lincoln Financial Field on
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

At 3-5, nobody—I feel confident with this one—thought Nick Foles would become an MVP candidate.

Foles looked like a high school quarterback the last time the Eagles played Dallas, playing so poorly before being concussed that some people—read: me—openly wondered if he would ever play another down for the Eagles. It seemed clear after that game that Kelly didn't have a quarterback for the future, or possibly the present, and the first-year coach would need to strap together the second half of the 2013 season with an injured Michael Vick and rookie Matt Barkley until he could get his guy in next year's draft.

Little did anyone—including me—know that Foles would come back and be that guy. Since returning to the starting lineup against Oakland, Foles is 134-for-201 passing for 2,006 yards and 19 touchdowns to just two interceptions. That's a full season for some quarterbacks, and Foles has done it in only seven games, six of which have been Eagles victories. 

With one week left, Eagles fans hope their second-year star has at least one more great performance in him, on the game's biggest regular-season stage.

"I'm excited to go down to Dallas and play them," Foles told reporters after the game, via the Eagles' official site. "That's a big game. I know what's on the line. Everybody knows what's on the line. 

"They had a huge win today, coming from behind and doing what they did, so we have a big week ahead of us, and I'm excited for the opportunity." 

Dec 22, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) talks with Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett (R) during a timeout against the Washington Redskins in the fourth quarter at FedEx Field. The Cowboys won 24-23. Mandatory Credit: Geoff
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports


Dallas Doing What It Did

This is nothing new for the Cowboys.

“Today felt like the last two years,” Romo told reporters on DallasNews.com. “It was the same. NFC East on the road, if you lose, you’re probably done. If you win, you stay alive. We started our playoffs today for sure.”

The Cowboys were seconds away from being knocked out of the playoffs by a woebegone Washington Redskins team before Romo hitched up his britches, yanked up his socks and willed his team to a season-saving 24-23 victory.

“That felt like an elimination game for us,” Romo said, via ESPNDallas.com. “Obviously, we did what we needed to do to win this football game as a playoff game. Guys kept having belief and we came out on top.”

It behooves Romo to think about the Washington game as a playoff contest even though the opponent his Cowboys almost lost to is one of the worst teams in football. Romo, after all, has a putrid record in elimination games, losing three of the only four actual playoff games he's played in as well as both of the previous two season finales that would have gotten his Dallas teams into the postseason. 

In 2011, Dallas was in a Sunday night battle for a playoff spot at New York, and while Romo's numbers weren't horrible—29-for-37 for 289 yards, two touchdowns and one interception—the Cowboys got smoked by the Giants by a score of 31-14. The Giants went on to win the Super Bowl.

Dec 30, 2012; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) talks with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) after the game at FedEX Field. The Redskins won 28 - 18. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA Today Sports

In 2012, the Cowboys were in a similar fight at Washington on the last Sunday night of the season, losing 28-18 to the eventual NFC East champions. Romo—20-for-37 for 218 yards, two scores and three picks—was less than stellar.

This year, it's the NFC East title game on Sunday night yet again. With Dallas getting the contest at home, Romo and the Cowboys are obviously hoping for a different result than the previous two seasons. 

Convincing themselves that Sunday's win over Washington was a playoff game is probably a good start.

Heading into that must-win game against Washington, the Cowboys seemed to be in disarray. Reports surfaced that despite publicly stating the contrary, owner Jerry Jones has plans to fire Jason Garrett and his staff if Dallas fails to reach the playoffs.

The pregame television pundits put Jones, Garrett and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin in the proverbial dunk tank on Sunday, simultaneously trying to one-up each other's dismantling of the Cowboys' problems. Terry Bradshaw took that honor, saying on Fox (according to DallasNews.com), "[Garrett] is no head coach. Never should have been hired in the first place. He’s just a ‘yes’ man for Jerry." 

Dallas can turn that perception around in an instant with a strong performance against the Eagles. A win means not only that Romo can continue to rewrite the narrative that he's not clutch enough to win when games matter the most, but jobs—namely Garrett's—could be saved. 

No pressure, Tony.

Dec 22, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) watches from the bench against the Washington Redskins in the fourth quarter at FedEx Field. The Cowboys won 24-23. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports


No Pressure, Tony

Despite heading into the season finale with a one-game lead in the division and control of their own destiny—a term Chip Kelly likes to mock—the Eagles actually face very little pressure to beat the Cowboys on Sunday.

Now sure, it is Philadelphia, which is a city not known for its forgiving fans, but this Eagles season has been a breath of fresh air after the way the previous regime under Andy Reid finished. Kelly has already led his team to five more wins than last season, and for much of the second half of the campaign, the Birds have been one of the most dynamic clubs in all phases of the game. 

Kelly's recipe for success is working in Philly. A trip to the playoffs in his first year would be the icing on an already delicious holiday treat, but it wouldn't be nearly as soul-crumbling as the loss will be for Dallas.

Make no mistake: To lose in the last game of the season and miss the playoffs for the third straight year to a third different division rival is as soul-crumbling as it can get. To do it at home, in front of what will surely be an incredibly nervous crowd, is enough to make a player's head explode. 

Again, no pressure, Tony.

Even if Romo plays well and Dallas loses, people will find a way to squeeze this into the narrative that he can't lead his team to victory when he needs to the most. Hell, two weeks ago in a loss to the Packers, he had the Cowboys up by more than 20 points before the defense fell apart and let Green Bay back into the game. And even then, as Romo threw the game away, the Packers defense needed extraordinary individual plays to keep their season alive.

Romo needs to play great and Dallas needs to win, but people will still openly question if he can do it in the playoffs.

Romo is in a no-win situation this year, if you pardon the expression to set up a must-win game. 

This Dallas team had postseason aspirations from the start of the season, and anything less than a deep run into the playoffs—dare I say, a trip to the NFC title game or Super Bowl—should be seen as a failure of the Garrett regime, led by Jones, who has always been the guy pulling everyone else's strings. 

To not even make the playoffs would be a disaster in Dallas. There is no other way to see it. All of the pressure is on the Cowboys. 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 20:  Nick Foles #9 of the Philadelphia Eagles is sacked by Bruce Carter #54 of the Dallas Cowboys on October 20, 2013 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennslyvania.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images


Same Teams, Different Game

Dallas has two things going for it in this Sunday's finale. First, the Cowboys are at home, and they boast a staunch record of 5-2 in Jerry's World this year, beating the Giants, Rams, Redskins, Vikings and Raiders while losing two heartbreakers to the Broncos and Packers. Of course, that record doesn't look quite as good when realizing that the combined road record of teams Dallas beat at home this year is 7-30-1. 

Philly's road record: 5-2.

Now granted, the Eagles haven't exactly played a murderer's row on the road this season. Outside of Denver, Philadelphia's road schedule has been entirely manageable in 2013, with the five road wins coming against teams with a combined 15-22-1 record at home. Keep in mind that record would be 15-17-1 if we remove the losses suffered to the Eagles, which is far better than the 7-25-1 record the Cowboys' home opponents had without counting the losses to them.

The point is, this Eagles team will be a tougher test than most Dallas has faced at home. They will be more challenging than the team the Cowboys faced in Philly in Week 7 as well. 

"We're definitely a different team than the last time we played them," Kelly told WIP Radio on Monday morning.

In six days, his team has a chance to prove that.

Garrett's Cowboys can prove they're different too—different from the team that squandered this same opportunity the last two years.

The team nobody believed would be this good this fast is playing as the team nobody seems to believe in at all. For a division most people thought would be the worst in football, it seems we've stumbled upon the best possible ending.


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