We can now begin to set the table for the game of the year, which for the third consecutive season will fall on the final Sunday night of the year and will involve the Dallas Cowboys playing an elimination game against an NFC East rival.
The similarities are eerie. America's Team was 8-7 in both previous cases, losing both games on NBC's Sunday Night Football to fall just short of the playoffs and finish with a .500 record. The only difference is that their 2011 matchup against the Giants came on the road, as did their 2012 loss to Washington.
This time, the Cowboys will host the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium. Will the third time be a charm or is Dallas going to be eliminated on the final night of the season by a third division rival in three years? Before we start making any specific predictions, let's compare the two teams in each major area.
When Dallas has the ball...
Cowboys offensive line vs. Eagles defensive line
It all starts in the trenches, and this is actually an underrated matchup between two very healthy units. Some facts and figures:
- The Dallas offensive line has given up only 19 sacks and ranks eighth in the league in terms of pass-blocking efficiency at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
- Tyron Smith is one of only four offensive tackles who have given up fewer than two sacks in 13 or more starts, per PFF.
- Starting Dallas guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary are both decent run blockers. Bernadeau's PFF run block grade of 7.4 ranks ninth at that position. Rookie center Travis Frederick grades out as the second-best run-blocking center in the league.
- Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox are graded as top-10 3-4 defensive linemen by PFF, which has Thornton as the third-best run defender at that position.
- Through Week 15, Football Outsiders ranked the Cowboys line third in football in terms of yards per rush, a stat which is adjusted to account only for the line and not the running back. In the same category on the defensive side of the ball, Philly's D-line ranks 20th.
Of course, in such a complex sport, there's no direct comparison of X versus Y. It's much more complicated than that, especially when you consider the support the Eagles receive up front from their linebacking corps. That's why we'll open this up when analyzing how Dallas matches up against the Philly D on the ground and through the air.
That said, I still give an edge to the Eagles line here. It has little to do with numbers and more to do with what I've seen from both units. I still don't trust Bernadeau very much and Leary isn't reliable overall. Frederick has been vulnerable as a pass protector and that three-man Philly line can really bring it.
Thornton might be the NFL's most improved player, Cox might be the best defensive player on this team and Bennie Logan and Vinny Curry have been extremely productive. They're young and nimble, and that rotation keeps them fresh.
The edge: Eagles
Cowboys running game vs. Eagles front seven
Again, Dallas has been exceptionally good running the ball this season. That running game ranks in the top six in every major category at Football Outsiders, and DeMarco Murray's average of 5.4 ranks first among all backs with at least 150 carries.
The problem is that the Cowboys have run the ball only 21.2 times per game, which is the second-lowest average in the NFL. That lack of balance has haunted them on several occasions this year.
That's why this is a dangerous matchup, because the Eagles could be good enough against the run to get into Jason Garrett's and/or Bill Callahan's head. Philly has given up only 3.8 yards per carry this season, and Football Outsiders has them ranked in the top six in terms of taking down running backs in the second level and in the open field.
The key there might be what they've gotten out of DeMeco Ryans, Connor Barwin and Trent Cole. There might not be a 3-4 outside linebacker in the league who defends the run better than Cole, and Barwin is as steady as they come in that area. Throw in that sophomore inside 'backer Mychal Kendricks has completely turned his game around in the last six weeks and it's hard to find a soft spot in this front seven.
Only one opposing back has gone over 100 yards against the Eagles this season. They held Dallas to only 73 yards on the ground in that last meeting, but Murray didn't play. They might not be as dominant this time, but the Eagles still have a small edge in this matchup.
The edge: Eagles
Cowboys passing game vs. Eagles pass defense
So the Cowboys might have to get their points through the air, which isn't a new concept for a team that throws more than almost everyone else in football. Some facts and figures related to this matchup:
- Tony Romo is the NFL's eighth-highest rated passer (96.7), but he's averaging only 7.2 yards per attempt and he's attempted only 51 passes of 20 yards or more, according to PFF, which ranks 17th in football. He has seven touchdowns and only one pick on those passes, but only Alex Smith attempts them less often as a percentage of total passes than he does.
- But the Eagles pass defense has given up 58 completions of 20 yards or more, which is tied for the fifth-highest total in football. Football Outsiders ranks their pass defense 27th, noting that they really struggle against No. 3 receivers. That's dangerous considering how deep the Dallas receiving corps is.
- Romo's been pressured on 35 percent of his dropbacks, according to PFF, which isn't too bad considering the amount of heat he's faced in recent years.
- The Eagles rank sixth-last in the league in terms of sack percentage but have 17 sacks in their last five games. Only Buffalo and Carolina have more sacks during that stretch.
|X or Z No. 3 WRs vs. Eagles, 2013|
|Jarrett Boykin||Packers||8 rec, 112 yards||Williams/Carmichael|
|Malcom Floyd||Chargers||5 rec, 102 yards||Boykin|
|Rueben Randle||Giants||6 rec, 96 yards, 2 TD||Williams/Fletcher|
|Leonard Hankerson||Redskins||5 rec, 80 yards, 2 TD||Boykin|
|Eric Decker||Broncos||5 rec, 88 yards||Wolff/Allen|
|Terrance Williams||Cowboys||6 rec, 71 yards, TD||Fletcher/Williams|
|Cordarrelle Patterson||Vikings||5 rec, 35 yards, TD||Williams|
|Pro Football Focus|
The pass rush has been better and Brandon Boykin has been stellar in the secondary, but the Philly defense is definitely vulnerable here. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are very inconsistent and the free safety position remains a mess. Earl Wolff isn't 100 percent and is still a tad unreliable as a rookie and Patrick Chung is terrible.
The edge: Cowboys
When Philly has the ball...
Eagles offensive line vs. Cowboys defensive line
Here's where the Eagles can really take control of this game. Philly has a strong, versatile and healthy offensive line, while Dallas has spent virtually the entire season without 50 percent of its preseason starters on the defensive line. DeMarcus Ware hasn't been himself at all this season, and the Cowboys have been forced to rotate through quite a few obscure names this year, both inside and outside.
Some more figures:
- The Philly offensive line ranks 23rd in the league in terms of pass blocking efficiency, per PFF, but they've given up only five sacks and 31 total pressures since their Week 12 bye. That's 7.8 pressures per game, which would be the best rate in the league over the course of the entire season.
- Eagles left tackle Jason Peters grades out as the league's fourth-best tackle at PFF, but Peters has actually been dominating to a different degree now that he's fully healthy.
- DeMarcus Ware, who Peters will face all night against Dallas, is still ranked fifth in the league by PFF in terms of pass-rushing productivity. But Ware has just two sacks since Week 4. As a result, the Cowboys rank 29th in the league with 29 total sacks and have the NFL's lowest sack percentage (4.6).
- Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans grade out as the two best run blocking guards in the NFL and Jason Kelce ranks as the fifth-best run blocking center, according to PFF. This is the most dominant interior offensive line in football.
- Jason Hatcher has carried Dallas' defensive front. He has a career-high nine sacks and had a monster game against Herremans when these teams met in Week 7. But Hatcher has sort of disappeared in December.
The wild card here could be rookie right tackle Lane Johnson. Johnson is better now than he was when Philly last played Dallas. In fact, he's better now than he was last week. The No. 4 overall pick has improved drastically throughout the 2013 season and has given up three or fewer pressures in six of his last seven games, per PFF.
Peters will have to deal with Ware, which is for the better, but journeyman George Selvie has had a real solid season rushing on the opposite side. If Johnson can win that battle, the Eagles will be in very good shape.
And if that interior can continue to pave the way for McCoy and Co. with relative ease, the Eagles could run away with this thing.
The edge: Eagles
Eagles running game vs. Cowboys front seven
Football Outsiders ranks the Eagles in the top two in the league in terms of second-level and open-field yards, which isn't surprising because LeSean McCoy is the league's leading rusher and Philly is averaging a league-high 5.2 yards per rushing attempt (second-place Washington is averaging only 4.8).
But what's really scary for Dallas is that those same Football Outsiders metrics rank Dallas' defense in the bottom five. This is the ultimate mismatch.
The Cowboys did a pretty good job against McCoy in one of their best defensive performances of the year in Week 7, holding him to only 55 yards on 18 carries, but that might have been an anomaly. And it helped that Nick Foles had his worst game of the year through the air.
Since then, the Eagles have only become better on the ground, while Dallas' depleted defense has weakened.
We've talked about the trouble Dallas is having on the defensive line, but at least Hatcher has been good and Ware and Selvie are healthy. The linebacking corps is in worse shape. Sean Lee is the Cowboys' best defender, and he's especially stellar against the run, but he's injured and might not even play Sunday night. Fellow starter Justin Durant is also out and Bruce Carter has struggled all season.
As a result, Dallas has been gashed on the ground by the Giants, Bears and Packers in recent weeks.
And it just so happens that the Eagles have put together two epic rushing performances in a three-week period. McCoy went for a franchise-record 217 yards a few weeks ago against Detroit, and he and Bryce Brown combined for 248 yards and three touchdowns Sunday against Chicago.
The edge: Eagles
Eagles passing game vs. Cowboys pass defense
It doesn't get much better for Dallas here. The Cowboys have the league's second-worst pass defense in terms of yards allowed and rank in the bottom 10 when it comes to opposing passer rating, touchdowns, completion percentage and yards per attempt.
Morris Claiborne hasn't been able to stay healthy, Brandon Carr has struggled with Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 scheme and the safeties have lacked consistency. Throw in that the pass rush ranks dead last in the league in terms of sack percentage and the Cowboys could be in huge trouble against the NFL's highest-rated quarterback.
Foles leads the league with a 118.7 mark in that area, and he's also dominating the league with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 25-to-2. He goes deep more often than any quarterback in the game, according to PFF, and has a league-high 14 touchdowns on passes of 20 yards or more.
Naturally, the Cowboys have given up a league-high 66 20-yard completions. That Dallas D, which ranks 28th against the pass according to Football Outsiders, has more trouble against No. 2 receivers than anyone else in the league. And Riley Cooper has become one of the NFL's best No. 2 wideouts.
|Cowboys vs. No. 2 WRs, 2013|
|Andre Holmes||Raiders||7 rec, 136 yards||Carr/Scandrick|
|Hakeem Nicks||Giants||5 rec, 114 yards||Claiborne/Carr|
|Riley Cooper||Eagles||6 rec, 88 yards||Claiborne|
|Alshon Jeffery||Bears||5 rec, 84 yards, TD||Scandrick/Carter|
|Keenan Allen||Chargers||5 rec, 80 yards||Claiborne|
|Rueben Randle||Giants||3 rec, 64 yards||Claiborne|
|James Jones||Packers||3 rec, 49 yards, TD||Scandrick/Carr|
|Kris Durham||Lions||4 rec, 44 yards||Scandrick/Claiborne|
|Pro Football Focus|
The Edge: Eagles
On special teams...
Dwayne Harris is one of the best kick/punt returners in the game, but he has been injured and didn't play in Week 16. Still, the Cowboys have a strong return game, as evidenced by a 62-yard punt return from Michael Spurlock Sunday in Washington. The Cowboys rank in the top six in the league in terms of kick and punt return averages and have broken some big ones this season, while the Eagles rank close to the middle of the pack when it comes to covering returns.
The longest return the Eagles have had all season was 47 yards, and they've really struggled to make plays on punt returns. Dallas has been good at covering those up.
Throw in that Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey is tied for the league lead with six 50-yard field goals on seven attempts and that he's 20 of 21 on the rest of his kicks and it's easy to see the edge Dallas has on special teams. Alex Henery hasn't been special on field goals and Donnie Jones hasn't been much better than Chris Jones in the punting game.