At the outset of the 2013 regular season, many likely expected the NFC East to once again be determined on the final Sunday of the year. But few expected the deciding matchup to be between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, who finished third and fourth in the division in 2012.
No, this was supposed to boil down to that other matchup—the one between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, both of whom were eliminated from contention weeks ago.
Fewer expected the quarterback matchup for said elimination game to pit Nick Foles against Kyle Orton, both of whom were clear backups in September but have been handed the keys to their respective offenses, mainly or entirely due to injuries suffered by Michael Vick and Tony Romo.
It's been a messy year in the NFL's most popular division, so I suppose this is as fitting a way as any for things to come to an end. The infamously inconsistent, perpetually banged-up Cowboys trying to avoid a third straight 8-8 season and another Week 17 letdown against the stupidly unpredictable Eagles.
I don't know if it'll be good football, but it's bound to be good television.
We've been previewing this game all week, and we'll have more Saturday on the October matchup between these teams in Philly, but let's focus on Sunday night's finale with one more X/O-style preview, along with a prediction...
What Philly must do to win, offensive edition
LeSean all day. The Eagles lead the league with 5.2 yards per rushing attempt, and McCoy is the NFL's top rusher. Dallas is without top run-stopper Sean Lee, as well as Anthony Spencer and Jeremiah Ratliff, and the Cowboys have surrendered 4.8 yards per carry on the ground.
What Philly must do to win, defensive edition
Don't let Dez Bryant take over. This is still a vulnerable secondary, and Orton is still a veteran quarterback who is quite familiar with this offense. The Eagles have to avoid big plays that could change the entire outlook of the game.
What Dallas must do to win, offensive edition
Lean on DeMarco Murray, whose 5.4 yards-per-carry average leads all NFL backs with at least 150 attempts. Balance is more important now than ever. The Eagles have been very good against the run this year, but Rashad Jennings and Alfred Morris have been able to put together solid games against them in recent weeks.
What Dallas must do to win, defensive edition
Get into Foles' head. That seemed to work when they roughed him up on the first series in October, and this is the biggest game of the 24-year-old's career. The Cowboys will inevitably give up a lot of yards, but if that opportunistic defense can get a couple more takeaways, they'll have a chance.
|NFL yards-per-attempt leaders, 2013|
|1. DeMarco Murray||Cowboys||5.4|
|2. LeSean McCoy||Eagles||5.1|
|3. Jamaal Charles||Chiefs||5.0|
|4. Alfred Morris||Redskins||4.7|
|Min. 150 carries (Pro Football Reference)|
Five most important non-quarterbacks, Eagles edition
McCoy: In fact, I don't remember the last time a big game featured two bigger backs. This is a throwback matchup.
Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher: They'll have Bryant outside most of the night.
Jason Peters and Lane Johnson: The bookend tackles simply have to be better than they were against Jason Hatcher, George Selvie and the surprisingly strong Dallas pass rush back in October.
Five most important non-quarterbacks, Cowboys edition
Murray: He has to be the centerpiece, regardless of how much that pains Jason Garrett.
Dez Bryant and Jason Witten: Orton absolutely needs to have his best receivers on top of things. The margin for error is nil.
DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher: It starts up front. The Cowboys have to frazzle Foles early and often, just as they did in that first meeting. If Ware is going to have one excellent game all season, it obviously has to come now.
Injury analysis, Eagles edition
Rookie safety Early Wolff is questionable with a knee injury, and that's really the only mystery for the healthy Eagles. They've survived without Wolff this season, so it's probably not a game-changing injury anyway.
Injury analysis, Cowboys edition
Obviously there's no Romo and no Lee. Spencer and Ratliff are long gone, and Morris Claiborne and DeMarcus Ware haven't been healthy at all. Claiborne is ready to return after missing four games due to a hamstring injury, which is a bonus, but Ware (elbow/back) missed Friday's practice and is questionable.
Throw in that Bryant (back) was also limited all week and that they're also without Justin Durant (who is on injured reserve) and Ernie Sims (who is doubtful) at linebacker, and it's pretty much a perfect storm.
B/R NFC East blog prediction: Eagles 30, Cowboys 24
The Cowboys are unpredictable regardless of who starts at quarterback, but it'd be crazy to pick them to beat the red-hot Eagles with guys like Romo and Lee out of the lineup.