Cowboys Playing for More Than NFC East Crown

Chad KlassenCorrespondent IDecember 28, 2009

When the Cowboys and Eagles meet in Dallas for the NFC East, there will be a lot more on the line for the home team than the all-important division title.  

Home field in the wild-card round, or a potentially first-round bye if Minnesota loses out, would be great, but Tony Romo and the Cowboys have revenge on their mind after what happened in last season's playoff showdown. They were embarrassed a year ago and have been waiting for their shot at redemption since the 44-6 beating in Philadelphia, where the Eagles leaped over Dallas for the sixth and final spot.

It was December 28, 2008, Lincoln Financial Field, and yet again the Eagles and Cowboys were squaring off in a playoff tussle with the final NFC wild-card berth at stake.

However, outside the draw of watching a historic rivalry, the matchup turned out to be less than stellar with the NFC East rivals heading in opposite directions. 

The Eagles, following a troublesome tie in Cinncinati and 36-7 thrashing in Baltimore, turned their season around quick with three straight wins, starting on Thanksgiving Day, to set up the quasi-playoff game with Dallas.

The Cowboys walked into the must-win meeting having lost two of three in December—including a pair of heartbreaking losses to the Steelers and Ravens to fall from tops of the division to the sixth seed, which they lost before they could even regroup in the locker room. 

Down 27-3 at halftime, the visitors turned the ball over five times in all, including three Romo fumbles, which quickly turned into Philadelphia points in a game when nothing went right for the Cowboys.

A year later, things couldn't be more different on the Dallas sideline. The not-so-dysfunctional Cowboys have put together an impressive string of wins in December after losses to the Giants and Chargers. The triumphant 24-17 victory, which gave New Orleans its first blemish of the year, has clearly given Dallas a huge confidence boost going into the postseason.

Romo is playing his best football as a pro, sparking an offense that ranks third in the NFL, averaging 394 yards a game. After the season finale, he will have posted his best statistical season, currently sitting at 4,172 yards—only needing 39 yards on Sunday to pass his 2007 totals. 

The emergence of Miles Austin, who's become the Cowboys' top pass-catcher in 2009 with 1,230 yards and 11 touchdowns, has helped Romo and the offense, not only in the passing attack but also the running game. Austin's output has him fifth in NFL receiving—13 yards behind Reggie Wayne and Santonio Holmes.   

For their part, the Eagles, who always seem to catch fire late in the season, have went on another hot streak to give themselves a chance to host a playoff game. Philly's won six in a row and has scored no less than 27 points in the last five weeks, largely because of the offense, which is clicking on all cylinders heading into the most important part of the season.

Donavan McNabb finally has deep weapons, with which he's been able to exploit teams' secondary with the speed and athleticism of sophomore DeSean Jackson and rookie Jeremy Maclin.

On the ground, Maclin's fellow first-year starter, running back LeSean McCoy, has rushed for an Eagles' rookie single-season rushing record. Philly's second-round pick from 2009 has picked up 633 yards on the ground for a 4.1 average after replacing Brian Westbrook, who returned to the lineup against Denver after concussion problems forced him to sit out eight games.

But it's their receiving core that's made the different in 2009. Jackson has 1,120 yards and nine touchdown for the Eagles, who have benefited from the deep threat he presents opposing defenses. Amazingly, he's already accumulated 10 50-plus yards touchdown plays in only two seasons and single-handedly won a couple games for Philadelphia—most notably the Sunday night affair against the Giants with his 72-yard punt return and 60-yard TD catch. 

For his part, Maclin has 715 yards receiving and four TD in only his inaugural season, also having made key catches for Philly, including the 27-yard, toe-drag catch to set up David Akers' game-winning kick over the Broncos.

So clearly, the Eagles and Cowboys both enter Sunday's meeting with a ton momentum. And while there can only be one winner, expect a terrific football game.    

Unlike last season's sleeper in Philly, the game to determine the NFC East champion will likely go down as one of the classics in this all-time series, possibly a similar outcome to the last time the division rivals faced off in Dallas—a 41-37 Monday night doozy won by the Cowboys.

Better yet, depending on the Vikings' finish to the regular season, it's more than likely Philadelphia and Dallas will meet up again in the first round—with Sunday's clash determining the site of that wild-card game and home-field advantage.

But regardless of where the game's played, the Cowboys are playing some of their best football under Romo. They've also proven to beat the Eagles on the road in prime time two of the last three seasons on Sunday Night Football . FOX will be broadcasting Sunday's NFC East showdown, but it can't get much worse for Dallas, who are seeking serious revenge for last year's humiliating defeat.