To some, the just-announced decision by the NFL (and, presumably, FOX network) to change the start time of the critical Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles contest from the original 1 PM ET kickoff to 4:15 PM ET will seem a relatively unimportant development.
It is anything but that.
There is at least one team, and possibly two depending on the result of tonight's Monday Night Football game, that will be playing at 1 PM ET next Sunday that could render the Eagles' performance against hated rival Dallas utterly moot.
If Tampa Bay wins their early game at home against woeful Oakland next week, then the Eagles will head into their contest knowing that they are officially out of the playoff picture.
Similarly, if Chicago wins tonight in the Windy City against listless Green Bay, then the Bears also could have the opportunity to knock Philly out of the playoff race with a victory this weekend at Houston provided that desperate Minnesota is able to secure a home triumph against a New York Giants squad that has already wrapped up the best record in the conference. (Update: Chicago defeated Green Bay in overtime, 20-17)
The NFL undoubtedly made this switch to the 4:15 PM ET slot because they want to harness the exceptional drawing power of the possibly playoff-bound Cowboys. There will be cries of 'conspiracy' (to help Dallas get into the postseason, that is), I am sure, but this was a very simple business decision by the league. That is, Dallas sells.
It is not a coincidence that last week's match-up in Texas Stadium against the New York Giants was the most-watched Sunday Night Football game ever. The league isn't into conspiracy; they are, however, into maximizing revenue.
What better way to do so than to feature the Cowboys, as they shoot to make the playoffs against rival Philadelphia (who also could hypothetically be alive for a postseason spot when the game begins)? We haven't even touched on the Terrell Owens-Donovan McNabb subplots.
The National Football League made the right call here in moving the game to the 4:15 PM ET spot. That said, this action undoubtedly raises Dallas' chances to win the contest, in my opinion.
Why do I say this? In such a bitter rivalry, it would seemingly mean little for the Eagles' efforts to keep Dallas out of the postseason even if Philly's own playoff chances were ended before the game begins. That is the conventional wisdom.
I assert that Philadelphia's performance against Dallas next Sunday could suffer due to the scheduling change because of how two players may or may not be used in the game: Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook.
It is doubtless that McNabb will be highly motivated to keep former teammate Terrell Owens from reaching the postseason. However, the decision may not all be his.
There has been wide speculation that Eagles management is seriously considering moving McNabb in the upcoming off-season. If the Dallas game becomes a meaningless one for the Eagles by kickoff time or shortly thereafter, it is quite likely, in my opinion, that you will see Kevin Kolb at some point in the contest.
Philly brass does not want to see a possible trade asset injured in an irrelevant game for the franchise. Many fans and those in the media would likely scoff at such a suggestion, but the Eagles executives, similar to the NFL schedule-makers who changed Philly-Dallas to 4:15 PM, would be making a dispassionate decision based on their own business interests.
As regards Westbrook, he clearly looked less than one hundred percent against the Redskins. He is the Eagles' best player, but one prone to injury. If he is already hurting and you want to protect your investment in him going forward, you may well want to either shut him down or greatly reduce his role in what would be a glorified exhibition match.
If the Eagles do decide to take the steps I think they might regarding limiting the potential injury risk to McNabb and Westbrook pending the results of the Tampa and possibly Chicago games next week, expect such moves to be made as subtly as possible.
For example, possibly Westbrook is 'reinjured' during the game and rested, say, for the second half as a precaution. Or, possibly, he plays the whole contest but receives a relatively light workload.
Kolb may be played extensively and then Andy Reid could say in the post-game press conference that this was done to see how Kolb would perform. Reid would likely add that since the game was 'meaningless,' if Tampa and/or Chicago win(s), that he felt justified in making such a switch.
You get the idea.
If you're the Eagles, you would not come out and admit to the public that you are doing your best to ensure McNabb doesn't suffer an injury which could affect his market value. You simply say something such as, "We wanted to give Kolb a chance and we knew that we had been eliminated from playoff contention," or something similar.
Because of one legitimate money-driven decision made by the NFL, and because of what could be a choice made by the Eagles organization to protect and maximize its assets, Schedule-maker Santa Claus possibly just gave the Dallas Cowboys a perfect playoff-push Christmas present.