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Eagles, Cowboys Refuse to Die and Could Upend the NFC Playoffs

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 17, 2019

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) greet each other after their NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

Watching an Eagles game is like watching some poor soul trying to assemble a trundle bed from a Scandinavian furniture outlet with half of the tools missing and the instruction sheet flipped upside down. They know how it's supposed to look, and so do you. They had high hopes when they left the store. Yet there they are, trying to hammer a wood screw into a dowel nut with a pingpong paddle. You want to help them, or at least hug them, but you are a mere spectator.

Rooting for the Eagles means rooting for pass interference calls and roughing-the-passer penalties to power the offense, hoping the opposing defense forgets to cover Zach Ertz, praying that the replay review reveals that Carson Wentz's knee was down before the ball popped out and closing your eyes when the defense faces 3rd-and-15 so you don't have to watch Ronald Darby misplay a deep ball after the offensive line picks up Jim Schwartz's 10-man blitz.

Yet the 7-7 Eagles remain in the playoff conversation because they feasted on the Skins, Giants and Jets, and because the 7-7 Cowboys are just as bad as they are.

Yes, Cowboys fans, we saw you snickering through those Eagles paragraphs. You have nothing to laugh at. This column wouldn't exist if the Cowboys didn't get outplayed and outcoached by the freakin' Jets. Remember when Dak Prescott was an MVP candidate and Kellen Moore was Sean McVay with even more peach fuzz? We don't either. The only way to enjoy a Cowboys game since Week 4 has been to change the channel after the opening drive, before Jason Garrett uses up all of his offensive ideas (both of them) and starts kicking 25-yard field goals and giving garbled orders to his kick returners.

At least the Eagles have an excuse: They lost all of their wide receivers and running backs to a medieval plague. The Cowboys have been relatively healthy all year. They're just mediocre.

No one has any bragging rights in the Cowboys-Eagles rivalry this year. And yet, the teams will battle yet again for the division title Sunday. If the Cowboys win, they will clinch the division and could rest their starters in Week 17. (They probably won't do so, because Garrett is far too clever to risk playoff "momentum," but it's the thought that counts). The Eagles will win the NFC East if they beat the both Cowboys and the Giants in Week 17.

How did it come to this? What will happen next? Could either of these teams make legitimate playoff noise? Should the NFC East lose its automatic playoff berth, like some college basketball conference that lost all of its good teams? Let's explore the answers to all of those questions, except for the last one.

   

Dallas Cowboys

How we got here

Roger Steinman/Associated Press

The Cowboys have an excellent offense on paper. They ranked second to the Ravens in offensive efficiency heading into Sunday's 44-21 victory over the Rams, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. They are also hard to beat when it comes to name recognition: Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Jason Witten and the world's only star-studded offensive line.

The Cowboys are supposed to look the way they did against the Rams every week. It's how they looked when they started the season 3-0 and when they beat the Eagles 37-10 in Week 7.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys can be counted on for a fourth-down blunder, special teams gaffe or dubious late-game play-calling sequence whenever the score is tight and Garrett must make an actual decision. So if they don't roll out to a 28-7 halftime lead, they're in jeopardy of burying themselves in mistakes. And their defense gives up too much easy yardage against better opponents.

      

What happens next

To clinch the division, all the Cowboys have to do is play as well Sunday as they did when they beat the Eagles in Week 7. Even if they lose, they hold the tiebreaker edge over the Eagles and can win the NFC East at 8-8 by beating Washington and hoping the Eagles lose to the Giants in Week 17.

Folks, let's hope that we won't have to watch two NFC East games in Week 17 to determine who makes the playoffs. That's a sour way to end 2019.

     

Could they be playoff spoilers?

Cowboys wins and losses come in bunches: They started the season with a three-game winning streak but later endured two separate three-game losing streaks. If Sunday's win over the Rams sparks another winning streak, they could still be hot when the playoffs arrive, and they could catch a wild-card opponent like the 49ers coming off a tough, meaningful Week 17 road game.

With that said, the Cowboys lost to all of the real contenders (Patriots, Packers, Saints, Vikings) and wild-card hangers-on (Bills, Bears) they faced this year. Garrett's best Cowboys teams lost in the divisional round of the playoffs in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and those teams were far superior to this one. The Cowboys will ultimately knock themselves out of the playoffs, but they could well knock out a Super Bowl contender first.

   

Philadelphia Eagles

How we got here

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The Eagles entered the season as Super Bowl contenders. Then DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Jordan Howard all got hurt. The Eagles might have overcome the skill-position apocalypse, except their defense lacked both an elite edge-rusher and reliable cover corners, while numerous prospects from recent drafts (Sidney Jones, Mack Hollins, Derek Barnett and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside) either failed to develop or proved unready to contribute.

Fletcher Cox, Zach Ertz, the veteran offensive line and rookie running back Miles Sanders ensured that the Eagles remained competitive enough to hover around .500 against a soft schedule. But they needed late comebacks just to beat the lowly Giants and Washington after getting humiliated by the Dolphins three weeks ago. The Eagles belong in the same category as teams like the Falcons and Buccaneers, not in the Super Bowl conversation. 

     

What happens next

The Eagles plan to muddle through the next two weeks with practice squad frequent flyer Greg Ward as their top wide receiver and Arcega-Whiteside in Hollins' old role as the guy who runs decoy routes and negates long runs with downfield holding penalties. (Agholor could return, but he will still be Agholor). That means the passing game will continue to consist of Wentz pump-faking and either fumbling or hoping the defense forgets about Ertz. Defensively, the Eagles lack a single cornerback who can match up one-on-one with any Cowboys receiver. 

Seriously, if the Eagles win Sunday, Garrett should be forced to walk back to Texas from Philly. Barefoot. Clapping his hands the whole time.

     

Could they be playoff spoilers?

The Eagles did beat the Packers 34-27 earlier in the season, but Jeffery and Howard each had a big hand in that victory (as did the refs). Recent wins over the Bears and Bills indicate that the Eagles can hold their own against mid-tier competition, but any team that shows up at Lincoln Financial Field in January will be a heck of a lot better than the Bills or Bears.

It would be stunning for the Eagles to both reach the playoffs and be competitive in their current state. Yet they backed into the playoffs last year and ended up beating the Bears thanks to a blocked field goal and some leftover Nick Foles magic. So anything is possible.

Sunday's Cowboys-Eagles game is unlikely to be a masterpiece, and the winner will be little more than a speedbump on some other team's journey to the Super Bowl. But it's still meaningful December football between teams whose fanbases truly loathe each other. And at least both teams are in character: There's something very Philly sports about ruining it for everyone else because you can't have nice things, just as there's something very Dallas Cowboys about preening and underperforming while the whole nation either cheers or jeers you.

Both these teams will have to do some significant offseason soul-searching (and housecleaning) whether they win Sunday or not. For now, both teams get to battle for a playoff spot, even though neither of them truly belong.

         

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.