Friday, December 27, 2013

Previewing The Cowboys-Eagles "Do-Or-Die" Week 17 Showdown

For the third time in as many years, the Dallas Cowboys will close out the NFL's regular season in prime time, with a chance to capture the NFC East title. In 2011 they lost in week 17 to the New York Giants 31-14, opening the door for what would go on to become Big Blue's second Super Bowl run in four years. Last year, Dallas squandered their chances of post season glory by losing 28-18 to the Washington Redskins on Sunday night football. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw three interceptions that night, including a game sealing pick by linebacker Rob Jackson on a lob with just minutes to go and Dallas in the early stages of a would-be game winning drive.

This time around the Cowboys will host the red hot Philadelphia Eagles, fresh off their 54-11 bashing of the Bears. Dallas won 17-3 when these two teams faced off earlier in the year, but this time they will be without their shot caller, Tony Romo, in this do or die contest. The polarizing quarterback underwent season ending back surgery on Friday, leaving the fate of the season in Kyle Orton's hands (and neckbeard). Orton hasn't started a game since finishing up the 2011 season with the Chiefs after Tim Tebow took his job in Denver.

Meanwhile the Eagles are firing on all cylinders. They're averaging the second most points in the league at close to 30 per game, despite the two touchdownless outings where Matt Barkley was primarily at the helm. Head coach Chip Kelley is the orchestrator of this highly efficient offense that's been leaving opposing defensive coordinators head's spinning. LeSean McCoy leads the league in rushing by almost 200 yards, and Nick Foles (25 TDs, 2 INTs) has a higher quarterback rating than Peyton Manning. This historic offense is shattering records left and right, despite being dead last in the league in time of possession because they've been scoring so quickly.

Those anticipating a defensive battle with the division title on the line this Sunday might want to think again. Dallas allows more yards per game (418) than any team in the league and are 25th in points surrendered (27.2 points per game). To make matters worse, the Cowboys will also be without stud linebacker Stan Lee, who missed the previous two games with a neck injury, but had been optimistic about a possible week 17 return date. Lee's absence should open up the middle of the field and lead to a big day from the McCoy/Bryce Brown duo.

The absence of Romo could lead to an increased workload for Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. The third year back out of Oklahoma is in the midst of what has been by far his most productive season as pro, eclipsing one thousand yards on the ground while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. He's stayed relatively healthy, and has already scored double digit touchdowns on the year. Dallas has come under scrutiny this season for frequently abandoning the run. Most notedly in a 37-36 week 15 loss to the Packers that saw the team stick to the air despite a 23 point lead, only to have Romo throw it away with a pair of costly, fourth quarter interceptions. For the Cowboys to have any chance of winning they must sustain long drives by utilizing Murray in both the rushing and passing game to keep the soaring Eagles off the field for large chunks at a time.

But no matter what Dallas manages to do on offense, it will all be for naught if they can't contain Nick Foles- a feat that has been far easier said than done in 2013. In fact, the Cowboys are the only team this season to hold Foles below 200 yards and without a passing touchdown in the same game. But I, for one, am not counting on a repeat performance this time around. Foles is playing with the confidence of a quarterback who tied the record for most passing touchdowns in a game, and has turned guys like Riley Cooper into a household name (this time, for the right reasons).

Between the Eagles-Cowboys game Sunday night and the Packers-Bears game Sunday afternoon, football fans will get treated to two playoff caliber games a week before the big dance gets underway. But I think this is the last stop for the Cowboys. Without Romo, they simply won't have the fire power to go drive for drive with the most lethal offense in the NFC. Another 8-8 season for a team that's quietly evolved into the poster child for mediocrity in a era driven by parity. Watch as the Birds fly all the way up to the three seed.

Prediction: Eagles 38, Cowboys 17

-fresh (@danye33)

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