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4 questions that could define the Eagles-Cowboys game

How about them Eagles?

NFL: OCT 30 Steelers at Eagles Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A week ago this installment of Eagles vs Cowboys looked to be a big game. Direct playoff implications, the biggest head to head since the 2013 season finale which was essentially a play-in game. And on Christmas Eve? Huge.

Now though the game is low stakes for the Eagles with Jalen Hurts out for the game. There is still something to play for, an Eagles win would clinch the NFC East, the #1 seed in the NFC, and give the Eagles their first sweep of the Cowboys since 2011. But a loss to Dallas wouldn’t change the trajectory of this season, they only need to win one of their three remaining games to lock up the top seed. Meanwhile the Cowboys have an extremely narrow path to winning the division that requires them to win out and the Eagles to lose out, so this is a must win game for them to avoid starting the playoffs on the road. But even if they win out they still need help.

So one could be forgiven about not getting worked up about this game. Bragging rights are nice, but the standings do not care how or when the Eagles win one more game, just that they win one more game. That adds an element of gamesmanship. Which creates some intrigue of its own.

How seriously do the Eagles treat this game?

The second Eagles-Cowboys game last year, in Week 18, was played under similar circumstances. The Cowboys had already won the division, the only thing left to sort out was playoff seeding positioning, which wasn’t entirely in the Eagles hands, there were scenarios where losing meant they would play the Buccaneers, and scenarios were winning meant they would play the Buccaneers. And of course they would play the Buccaneers. So they rested everyone of consequence that they could, which is exactly what they should have done. The Cowboys did not and rolled to the most empty calorie 51 point performance imaginable.

Might we see a repeat performance? It could work in the Eagles favor to treat this game the same way.

I would add that with Jalen Hurts expected recovery time to have him back in time for the Giants, it would be reasonable to play starters for a couple of possessions in that game to keep Hurts sharp, then pull everyone. But yes, the funniest and best long term outcome would be treat the Saints game as must win and the divisional games as preseason games.

The Eagles need to not completely implode to get the 1 seed. The Cowboys are all but locked into the 5 seed. Don’t overthink this, let everyone enjoy the holidays without additional worry.

Nick Sirianni and Shane Steichen vs Dan Quinn, now or later?

Something that has really impressed me this season is that the next time Nick Sirianni is outcoached will be the first. The Eagles have had some weird games, trailing the Colts until the end, unable to get out of first gear against the Bears for way too long, and the loss to the Commanders. but at best the opposition coaches held the Eagles coaches to a draw and the rest was decided by the players (and referees). There were things the coaches could have done better, but Sirianni and his staff have earned their 13-1 record.

In the first Cowboys game Sirianni schooled the Cowboys. Micah Parsons might win Defensive Player of the Year, but the Eagles game plan erased him. Having Lane Johnson gives the Eagles an advantage over anyone, but the Cowboys moved Parsons all over the field and it didn’t matter.

With fully healthy teams, this is where the chess match would be. Dan Quinn countering what the Eagles did in the first game. Nick Sirianni and Shane Steichen countering his counters. Quinn countering that, the Eagles countering the counters, and so on.

Instead we are getting Gardner Minshew. Minshew is a fine backup but obviously not the running threat that Hurts is, which will change how the Eagles offense operates, and how the Cowboys defense responds. And that would benefit the Eagles.

Because why put anything on tape? It’s quite likely that the Eagles will play the Cowboys for a third time in the playoffs. As it stands today, the Eagles would get the bye. The Vikings and 49ers will play either the Giants, Commanders, or Seahawks. The Buccaneers and Cowboys need a lot of strange things out of their control to happen to not meet as the 4 vs 5 seeds. It is not at all hard to see the Vikings, 49ers, and Cowboys advancing in the first round. Which would set up Eagles vs Cowboys in the divisional round.

Nick Sirianni has done a great job of keeping his team focused on the week in front of them. With Jalen Hurts well, hurt, this week he should be thinking about the future and treat this like a preseason game. The Cowboys won’t. As we saw last year, it’s not in their nature. Let them do their thing and save your ammo.

Can Dallas Goedert have a big game?

On paper, this is both a bad game for Goedert, and one for opportunity.

It’s a potentially bad matchup because the Cowboys defense has been effective against tight ends this season. They’ve given up the 13th most receptions, but just the 6th fewest yards and only 1 touchdown, and they’re 7th in DVOA against TEs. They’ve played a bunch of bad tight ends throughout the season, but the best they’ve faced they’ve kept in check. They held Goedert to 2 catches for 22 yards on 6 attempts, TJ Hockenson to 4 catches for 48 yards when he was with the Lions and 5 catches for 34 yards with the Vikings, and last week even with things falling apart Evan Engram needed 8 catches to get to 62 yards.

But there should be opportunities for him to outplay what the Cowboys have given up.

Leighton Vander Esch is out for this game after suffering a pinched nerve against the Jaguars. Micah Parsons did not practice Tuesday and Wednesday with illness, Mike McCarthy says the team is dealing with a bug, though so far Parsons is the only player to have been hit hard enough to miss time. No Vander Esch and a limited Parsons would help create some chances for Goedert. And judging by how this season has gone, the ball should come his way.

The Eagles offense has consistently fed their pass catchers when they go hungry. After AJ Brown had 155 yards in the season opener and Devonta Smith had none, Smith led the team in receptions the next week. After Smith had 169 yards in Week 3, Brown had 95 yards in Week 4, which was more than Smith and Dallas Goedert combined. The week after that, Smith and Goedert combined for 18 receptions. In Week 8 Brown had 156 yards and 3 TDs, the next week Goedert had his only 100 yard game of the season. Brown and Smith are coming off a combined 307 yard performance. If the pattern holds, Goedert should be in for more than his fair share of targets. And last year when Gardner Minshew started against the Jets, Dallas Goedert had 6 catches for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns.

I don’t think the Eagles are purposely denying one of the Smith/Brown Goedert trio in order to motivate them to have a big game the following week. But considering the egos of pass catchers and how they always want the ball, it isn’t the worst tactic and it’s working for them.

Seriously though if the trend continues this week it’s not because Dallas Goedert hasn’t caught a pass in six weeks, but because the match up allows it.

Can Gardner Minshew outplay Dak Prescott?

Let’s be honest. If the Cowboys beat the Eagles with Gardner Minshew, we’re going to discount it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A team losing on the road with their backup QB is a common occurrence in the NFL. When the Eagles beat the Cowboys with Cooper Rush starting for Dallas, it was totally fair for the Cowboys, their fans, and the media to devalue the win. And if the Jalen Hurts-less Eagles lose, it’ll be totally fair to devalue the Cowboys win.

But I like Gardner Minshew’s chances in this game.

In some areas, there isn’t really even a drop off from Hurts.

Dallas has an excellent pass rush, but they’re not getting a major advantage with this QB change. Minshew’s career sack rate is 7.0%, while Hurts is 6.9% for his career and 7.6% this season. Minshew’s average time to throw in 2020, the last season he played significant time, was 2.77 seconds, which was below average but not too long to be an issue, he was quicker than Kirk Cousins, the same as Dak Prescott, and 0.05 seconds behind Aaron Rodgers. This season Jalen Hurts’ time to throw average? 2.77 seconds, below average but quicker than Josh Allen, basically the same as Jared Goff, and 0.06 behind Dak Prescott.

Minshew will not remind anyone of Hurts, but he’s not tripping over himself out there either. Though we only have one real game as an Eagle to evaluate Minshew, and he was pretty good.

And for what it is worth, his teammates raved about his practice on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Dak Prescott is having the worst season of his career. He’s already thrown 11 interceptions, two shy of his career high, and his 3.9% interception rate—worst in the league—is over a full percentage point higher than his next worst season. His 6.9 yards per attempt are the second worst of his career and down over a yard from the previous three seasons.

Minshew and a vanilla offense can be enough against the Cowboys. If it isn’t, it’s nothing to worry about. But if it is, we’ll all have a merry Christmas.

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