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Eagles at Cowboys Game Preview: 5 questions and answers with the Week 16 enemy

Rival perspective on Philadelphia’s upcoming Christmas Eve matchup.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
Nov 19, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham (55) sacks Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) in the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Eagles are on the road for the third straight week to face the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on Christmas Eve. In order to preview this big Week 16 matchup, I reached out to our enemies over at Blogging The Boys. The dashing Dave Halprin took the time to answer my questions about this upcoming battle. Let’s take a look at the answers. [For my answers to Dave’s questions about the Eagles, check out BTB.]

Our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook have all of the odds for this week’s games.

1) The Cowboys very nearly lost at home to the Texans and then got beat by the Jaguars (shout out Doug Pederson). What’s gone wrong? What should the Eagles be looking to exploit?

There have been a few things that have gone wrong recently, some that are new and some that are lingering problems. On defense, the Cowboys have lost two starting cornerbacks, Anthony Brown on the outside and Jourdan Lewis in the slot. DaRon Bland has done a good job of filling in at the slot, but the Cowboys just don’t have a competent outside corner for Brown’s spot yet. So teams are certainly looking in that direction for big plays. Additionally, the Cowboys pass rush has tanked the last couple of games, leaving the pass defense even more vulnerable. Teams are getting the ball out quicker because the corners are not as good at shutting things down, leading to a cascade effect. To top it off, the injury to Johanthn Hankins has opened up the running game for the opposition again, just as the Cowboys were starting to get a handle on it.

Offensively, the turnovers, mainly interceptions, are the big issue. I’ll discuss this in more detail for your second question. Additionally, the Cowboys lost right tackle Terence Steele who was a monster at run blocking. The Cowboys offensive line is definitely susceptible to a pass rush, and Dak Prescott has been good at keeping the sack numbers low with quick releases and mobility. One issue that is becoming more of an issue is Dallas was counting on Michael Gallup to be a viable WR2 to CeeDee Lamb’s WR1. That hasn’t really happened as his recovery from last year’s ACL injury seems to be slow. That’s why the Cowboys are chasing guys like T.Y. Hilton (who should make his debut Saturday) and Odell Beckham Jr. which sounds like it won’t be happening.

In summary, injuries have exposed the Cowboys lack of depth at certain positions, and teams are learning how to exploit Dallas’ weaknesses. The defense was the Cowboys saving grace whenever they got into trouble this season, but that has faltered recently.

2) To what extent is Dak Prescott to blame for the Cowboys’ struggles? Why is he throwing so many interceptions this season?

This is probably the hottest question right now. Let’s get the good out of the way. If you remove the interceptions from the equation, Prescott is having a very good season. Since he returned from injury, the Cowboys have been among the league leaders in points scored and his numbers are near the top in most categories. The Cowboys offense is moving and scoring, until the turnovers happen. So Prescott is really playing at a high level in so many ways, until you throw in the interception rate.

So how much of that is on Prescott? It depends on how you parse it. For instance, the pick-six that ended the Jaguars game in overtime last week was a pass that hit his receiver right in the hands. It was a very basic catch, and Noah Brown just missed it and caused the interception. That you really have to put on the receiver. But there have been other instances where it is more nuanced. Prescott has had times where a secondary receiver ran the wrong route and brought another defender into the area of his target. So is that on the receiver, or is it on Prescott for following through on his intended target only for another defender to jump in and intercept the ball? He also had a couple of interceptions where it appeared CeeDee Lamb pulled up or went behind the safety, instead of crossing his face as the route called for, leading to the turnover. Other times, Prescott was hit by the pass rush when throwing, causing the ball to go off target and into the hands of the opposition.

It’s not like Prescott is just handing out interceptions by throwing right at defenders. There have been a lot of factors going into these. Obviously Prescott bears some responsibility as he is the guy making the decision of where and when to throw, but his high interception rate certainly has attributable factors from other players on offense. In the end, though, it’s on Prescott to figure this out. He just has to take better care of the ball.

3) Is it unfair to say this week is kind of a no-win situation for the Cowboys? If they beat Gardner Minshew, they motivate the Eagles to play their starters in Week 17 to both clinch the No. 1 seed and make the Saints pick owed to Philly more favorable. And it’s not like the Cowboys realistically have a ton to gain since they’re virtually locked in to the No. 5 seed. If they lose to Gardner Minshew, they lose to a backup QB at home to allow Philly to clinch the No. 1 seed at AT&T Stadium on Christmas Eve.

It is strange to say, but as a Cowboys fan I would have preferred that Jalen Hurts was healthy and able to play this week. The Cowboys need a statement, confidence-building win and nothing would have done that more than beating the best team in the NFL right now with their starting quarterback. There are still playoff seeding issues to be considered for both teams, but more than anything the Cowboys need to get back to where they were a few weeks ago when it felt like they could play with anybody in the league. That feeling has gone away, but it would have returned if they could have beat the Eagles and Hurts.

Having said that, it is not a no-win situation for the Cowboys because if they lose at home to the Eagles with Minshew at quarterback, then their confidence will probably be shot. Dallas almost has to win this game or face the risk of things crumbling even further. The Cowboys may not gain much in the eyes of the rest of the league by beating the Eagles without Hurts, and I wouldn’t blame Eagles fans for dismissing it if it did happen. But for the Cowboys, they need this win. It’s very important for their psyche.

4) Assuming the Cowboys end up with the No. 5 seed, they’re going to play the winner of a wide open NFC South in the wild card round. How would you rank the teams in that division from least desirable to most desirable to face and why?

Least desirable to play would definitely be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And yes, for one simple reason, Tom Brady. I know that the Bucs are not a great team right now and that Brady’s season is not up to his usual standards, but for one game, the old Brady magic could return. It’s a quarterback league and the best quarterback in that division is Brady, so avoiding him would be best.

Next in order of least desirable would be the Saints. They just seem to have more playmakers than the other two teams and they at least have a veteran quarterback who has been in the playoffs, and a change-of-pace quarterback who can be a weapon.

As for the Panthers and Falcons, it’s almost a toss up although the Panthers may be a slightly better overall team.

5) Who wins this game and why? With DraftKings Sportsbook listing the Cowboys as 5-point favorites, what’s your score prediction? And what are your expectations for the rest of this Cowboys season?

I guess I’ll take the Cowboys even though I don’t have a lot of confidence right now. And that pick is obviously because I don’t think Jalen Hurts is going to play. Still, the Eagles have a very strong roster and Minshew isn’t the worst quarterback you can throw out there. Heck, he’s better than many starting quarterbacks in this league. But taking away all the things Hurts can do will have to hurt some. So I’ll take the Cowboys in a close one, maybe something like 27-24.

As for expectations for the rest of the season, I’ll have to say that is TBD. And that is not just avoiding the question, that is for real. The Cowboys have shown they can be a very good team, one capable of beating anyone. They have also shown they have issues, especially with depth after some injuries have hit. T.Y. Hilton could be a big addition for the team if he has anything left in the tank. They could really use someone opposite CeeDee Lamb. But the two most important issues for the Cowboys is to find a competent outside corner somewhere on their roster to play opposite Trevon Diggs, and for the interceptions to stop. If they can manage that, they are right back among the elite teams.

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