NFL Playoff Preview - Philadelphia (11-5) at Dallas (11-5)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The surroundings are the same, but the stakes will be even higher when the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles square off for the second time in less than a week this Saturday in an NFC Wild Card showdown from Cowboys Stadium.
These two bitter rivals locked horns in Arlington this past Sunday with an NFC East title on the line, with the Cowboys rising up and delivering a 24-0 triumph over the Eagles in a surprisingly one-sided affair. The victory gave Dallas the No. 3 seed for this year's conference postseason tournament and dropped Philadelphia, which would have claimed the second seed and an advantageous opening-round bye with a win, down to the sixth and final slot in the bracket.
That hasn't shown to be a detriment in the past for the Eagles, however. Also seeded sixth in last year's NFC Playoffs, Philadelphia knocked off both Minnesota and the New York Giants on the road to advance to the conference title game, where the team came out on the short end of a 32-25 decision to Arizona.
The Eagles also have postseason history working in their favor, having gone 7-0 in their first playoff matchup of a year under longtime head coach Andy Reid. Four of those wins have come in the Wild Card Round, including last season's 26-14 besting of the Vikings in Minneapolis.
That kind of success has eluded the Cowboys for more than a decade. Dallas has endured five consecutive playoff losses since a 40-15 drubbing of Minnesota in an NFC Wild Card game that took place on December 28, 1996.
Quarterback Tony Romo was under center for two of those setbacks, the most memorable being a 21-20 opening-round loss at Seattle in which the standout signal-caller botched the snap from center to prevent a potential game-winning field goal with just over a minute remaining.
Romo also had a big impact in the outcome of Dallas' most recent outing, throwing for 311 yards and a pair of touchdowns to help key last weekend's rout of Philadelphia. The Cowboys rolled up 474 total yards as a team on the afternoon, while also receiving another stout effort from a defense that limited the high-powered Eagles to 228 yards in posting its second straight shutout.
Philadelphia also had its troubles moving the ball in the first encounter between these teams this season, managing a modest 297 total yards in a frustrating 20-16 home defeat to Dallas in Week 9. The Eagles had ripped off six consecutive wins prior to last Sunday's disappointment and averaged an impressive 31.2 points per game over that stretch.
The Cowboys enter Saturday's rematch on a three-game winning streak and will be vying to give head coach Wade Phillips his first playoff victory. The well- traveled defensive guru is 0-4 all-time in postseason games, including Dallas' 21-17 upset loss to the New York Giants in the Divisional Round as the NFC's No. 1 seed during the 2007 campaign.
A win would also send the Cowboys to Minnesota for a second-round tilt with the NFC North champion Vikings on January 17. If the Eagles prevail, they will visit top-seeded New Orleans on January 16.
The Cowboys have a 2-1 edge in postseason games against the Eagles. Philadelphia was a 20-7 winner over Dallas in the 1980 NFC Championship, while the Cowboys won NFC Divisional Playoff games over Philadelphia following the 1992 and 1995 seasons. Dallas has never defeated the Eagles three times in one season.
The Cowboys hold a 55-43 advantage in their all-time regular season series with the Eagles, including the aforementioned home-and-home sweep during the 2009 regular season. Dallas notched a 20-16 victory when the teams met at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 9, and finished the sweep with last week's 24-0 rout. The clubs embarked on a conventional split of last year's home-and- home, with Dallas winning a 41-37 home thriller in Week 2 and the Eagles answering with the previously-noted 44-6 home rout to score a playoff berth in Week 17. Philadelphia last won in Dallas in 2007, earning a 10-6 win at Texas Stadium.
Reid has a career record of 14-8 against the Cowboys. Phillips is 5-2 all-time against both Philadelphia and Reid all-time, with the first of those wins coming in the form of a 26-0 rout for Phillips' Bills over the Eagles in 1999.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia spent the week attempting to get a usually-potent passing attack that was stymied by the Cowboys in the regular-season finale back up to speed, a vital element to the team's chances of advancing. Quarterback Donovan McNabb (3553 passing yards, 22 TD, 10 INT) completed just 20-of-36 passes for a non- threatening 223 yards last Sunday while constantly under siege from a persistent Dallas rush, and the Eagles essentially abandoned the running game after falling behind 17-0 late in the first half. Tight end Brent Celek (76 receptions, 8 TD), Philly's leader in receptions, still remained productive by hauling in seven McNabb strikes for 96 yards as the featured target, and both he and reliable slot receiver Jason Avant (41 receptions, 3 TD) figure to get plenty of looks this weekend with the Cowboys focused on containing young wideouts DeSean Jackson (63 receptions, 1167 yards, 9 TD) and Jeremy Maclin (55 receptions, 4 TD), the offense's best big-play threats. The Eagles would also benefit from a little more balance than they showed last week, when the club attempted just 10 runs that totaled a mere 37 yards. There's a wealth of options to choose from in the backfield now that the dangerous Brian Westbrook (274 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 2 TD) is all the way back from a concussion that caused him to miss half the regular season, but Philadelphia still must account for the season-ending loss of its best run blocker, center Jamaal Jackson, to a torn ACL in a late-December win over Denver.
Even if their front line was at full strength, the Eagles may have had a difficult time gaining yards on the ground on a Dallas defense that finished fourth in the league against the run (90.5 ypg) and has yielded a minuscule 54.5 rushing yards per game over the past four weeks. Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff (40 tackles, 6 sacks) and veteran inside linebacker Keith Brooking (106 tackles, 3 sacks) headline a sturdy interior group, with premier pass- rusher DeMarcus Ware (57 tackles, 11 sacks) and emerging star Anthony Spencer (67 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) forming a disruptive outside linebacker duo that gave the Eagles fits a week ago. The former tallied a league-best 20 sacks in 2008, while the latter took McNabb to the turf twice in last Sunday's win. The two were aided by strong coverage from cornerbacks Terence Newman (57 tackles, 3 INT, 18 PD) and Mike Jenkins (49 tackles, 5 INT, 19 PD), both of whom were able to keep Philadelphia's explosive wideouts under wraps. The Cowboys ended the year ranked second in the NFL in scoring defense (15.6 ppg) and held four of their final seven opponents to seven points or less.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
A Dallas offense that trailed only New Orleans for tops in the NFL in total yards (399.4 ypg) was firing on all cylinders in last week's pivotal matchup. Romo's precise passing was complemented nicely by the running back tandem of Marion Barber (932 rushing yards, 7 TD, 26 receptions) and Felix Jones (685 rushing yards, 3 TD, 19 receptions), who combined for a whopping 182 rushing yards on 29 carries behind one of the best lines in the business. Center Andre Gurode and guard Leonard Davis each garnered Pro Bowl recognition for their work in the trenches, while left guard Kyle Kosier made a strong case for inclusion with an outstanding year as well. Wide receiver Miles Austin (81 receptions, 1320 yards, 11 TD) and tight end Jason Witten (94 receptions, 2 TD), also received all-star honors as the two main weapons in the Cowboys' sixth-ranked aerial assault (267.9 ypg), while slotman Patrick Crayton (37 receptions, 5 TD) needs to be accounted for as well. He hurt the Eagles with 99 yards and a touchdown on four grabs in the finale. Romo (4483 passing yards, 26 TD, 9 INT) shattered his own team record for passing yards and comes into the playoffs on a good roll, having turned the ball over just three times over the final seven regular-season tests. The Cowboys had a scant 19 giveaways for the year, the third-lowest total in the league.
The 179 rushing yards Dallas compiled last week were the most allowed this season by a normally-solid Philadelphia defense that ended the regular season ninth overall in that category (104.7 ypg). The unit's forte, however, is its ability to pressure the opposition into mistakes. The Eagles' 38 takeaways in 2009 were the third-most in the NFL, while their 44 sacks tied for third among the 32 teams. There are terrific playmakers both up front and in the backfield, as two-time Pro Bowler Trent Cole (57 tackles, 12.5 sacks) is one of the game's elite all-around ends and cornerback Asante Samuel (40 tackles, 16 PD) tied for the league lead with nine interceptions. The aggressive seven- year pro is part of a quality secondary that contains two other impact players in veteran corner Sheldon Brown (51 tackles, 5 INT, 17 PD) and strong safety Quintin Mikell (91 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD), the club's top tackler. Injuries have forced first-year coordinator Sean McDermott to shuffle the linebacking corps, but the late-year return of middle man Akeem Jordan (71 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) has helped solidify things and 32-year-old Jeremiah Trotter (32 tackles) is still an effective run-stopper when used in a rotation.
If this game comes down to the kickers, then it's advantage Eagles. Philadelphia's David Akers earned his fourth career Pro Bowl nod by converting 32-of-37 field goal attempts, including 12-of-16 tries from 40 yards or beyond. The Cowboys' Shaun Suisham, on the other hand, missed a 30-yarder in last week's victory and failed on a few critical kicks while with Washington earlier in the season, which led to his release.
Dallas is in better shape at the punter position, where native Australian Mat McBriar boasts one of the league's strongest legs and placed an excellent 39 kicks inside the 20-yard line. Kickoff specialist David Buehler has been a weapon as well, with 23 of the rookie's boots going for touchbacks. The Eagles also sport an Aussie punter in 36-year-old Saverio Rocca, who placed in the middle of the pack with a 42.1 yard average this season.
There are game-changing return men on both sides, with DeSean Jackson finishing atop the NFL with a 15.2 average taking back punts and the Cowboys' Crayton landing third in that category at 12.1 yards per return. Both scored two touchdowns on special teams this season. The Eagles are hoping Quintin Demps, their best kick returner (25.8 avg.), will be able to go after sitting out the final two regular-season tests with a sprained ankle. Jones takes care of those duties for Dallas, but averaged a pedestrian 22.6 yards per runback.
The days leading up to this game have revealed an awful lot about the public perception of both these teams, likely based on their polar-opposite performances in the postseason over the past few years. If the Cowboys had entered the playoffs off a 24-point loss in a meaningful finale, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone other than the most hardcore of fans with an optimistic outlook about their chances on Saturday. The Eagles' utterly-awful showing of last week -- even with so much on the line -- has drawn mostly shrugs from the pundits and prognosticators, however, as well as the worn-out mantra of how difficult it is to beat an opponent three times in one year. While that may be true, Dallas clearly was the better of these two foes in as close to a playoff setting as a regular-season game can provide, so it's hard to envision a drastically different outcome this time around. Reid and his accomplished staff will come up with the adjustments to make the sequel a more entertaining and competitive affair, but the ending may wind up being the same.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 24, Eagles 13