The Panthers need tackles, the Saints need pass-rushers, the Bucs need a safety, while the conference champs need help on... offense?
24 Dec 2006
by Aaron Schatz
A Christmas Day special brings us a hard-fought division rivalry between the only two teams in the NFC that are not 7-8 right now. (OK, it only seems that way...)
When the Eagles sacked Drew Bledsoe seven times in a 38-24 October win, it was hard to imagine that this week's Eagles-Cowboys rematch would decide the NFC East. At that point, with Donovan McNabb playing like an MVP candidate, the Eagles looked like the much superior team.
When the Eagles lost McNabb to a season-ending ACL injury one month ago, it was hard to imagine that this week's Eagles-Cowboys rematch would decide the NFC East. At that point, with Bledsoe's replacement Tony Romo playing like an MVP candidate, the Cowboys looked like the much superior team.
The lesson, of course, is that nobody should watch the NFL with a narrow imagination. Romo came back to earth when the Saints whipped the Cowboys two weeks ago, but a win this week gives Dallas the NFC East title. If Philadelphia wins its fourth straight game, they'll have the tiebreaker advantage going into the final week.
Lurking in the background of this game is the feud between the Eagles and their ex-teammate, Dallas wide receiver Terrell Owens. Nobody on the Eagles wants to show up Owens more than Garcia. When Owens and Garcia played together on the San Francisco 49ers, Owens ripped his quarterback in the press; after he left the 49ers, Owens famously did an interview with Playboy where he insinuated that Garcia was a homosexual. He continued to criticize Garcia even though they were no longer teammates, until last year, when Owens stopped attacking Garcia during interviews and started attacking McNabb and the Eagles instead.
Just in case playoff implications and personality conflicts don't provide enough of a storyline for NBC, this game should also be close to the end, because these teams are equally matched. Using a formula which gives more weight to recent games, the Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings (DVOA) rank the Cowboys as the seventh best team in the league, with the Eagles eighth.
After breaking down each play of the season and comparing it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent, the DVOA ratings rank these teams fifth and sixth in offense. The Eagles have a slight advantage on defense, the Cowboys on special teams.
To most fans, it looks like the Eagles have turned things around, but things were never going backwards in the first place. Philadelphia was one of the best, most consistent teams early in the season, losing games on absurd luck, like Tampa Bay hitting the third-longest NFL field goal of all time. The defense had some problems tackling at midseason, but otherwise, the Eagles have played well all year.
McNabb's injury may be the only similarity between this year's Eagles and the disappointing Eagles of 2005. Last year, the Eagles collapsed because McNabb was one of many players to go down in a cascade of injuries. This year's Eagles, except for McNabb, are as healthy as they've ever been. For example, nickel back Roderick Hood might actually be the Eagles' best cornerback, and he's finally healthy again. That's important against a team that likes to go three-wide and empty-backfield as often as the Cowboys.
Meanwhile, Garcia is no McNabb, but he hasn't been the washed-up veteran everyone expected either. He's completing 62 percent of his passes, with nine touchdowns and just one interception so far.
Philadelphia's offensive game plan has not changed at all since Garcia replaced McNabb, and that sets up the main strategic battle of this game. Each team's preferred offensive strategy matches up with the other team's defensive weakness.
The Eagles are very efficient when Brian Westbrook runs the ball -- he's averaging 5.1 yards per carry -- but they still run less than any other team with a winning record. They'll throw plenty against a Dallas defense that ranks eighth in DVOA against the run, but 22nd in DVOA against the pass. The Cowboys actually ranked seventh in pass defense two weeks ago, until the Giants and Saints both passed on them with impunity.
Tthe Saints ripped the Cowboys apart with the explosive Reggie Bush catching passes out of the backfield and long bombs to Devery Henderson. In Westbrook, the Eagles have a more experienced, slightly less dexterous version of Bush, and they too love to throw deep. In the first game, the Eagles had touchdown passes of 87 and 40 yards, and a 60-yard bomb to tight end L.J. Smith. All three of those plays came thanks to coverage mistakes by rookie safety Pat Watkins. Watkins was benched after that -- but as of last week, he's back in the starting lineup, and the Eagles receivers are licking their chops.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, alternate a power running game featuring Julius Jones and Marion Barber with three- and four-wide sets that feature two of the top receivers in the game, Owens and Terry Glenn. As noted earlier, the Eagles can have trouble tackling running backs; they rank seventh in DVOA against the pass, but 17th against the run.
When their opponents pass, the Eagles excel at rushing the passer, and preventing gains on passes to running backs and tight ends. But the Eagles have a below-average DVOA against wide receivers. Cornerback Lito Sheppard, in particular, has a gambling style that makes both interceptions and big gains more common. And like the Cowboys, the Eagles are having a problem with pass coverage at the safety position. Brian Dawkins is as great as always, but former All-Pro Michael Lewis has lost his starting job to Sean Considine and is being used more often as a blitzing linebacker. The Eagles had trouble covering both Glenn and Owens in the first meeting, and they got a bit lucky when Owens dropped some easy catches.
Standard home-field advantage gives Dallas an edge in this game, but just a slight one. No matter who comes out on top on Christmas, don't be surprised to see these teams meet for a third time in January.
This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
12 comments, Last at 25 Dec 2006, 3:25pm by Harris