When: Thursday, 4:30 p.m. ET. Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas. TV: Fox
The last time the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys met in December 2013, the NFC East title and a playoff spot was on the line. The Cowboys were without their starting quarterback, Tony Romo, who had back surgery two days prior.
When the Eagles and Cowboys meet Thursday at AT&T Stadium, first place in the NFC East is on the line, if not a playoff spot. The Eagles will be without their starting quarterback, Nick Foles, who is recovering from a broken collarbone.
NFL Nation Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer offer up this week's preview as these teams meet for just the second time on Thanksgiving. Philadelphia won that first Thanksgiving meeting 27-0 in 1989, Jerry Jones' first year as the Cowboys' owner and general manager:
Archer: With Foles out, has the offense changed with Mark Sanchez at quarterback or does Chip Kelly do what he does regardless of who is in there?
Sheridan: Kelly takes pride in adjusting his offense to fit his quarterback. So yes, there have been some changes. The Eagles' 43-24 win over Tennessee on Sunday marked the first time they didn't run a single read-option play in a game since Kelly has been here, for example. Some of that was a response to the Titans' defense, but it also seems to be something Sanchez isn't (A) as good at or (B) as comfortable with.
The Eagles haven't been throwing the ball deep as much, either. The coaches say that isn't deliberate. The quarterback has deep-to-short options on many plays, and Foles seemed more comfortable taking the deep shots while Sanchez has tended to wait and come back to the shorter throw. That might even out over time as Sanchez plays more.
The main thing Foles and Sanchez have in common is turnovers. Foles threw 10 interceptions and lost three fumbles before breaking his collarbone. Sanchez has thrown six picks and lost two fumbles since replacing Foles. Talk about consistent production from the quarterback spot!
I got home from Sunday's Eagles game in time to catch most of the Cowboys-Giants game. It would have been easy for the Boys to write that off as a tough road loss. But they fought their way back and didn't let up until they had the win. Between that and the way Romo is playing in pain, does this Cowboys team feel different from the 8-8 squads of the past few years? If so, in what ways?
Archer: I'm not sure I've figured this team out, and maybe that's because of the Cowboys' recent past. It's almost as if you're just waiting for things to fall apart. But they haven't. They were down big at St. Louis and they came back to win. They were trailing at Seattle and came back and won. They were down against the Giants and came back.
They have definitely shown more resiliency than they have in the past. Coach Jason Garrett often talks about the "right kind of guy." There has been quite a bit of changeover since he has become the coach. I think that's been a part of it, but I think it's something really simple, too: They're playing better. They might not be the most talented, but they play hard. They understand the formula that it takes to win. Perhaps most importantly: They have bought into Garrett's week-to-week mantra. Maybe some teams in the past would've fallen into a trap, but this team hasn't. At least not yet.
LeSean McCoy looked like LeSean McCoy against the Tennessee Titans, which might not be good news for the Cowboys. Much has been made about McCoy's yards per carry. Is it a case of teams figuring out the scheme or the line not playing as well or McCoy not playing as well? Or is it all of the above?
Sheridan: I'll go with all of the above. It all started with the injuries to the offensive line. The Eagles lost Pro Bowl left guard Evan Mathis, center and blocking-scheme signal-caller Jason Kelce and veteran right guard Todd Herremans for stretches. Right tackle Lane Johnson was suspended for the first four games. So only left tackle Jason Peters has been out there for every game.
Now you mix in the fact defenses have continually tried things the Eagles hadn't seen on film in their preparations. Without Kelce to figure that stuff out and make adjustments, it seemed there weren't many holes for McCoy to run through. And when there are holes, they aren't there very long. So McCoy started running laterally, looking for some space. That led to a bunch of tackles for losses, which obviously brings the average down, too.
Now the line is as healthy as it's going to get this season. It took a couple of games for Mathis and Kelce to get back in a groove. Against Tennessee, they looked more like themselves -- dictating the game, getting McCoy to the second level with a blocker or two leading the way, etc. The Cowboys will provide an interesting test of whether that was a major step for the Eagles or just a function of playing the Titans.
The word before the season was that the Cowboys' defense might be historically bad. Instead, it has been a big part of the team's rise to the top of the NFC East. Everyone says Rod Marinelli gets guys to play hard, but it has to be more than that. Who are the guys who have turned that defense around?
Archer: You mentioned the guy in your question: Marinelli. He has done a terrific job. So have his assistant coaches. They don't have the most talent and have questions at every level. They don't rush the passer well enough. They have issues in coverage at the linebacker and secondary level. But they somehow get the job done.
The biggest difference-maker as a player has been Rolando McClain. He has been a revelation. There is no way anybody could have expected a player who sat out last year and did not play to his draft selection in Oakland to play as well as he has played. According to the Cowboys' coaches breakdown, he leads the Cowboys in tackles. He's tied for the lead in interceptions. He has made big plays at big moments. But the Cowboys' role players, such as Jeremy Mincey, Tyrone Crawford, Anthony Hitchens, Barry Church and Orlando Scandrick, have made plays in big moments, too.
I still have a lot of questions about the defense and keep waiting for them to get truly exposed. It's happened on a few occasions, but nothing prolonged. I look at the Eagles' defense and I see a lot of issues. What hasn't translated to success for them this season, and is any part of it due to how the offense plays?
Sheridan: Probably. The offense is part of the equation. We're acclimated to watching it, so we probably forget at times that it has a tendency to strand the defense on the field for too long. Then again, if the defense could stop someone on third down, it could get itself off the field, too.
The Eagles have been pretty good against lesser quarterbacks: Zach Mettenberger, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kirk Cousins. They played well and got pressure against Eli Manning and Cam Newton, too. But really good quarterbacks -- Carson Palmer, Colin Kaepernick, Aaron Rodgers (especially Rodgers) -- have beaten the Eagles this season.
That makes Romo a really tough out for this defense. He can move around and extend plays, like Rodgers and Kaepernick. He can make all the throws, like Rodgers and Palmer. He has a ridiculous array of weapons at his disposal, including a running game that is leading the NFL right now. The Eagles' defense has to find a way to get Romo uncomfortable and making quick decisions, or it's going to be a long day.
Early in the season, we all wondered whether DeMarco Murray would wear down as the season went on. Here it is, Week 13, and Murray is coming off a 24-carry, 121-yard rushing night. Is he capable of cranking out a few big games as the weather turns and running the ball becomes paramount?
Archer: At this point in the season I don't think the Cowboys are worrying about him wearing down at all. He's had injuries in the past, but that's the past. He changed up his offseason work and spent a lot of time with Jason Witten. That's helped. But this is one of those seasons where everything has come together for him.
The Cowboys are not going to back away from Murray, especially down the stretch. They'll need him to carry the load. He's on pace for a team record and is chasing 2,000 yards. He will get the opportunity. The Cowboys will not change their ways. They'll run the ball, and that may sound funny to a guy who's seen the Cowboys throw and throw and throw.
The Cowboys have limited his snaps to some degree, and that will help him in the final five games.