There have been times that Week 17 hasn't had much to offer in terms of competitive games, but this should be a superb matchup. The Cowboys haven't forgotten about being embarrassed by the Eagles, 44-6, in Week 17 last season. This time around, both teams have already qualified for the playoffs but they are each playing for the right to host at least one playoff game. I've spent hours in the Beast film room this week and I'm prepared to offer five key matchups that will prepare your hearts and minds for Sunday's big game:
Cowboys NT Jay Ratliff vs. Eagles C Nick Cole and RG Max Jean-Gilles: For the Eagles to sustain drives, they'll have to account for Ratliff on almost every snap. He has the rare combination of speed and power that makes it difficult to control him for prolonged periods of time. As you've probably heard by now, Cole's making his first start at center for the Eagles. Of course, he's started at left and right guard this season, but that's different than having to call out assignments to teammates. Fortunately for the Eagles, the Lawton, Okla., native is an intelligent player who does a nice job of adjusting on the fly. As long as Cole and quarterback Donovan McNabb have ironed out their snap-exchange issues from last Sunday, I don't think Cole will be much of a downgrade from Jamaal Jackson. Andy Reid would never say this publicly, but I believe there was a time this past offseason when he thought Cole might challenge Jackson for the starting center job. Now that Jackson's hurt, it seems like everyone in Philly is making him out to be some type of elite offensive lineman. He's certainly been effective and durable, but it's wrong to say he's irreplaceable. My bigger concern would be with Jean-Gilles. He and Cole have to be on the same page at all times. The Cowboys like to run a lot of slants with Ratliff, who's capable of jumping the snap and being in the backfield before a guard can get out of his stance. Jean-Gilles is somewhat of a mauler, but on Sunday he'll need to play under control. Ratliff's a highly intelligent player with a nonstop motor. If the Eagles can somehow neutralize him, they'll have a much better chance of moving the ball.
Cowboys LT Flozell Adams vs. Eagles RDE Trent Cole: These two players have had some pretty good battles over the years. Cole's relentless motor and his ability to get underneath Adams' pads gives him the advantage at this point in their careers. Adams is a false start waiting to happen, but he certainly does a better job at staying focused when the Cowboys are playing at home. When he wants to, Adams can still dominate an opposing player. But from game to game, you never know which player's going to show up. I look for Cole to go right at him with the bull-rush early in Sunday's game in order to set him up for some outside moves. I'm glad to see that players and coaches recognized Cole's ability and put him in the Pro Bowl. It's not like he needs to have two or three sacks to be effective. He simply needs to get as many knockdowns or hurries on quarterback Tony Romo as possible. If Romo starts thinking about the rush too much, the Eagles will have succeeded. I think this will be a matchup that folks are talking about Monday morning.
Tony Romo vs. Sean McDermott's blitz package: Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett had no clue how to protect Romo against Jim Johnson's blitzes in last season's 44-6 loss. It was another masterful performance by Johnson and it was a game that haunted Romo throughout the offseason. He and Garrett have done a much better job this season of taking advantage of pressure. In the first matchup between the Eagles and Cowboys, Romo was sacked four times. But he also beat the Eagles on a 49-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin that changed the game. If you don't get to Romo right away, he'll find Austin streaking across the middle. And with the way the Eagles' secondary tackles, that's a dangerous proposition. McDermott loves to line up nickel cornerback Joselio Hanson in the slot and send him on blitzes. He had some success against the 49ers and Broncos with that approach. McDermott doesn't blitz as much as Johnson, but he does seem to choose his spots well. And don't forget that former Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart is coaching the Eagles' secondary this season. Stewart has a great feel for the Cowboys' offensive personnel, so that could be a factor on Sunday.
Cowboys TE Jason Witten vs. Eagles defense: Witten absolutely loves facing the Eagles. For whatever reason, Jim Johnson never really found an answer for the Pro Bowl tight end. He has 70 catches for 835 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games against the Eagles. He's the master at setting up routes and he always did a nice job of exposing middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who now rotates with Akeem Jordan at middle linebacker. The Eagles will try a variety of things against Witten. They may try to figure out how to get Hanson on Witten or they may even chip him with a linebacker before passing him off to safety Quintin Mikell. McDermott has a ton of respect for Witten and that's where a lot of his preparation will be leading up to the game.
Eagles TE Brent Celek vs. Cowboys defense: Celek arrives in Arlington, Texas, with a chip on his shoulder after not making the Pro Bowl team even though he has seven more touchdowns than Witten this season. It's not like he begrudges Witten, though, because he's studied and learned from the Cowboys tight end ever since he entered the league three years ago. Celek is an extremely intelligent and physical player. He caught a touchdown pass against the Cowboys in the last game but he only had three catches for 39 yards. Last week, he had three catches of 30 yards or more and he's averaged 19.1 yards per catch over the past three games. If the Cowboys focus too much on DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, Celek will make them pay. And since I brought up Jackson's name, I think the Cowboys will play him straight up and not have Mike Jenkins follow him around the way Champ Bailey did last week. Jackson didn't have a big game against the Cowboys earlier this season, but he's obviously capable of going off at any moment.
Happy New Year! And enjoy the game.