Cowboys-Eagles matchup promises NFC East fireworks

The NFC East, after years in the doldrums, is back.

No division has more wins through five weeks (14). The Philadelphia Eagles (5-0), Dallas Cowboys (4-1) and New York Giants (4-1) have just two losses between them to this point. The Washington Commanders? Well, they’re 1-4.

The NFC East renaissance takes center stage when the undefeated Eagles host the Cowboys on Sunday night (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), with implications not just for the divisional race but in early jockeying for playoff positioning in the NFC. It features a pair of top-10 defenses, two quarterbacks in Jalen Hurts and Cooper Rush -- assuming Dak Prescott remains sidelined following thumb surgery -- who have exceeded expectations, and a host of rising stars that includes Dallas defenders Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs and Eagles receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith.

It's good on good in the East, at long last. ESPN Eagles reporter Tim McManus and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer take a closer look at the matchup:

Which defense is better? State your case for the team you cover.

Archer: The Cowboys are doing things defensively that Dallas has not seen since 1972. They have not allowed more than 19 points in their first five games. The original Doomsday pulled that off in 1972. They have not allowed more than one touchdown in a game all season either. And they've played against Tom Brady, Joe Burrow and Matthew Stafford in three of those five games.

They have 20 sacks, tied for the fourth-most the Cowboys have had through five games. Parsons is tied for the league lead with six sacks and Dallas has nine players with at least one sack. They might be a little susceptible to the run, which is a big thing this week against the Eagles, but it has improved each week.

McManus: The Eagles have the more complete defense from front to back. Dallas' edge rushers are elite, but Philadelphia' pass rush is more versatile, attacking from the inside (defensive tackle Fletcher Cox has three sacks) and out (linebacker Haason Reddick leads the way with 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles).

And while Dallas has the edge in total sacks (20 to the Eagles' 17), Philadelphia is tied for first in takeaways with 11 compared to seven for the Cowboys, which is more middle of the pack. Like Parsons up front, Diggs (9 PBU, 2 INT) is the main attraction, whereas corners Darius Slay and James Bradberry share the load for the Eagles with two interceptions and five pass break-ups apiece.

It's all very much on brand: if you want flash, the team with the star on its helmets is for you. If you're bigger on substance, it's the workmanlike Eagles, who have the second-most efficient defense in the NFL per ESPN's metrics (75.50). The Cowboys rank sixth in that category (66.70).

Describe your quarterback's play in three words or less

Archer: Efficient, mistake-free.

Rush has been fine as Prescott's replacement. Hard to argue with a 4-0 record, but for those wanting him to continue as the starter even when Prescott is healthy, this isn't 2016. As a rookie, the Cowboys kept Prescott in the lineup over Tony Romo because of an 11-game win streak, but the offense put up 24 or more points in 10 of those 11 wins. The Cowboys have topped 24 points once under Rush.

Dallas has won without a high-scoring offense because Rush has not had an interception and the team isn't turning the ball over. It’s almost like they are harkening back to a different era of football with this controlled offense and hellacious defense. But eventually, they're going to have to score more than 25 points to win a game.

McManus: Dynamic.

Hurts remains a force on the ground -- he is tied for second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns (six) and is second among quarterbacks in rushing yards (266) -- but it's his improvement as a passer that has him in the league MVP conversation. He ranks fifth in completion rate (67.9%) after finishing 26th in that category a year ago (61.3%) and is averaging 8.5 yards per pass attempt, second-most in the league. While the addition of Brown has certainly made his life easier, Hurts deserves most of the credit. He has diligently worked to smooth out his mechanics and has strong command of this offensive system. He knows where to go with the football and has been getting it there accurately.

The one concern is the number of hits he's been taking. Hurts is far and away the leader in QB contacts (84) through five games. That number could shoot up further this week with left tackle Jordan Mailata (shoulder), guards Landon Dickerson (leg) and Isaac Seumalo (ankle) and center Jason Kelce (ankle) all banged up to varying degrees.

Key Cowboys-Eagles matchup to watch

Archer: Cowboys pass rush vs. Eagles offensive line

For the football nerds, this will be heaven. Strength vs. strength. The Cowboys are second in the league in sacks. The Eagles' offensive line is considered one of the best -- if not the best -- in the NFL, although, as Tim mentioned, they enter this one banged up almost across the board. While Parsons gets a lot of national attention, the pass rush goes beyond him.

Eagles fans know DeMarcus Lawrence quite well. He has just three sacks in 14 games against the Eagles but he has nine tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hits. He will see right tackle Lane Johnson a bunch, and Johnson hasn't allowed a sack since Week 11 of the 2020 season. Dorance Armstrong has four sacks, one off the career-high he set last year. The Cowboys like to play a lot of games up front with twists and stunts that give linemen trouble. Hurts' ability to run might mitigate some of that on Sunday, but nobody has really slowed down the Dallas pass rush yet. If the Eagles don't, then the Cowboys are likely to be in first place in the NFC East on Sunday night.

McManus: A.J. Brown vs. Trevon Diggs

Diggs' nine pass break-ups lead the league. He’s a big play waiting to happen, as evidenced by his two interception returns for touchdowns last year. But his consistency as a defender has dipped, at least in the early going of the season. Quarterbacks are completing 63% of their passes against him, compared to 52% in 2021. And he's already given up a pair of touchdowns, versus four all of last year.

If those trends continue, it will be boom-or-bust against Brown, who has adapted to Philadelphia's system well since being acquired from the Tennessee Titans this offseason. He ranks fifth in receiving yards (436) and is sixth among receivers in yards after the catch (168). Diggs and Co. don't have to just worry about covering the 6-foot-1, 226-pound Brown downfield, but getting him to the ground after short crossers and slants over the middle.