Philadelphia was all but eliminated from playoff contention just a few weeks ago, sitting at 4-8 in the cellar of the NFC East division (which was even full of mediocrity at the top), but heading into Week 16 of the 2011 season, the Eagles could have a chance to put themselves in a grand position to, believe it or not, capture the East title and work their way into the postseason. A win by the Giants on Saturday afternoon would officially end the Birds' hopes of making the playoffs, but somehow Philly remains alive in the conference picture, and the way the team has played in recent weeks, a number of analysts are already starting to jump back onto the bandwagon of what used to be the "Dream Team."
The Cowboys have probably been the best team in the division this season, but that's not exactly saying much considering the poor play that's come from the NFC East this year. At 8-6, Dallas is in a favorable position heading toward the end of the season, but the 'Boys have failed to show enough consistency to warrant the respect they might think they deserve. On offense, quarterback Tony Romo has had one of the best statistical seasons of his career, while Felix Jones has picked up where rookie sensation DeMarco Murray left off in the running game. However, the defensive unit, led by outspoken coordinator Rob Ryan, has failed to bottle up opponents for much of the season, giving up a ton of points and allowing teams to creep back into contention toward the end of games, even when Dallas has a big lead and appears headed for a surefire victory.
The Eagles got their second consecutive win by blowing out the Jets last weekend, but they'll still likely face a tough challenge in the form of the Cowboys this Saturday. The first time the rivals met this year, Philadelphia was practically flawless in a 34-7 rout, but neither team has been able to establish consistency since then, with both sides looking to take a late step ahead in the division as the playoffs creep closer. Dallas has shown it is far from invulnerable, but there's a good chance the 'Boys will be more prepared for the Eagles this time around, when the longtime NFC East combatants get together for an important Christmas Eve matchup.
As Week 16's Eagles-Cowboys game approaches, here are a few key questions and a game prediction:
Can the Eagles get after Tony Romo up front? In the Eagles' last two games, the defensive line has been key to the team's success on that side of the ball; perhaps it's no coincidence Philadelphia is 2-0 in those matchups. Trent Cole has been his usual productive self on one side of the line, while Jason Babin has simply dominated, notching three sacks in each of the last two games to lift his astounding season total to 18. In the middle, Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins have continued to provide pressure. Romo has been a key component for the Cowboys this season, but he's prone to forcing the ball into tight places when under constant pressure in the pocket, so keeping him on his toes could prove crucial for Philadelphia this weekend.
Will Michael Vick be able to exploit Dallas' secondary once again? In Week 8, when the Eagles met the Cowboys for the first time this season, Vick was at his best, threading the ball through Dallas' secondary with ease en route to a 34-7 win and superb offensive performance. While he was a bit rusty in his return from broken ribs a few weeks ago, the veteran signal-caller returned to form against the Jets last Sunday, but the Eagles might need another solid outing from Vick if they want to take advantage of the Cowboys' defensive backs, especially with both DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin healthy in the receiving corps. Working the coverages and finding holes deep in the secondary could be a key for Vick and the Eagles on Saturday.
How successful will the Eagles' cornerbacks be against Miles Austin and Dez Bryant? The last time the Eagles faced off with the Cowboys, the team's big-name cornerbacks stepped up and dominated for the entirety of the game. Asante Samuel helped limit Dez Bryant, while free agent acquisition Nnamdi Asomugha picked off Tony Romo while shutting down Dallas' other receivers on the opposite side of the field. If Dallas is without starting running back Felix Jones, who has missed several days of practice due to a hamstring injury, the 'Boys could be forced to turn to the pass, so the Eagles' secondary might have to be ready for an aerial assault this weekend.
Game Prediction: The Eagles' level of aggressiveness for Saturday's game against Dallas could come down to whether the Jets beat the Giants and keep Philly's playoff hopes alive. I have a feeling Rex Ryan's team will come out fired up against the G-Men, so the Birds should have something to play for. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he was "scared" of the Eagles this week, and that will be even more evident after this weekend. Predicted score: Eagles 31, Cowboys 20.