ON MONDAY NIGHT the Eagles play the Cowboys for the lead in the NFC East. And that, I'm afraid, is the only action for major stakes this weekend. Sure, there will be some elbowing to determine positioning for the playoffs, and the league will, as usual, extol the fact that so many teams are alive for wild-card berths at this late date. What that actually means is there are teams that simply won't leave, like boring guests at a dinner party.
Dallas has a one-game lead on Philly, but the Eagles' win over the Cowboys in early October gives them the edge if they beat Dallas again and the teams finish tied. The Eagles were at the height of their power when they nailed the Cowboys 38--24 in Philly, but two players who set the tone in that game will be missing this time: Donovan McNabb (out for the year with a knee injury) and Drew Bledsoe (benched).
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson blitzed Bledsoe unmercifully and got him to throw three interceptions, the last one run back 102 yards for the TD that iced the game. McNabb bombed the Dallas secondary like crazy, working on combination routes designed to put the safeties in deep coverage. The result was a 354-yard passing day.
Johnson probably will throw the blitzkrieg at Tony Romo, just to see how he handles it. And the Cowboys will respond with the ground game. That's what the Giants wanted to do last weekend, but something went wrong. Either Eli Manning doesn't have full leeway to audible or he just doesn't have a feel for making the calls, because time and again he sent Tiki Barber on runs into the full fury of the blitz. It fouled up entire sequences and kept putting New York in a hole.
I have a feeling Romo will have the better instincts. And Dallas running back Marion Barber will have a busy day. After his performance against Atlanta last Saturday night (11 carries, 69 yards, two touchdowns) everyone's wondering why Julius Jones is starting ahead of him. Me too. Maybe Bill Parcells is as well. I think he'll correct that on Monday night.
For Philly, Jeff Garcia's 300-yard passing days are behind him, but he knows how to work a game, how to annoy a defense by keeping a series alive after it looked like it was closed out. His weakness is that he tends to wear down as the game goes on, and then when he's chased out of the pocket he gets a little loose with his throws. The Eagles' front three of guards Todd Herremans and Shawn Andrews and center Jamaal Jackson is a lot better than people think. They chewed up the Giants' middle, and few teams have done that to New York this year. I think that's where they'll attack Dallas. People have been underrating Philly ever since Garcia took over after McNabb's injury, and an Eagles win wouldn't surprise me, but I'm riding with the Cowboys.
Miami, with its active defense, has trapped a few good teams this year, but I don't think the Jets will be one of them in the second game of the Monday-night doubleheader. I like Chad Pennington to keep it going with those quick passes that unhinged the Vikings. Jets are the pick. The question when New Orleans visits the Giants at the Meadowlands is how motivated the Saints will be after clinching their division last weekend despite losing to the Redskins. Not very motivated, I feel, which is the only reason I favor the Giants.
Jacksonville will bounce back hard from its defeat to Tennessee and beat New England, whose injury problems were hidden in its rout of Houston. All logic points to a Broncos victory over Cincinnati in Denver, but I've got a hunch about this one. Bengals are the pick.
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COUNTERPLAY Against the Philly defense, Marion Barber will succeed where Tiki failed.