NFC Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Cowboys Stadium
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Dallas Cowboys
As owner Jerry Jones stood amid the NFC East title celebration that was filled with laughter and topped by gray championship caps on Sunday, he kept bringing up a memorable sequence from the Cowboy known as Doug Freak. The third-year player, whose given name is Doug Free, is a fill-in right tackle from Northern Illinois, where his teammates gave him that nickname for his ability to nimbly maneuver his 6'6", 313-pound frame to block defenders downfield. Late in the third quarter of Dallas's 24--0 win over the Eagles at Cowboys Stadium, Free exploded off the line, sprinted 18 yards, shoved Philadelphia cornerback Sheldon Brown for 26 more and escorted running back Felix Jones into the end zone for a 49-yard score. It was the kind of hustle play that has marked Dallas's three-game winning streak entering the playoffs—the Cowboys and the Eagles meet again in a wild-card game this Saturday back in Dallas—and made them look so good on Jerry's giant video boards.
"You saw big number 68," said the owner, referring to Free's jersey. "There's a young player that we didn't know when we started if he was going to evolve into a quality player."
The upbeat vibe emanating from the franchise is a distinct departure from the funk brought on by recent December swoons. In not winning a playoff game since 1996, the Cowboys have failed to measure up in the NFC East, which has been marked for decades by prideful dominance. It is fitting, then, that Dallas can restore its postseason swagger by beating a division rival this weekend.
Two years ago the Cowboys swept the Giants in the regular season, earned the NFC's top seed but then lost at home to New York in a divisional-round playoff. Last season, in the regular-season finale, Dallas went meekly in a 44--6 loss at Philadelphia that cost the Cowboys a playoff berth and raised new doubts about the team's stomach for a fight.
In the days following that defeat, Jones met with his coach, Wade Phillips, and they charted a new course. Phillips took over the defensive play-calling, and there was immediate improvement against the run and the pass. Jones released temperamental receiver Terrell Owens, leaving the offense less experienced but happier. The new stadium was unveiled, an added inspiration in Jones's hoped-for turnaround.
Over the course of the 2009 season—the last three weeks, in particular—the Cowboys have developed into one of the league's most physical teams. They were the first club to solve the Saints, ending New Orleans's bid for a perfect season in Week 15 with a 24--17 victory at the Superdome. They followed with a 17--0 beatdown at Washington. And on Sunday, with the division championship on the line, Dallas dominated again.
In the Cowboys' opening drive, they imposed their will by sending running backs Marion Barber and Felix Jones barreling behind Free and 353-pound right guard Leonard Davis, setting up quarterback Tony Romo's 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten. Sometimes Romo would take a shotgun snap and freeze the Eagles' linebackers with a delayed handoff; other times, he dropped back, gave a pump fake and fired. Most important for this Saturday's game, Romo gave Philadelphia plenty to think about. "We have a lot more film to watch," Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said afterward.
The Philly defense's task will be twofold: stop the run and keep pressure on Romo, who spent most of last week's game clean and worry-free."I suspect we'll see every blitz they've ever invented," said Romo. "We'll have to be ready for it."
While the Cowboys' offense has been humming, it's their defense that has been a revelation of late—shutting out opponents back-to-back (Washington before Philly) for the first time in the franchise's 50-season history. Dallas doubled quicksilver Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson (who dropped two passes in one drive) and kept quarterback Donovan McNabb contained in a collapsing pocket. "They got a good rush on us," said Eagles tight end Brent Celek, who insisted that Philadelphia's third effort against Dallas would go better. "I can't wait to play these guys again. After what they did to us? I wouldn't want to go anywhere else."
Said Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking, "[Eagles coach Andy] Reid and McNabb haven't had the success they've had because they don't make adjustments. You better believe that we're going to get their best shot."
Dallas, finally, appears ready to take it.
THE PICK: Cowboys 23, Eagles 13
"I suspect we'll see every blitz they've ever invented," said Romo of the Philly defense.
An NFL scout identifies the key to each team's Super Bowl prospects
"I like what I've seen late in the season almost across the board, except one thing: consistency in the running game. All three backs—Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice—are capable of being regular 100-yard backs. If they're rushing for [a combined] 130, 150 a game in the postseason and converting short-yardage situations, the Cowboys can win it all."
"When they run poorly, they lose. They have to mix in the run, have some success early with it and make sure their receivers who can fly, especially DeSean Jackson, get singled a few times. They need to isolate their speed receivers and hit them a couple of times to get their offense rolling."
VERY BIG D End Stephen Bowen (72) and the Cowboys forced McNabb out of his comfort zone.