FRISCO, Texas – Enough talk.
The wait was long enough, given that we haven’t seen the Cowboys play a game since Nov. 29. But when you factor in the implications of this game, not to mention the trash talk we heard this week, it ratchets up the excitement just a bit.
It’s really this simple. Win this game, and you’ve got a great shot at a playoff appearance. Lose, and the final three weeks of the season will once again be a roller coaster ride. The driver seat in the NFC East will be determined by what happens at AT&T Stadium.
With that in mind, there’s no need to say much else. Here’s my final notebook on what to watch for on Sunday afternoon when the Cowboys and Eagles tee it off.
· One of the biggest concerns this week was the availability of Tyron Smith against the Eagles. He was able to work both Thursday and Friday, which is a positive sign after missing the previous two games. Barring any setbacks, it appears that Smith will be ready to go. Cam Fleming continued to get snaps in that reserve role after filling in well for Smith while he was unavailable.
· I am interested to see the plan the Cowboys defensive coaches have for Zach Ertz. Do they treat him like a receiver or a tight end? Of Ertz’s 16 targets in the last game, the Cowboys played zone coverage nine times and man coverage seven times. The Leighton Vander Esch’s interception that was intended for Ertz was out of zone coverage. My feeling is that they will continue to go with that mix, but when they do play man we will see a different combination of defenders. The last thing Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard want to do is give Carson Wentz and Zach Ertz a sense of consistency. If it gets down to crunch time, it would not surprise me to see these coaches put Byron Jones against him. Throughout his career, Jones has been more than adequate when it comes to dealing with a talent such as Ertz.
· Despite Connor Williams being healthy and available, Xavier Su’a-Filo will make his fifth consecutive start at left guard. Su’a-Filo’s first start was against the Eagles last month and he’s held on to the job since. He has been dealing with a sore ankle but has managed to play through it. Like Tyron Smith, he was able to practice this week with Williams getting work behind him and Zack Martin. On a side note, I was told that Connor Williams was also receiving some work at offensive tackle on the scout team. So keep an eye on that as we go forward.
· Like Tyron Smith, there was some concern about Cole Beasley and his health coming into this game. Beasley didn’t practice much on Wednesday but was able to get his work in this week. If Beasley for some reason gets dinged in this game, Allen Hurns would be his replacement. While Beasley was out of practice earlier in the week, it was Hurns that filled in for him. Hurns played well out of the slot while he was in Jacksonville, so it’s a role that he’s comfortable preforming. He might not have Beasley’s quickness but his reliability is on par.
· You don’t need a former NFL scout to tell you this, but this is a huge game when it comes to running the ball with Ezekiel Elliott. The Eagles have lost every game this season when they face an offense that has 22 or more rushes in the game. In the previous meeting, the Cowboys rushed the ball 28 times for 171 yards for an average of 6.1 yards per carry. With a leaky secondary, Jim Schwartz will try to protect them, but he has to be concerned about the Cowboys’ willingness to line up and just hammer the ball at them.
· The Eagles have only forced nine turnovers the entire season on defense. I believe the key to the game for them is choke the Cowboys’ run and force Dak Prescott to throw the ball to beat them. During this four-game winning streak, Prescott has been outstanding at not throwing interceptions. What the Eagles have to hope for is that they can generate enough pressure on Prescott in the pocket and hope they can create a turnover or two with his lack of ball security. It’s no secret that the Cowboys offensively have struggled with their pass protection and the Eagles will try to force him into some mistakes.
· Who goes for it more on fourth down in the game -- Jason Garrett or Doug Pederson? People like to talk about the number of times that Pederson gambles in those situations, but Garrett is not that far behind. The Cowboys are 8-of-13 on fourth down attempts, while the Eagles are 8-of-16. It might come down to one of them having to steal a possession. We have seen Garrett call for the fake Chris Jones punt deep in his own territory against the Eagles in 2016 to turn the game around, so it wouldn’t surprise me one bit so see Garrett go this route to help his squad.
· My weekly guess at the Cowboys inactives: QB Mike White, WR Tavon Austin, LB Sean Lee, LB Chris Covington, TE Geoff Swaim, DT David Irving, DE Taco Charlton.