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Spagnola: Prove knowing how to win at stake


FRISCO, Texas – Whoa, Nellie, to go Keith Jackson on you. There is a whole lot on the line in this game: 10-2 Philadelphia Eagles vs. 9-3 Dallas Cowboys.

First place in the NFC East for starters. Cowboys win, a temporary first-place share with the Eagles. Cowboys lose, Eagles more than likely become the first team to repeat as division winners since they did so from 2001-04.

Cowboys currently riding an NFL-high 14-game home winning streak. Hoping to remain undefeated at AT&T Stadium for the seventh time this season. Their current four-game winning streak the longest active streak in the NFL.

Then there is the Eagles maintaining their best record in the NFL.

Cowboys proving capable of grabbing one of those so-called "quality wins," even though for real every win in the NFL, no matter who you beat, is a "quality win." These aren't low-hanging fruits.

Also, the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Division record.

NFC record.

Potential seeding in the playoffs, along with possibly home-field playoff advantage.

A whole lot shakin' out in this one.

"It's always one of the biggest games in football, if not the biggest," the NFL's most versatile defender, Micah Parsons, said of this rematch with the Eagles. "The intensity is always high, the emotion is high. Everyone wants to win. It's a brawl. Always got to have the icebags ready."

Maybe your popcorn, too.

But it's not as if this is the final game of the 2023 season. Still there will be four more games to play, and for the Cowboys the next three against formidable teams: at Buffalo (6-6), at Miami (9-3), home vs. Detroit (9-3).

In some folks' minds, for sure a huge "quality win" is on the line, especially for the Cowboys, although beating Seattle last Thursday denies the Seahawks a winning record, beating the Chargers denies them a .500 record and beating the Rams denies them of a winning record, too.

But there is more on the line in this 7:20 p.m. nationally televised kick Sunday before a jam-packed crowd at AT&T Stadium where resale tickets are busting up a whole lot of Christmas budgets.

Again, especially for the Cowboys, and this dawned on me over the weekend watching all these big-time college conference playoff games when Alabama coach Nick Saban uttered these words:

"Prove you know how to win."

Then a couple of days later, Cowboys offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer struck the same chord: "When you become a real good team, you got to believe you will find a way to win."

That's it, right there. Now prove it.

So, Dallas Cowboys, step right up, front and center. You have completed a mandatory mission after losing the first go-round to Philadelphia, 28-23, coming up inches short of scoring another 10 points, possibly winning on the road at The Linc. You have won the necessary next four consecutive games since to pull into this game at 9-3, pounding meaningful into this rematch with the 10-2 Eagles.


But now that four-gamer must streak to five straight for the next goal of winning the division title to remain attainable.

"I just think, no matter what, we just need to win," Parsons said.

And chances are, while playing an Eagles team having won seven of their 10 games by no more than seven points, indeed the Cowboys must prove they "know how to win" – to hell with style points. Who cares if the Cowboys win by one point? Who cares if they don't score 40 points for a franchise single-season record fifth time this season or if they can't nail down a forty-burger for an NFL record fifth consecutive home game?

Who cares which quarterback, Dak Prescott or Jalen Hurts, has the best stats in this game? Or if the Cowboys' third-ranked passing offense takes advantage of the Eagles 29th-ranked pass defense? Be great if those side with the Cowboys, but all that truly counts is proving you know how to win.

And no one is going to issue an excuse for the Cowboys if they don't, saying, well, head coach Mike McCarthy had to undergo an appendectomy on Tuesday, causing him to miss practices on Wednesday and Thursday, though said on Friday he expects to be recovered enough, aside for some surgical soreness, to resume play-calling duties Sunday night. And if for some reason those plans are derailed, well, resilience will be key, because like baseball, there is no crying in football, either. Next man up, Shottenheimer.

"I just think, no matter what, we just need to win," Dak said.

Tell you what, for the Cowboys to walk out of this Week 14 matchup with a W, a game Cowboys veteran defensive lineman DeMarcus Lawrence said that, "You know man, the fireworks are going to be blazing," then they must defensively dominate the Eagles on third down.

Last time out, the Eagles converted 7-of-14 third downs, 50 percent. Then add going 100 percent on 2-for-2 fourth downs. That's 9-for-16 on those two critical downs, 56 percent. For the season, the Eagles have converted 47.9 percent of their third downs and 73.7 percent of their fourth downs, ranking third in NFL third-down efficiency and first on fourth.

Ah, but guess what, the Cowboys actually rank second in offensive third-down efficiency at 48.5 percent but just 47.1 percent on fourth.

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has "third down" ringing in his troop's ears.

"One of the things Philadelphia does well amongst many things is third down," Quinn said of converting to extend possessions, while knowing the Eagles' percentage ranks No. 1 in the NFL while his defense's 36.9 percentage of foiling third downs ranks third.

Something's got to give.

"To me, that's where some of their secret sauce in this game is going to live because some of their third downs can turn into fourth downs where they go (for it). … They don't play in a traditional sense on third downs, so that adds another element to it."

Meaning on third and, say, five yards or less, where most teams are passing, the Eagles, willing to stretch the possession to four downs, are still in run or pass mode. And for the most part really don't care where they are on the field, within reason, of rolling the dice.

Evidently Parsons has been listening.

"If you watch the game, think about how many fourth-and-1s the Eagles have," Micah said. "You want to win on first and second down, you don't want them to get to second-and-5 because when they get to second-and-5, it's like, 'Hey, we got three downs right here, and I know we can get four yards on the next two downs.'

"Winning those crucial downs is going to be important."

Lending a new slice of fandom cheering since the home crowd normally rises on third down to exhort the defense on. Better get them towels waving on second against this aggressive crew.

Then there is the passing game. Dak has been red-hot. Second in NFL passing efficiency, 108.3, thanks fully to his play ever since the San Francisco loss, his QB rating more than 100 in six of the next seven games. His 26 touchdown passes No. 1, 21 of those in the past seven games. His 70.1 completion percentage tied for second, every one of those seven games at least 65.8 percent with four at least 70 percent and a high of 80.6 against the Rams.

Then there is CeeDee Lamb, on franchise single-season record pace. His 90 receptions rank third in the NFL, just three behind Miami's Tyreek Hill for second and on a 127-catch pace, which would shatter Michael Irvin's club record of 111 set in 1995. Lamb's 1,182 receiving yards is second in the NFL to only Hill (1,481), who is on pace to shatter the NFL single-season record of 1,864 set by Calvin Johnson in 2012 while Lamb is on pace (1,674 yards) to break Irvin's team receiving yards record of 1,603.

Little wonder then why the Cowboys are fifth in total passing yards, averaging 279 a game, Dak throwing for one yard short of 300 six times. Conversely, the Eagles defense comes in 29th in passing defense, giving up a robust 260.3 a game, and more than 300 in half their games.

Man, just sling it around. Maybe that is why the Eagles run defense ranks fourth. Why bother when the airwaves are open.

But again, numbers, numbers, numbers. But who really cares about such analytics. The most important number for the Cowboys is 10, as McCarthy said the day before his surgery for acute appendicitis, "We need to get that 10th win."

Micah emphasized, "The key is to win, win, win, win. That's the only thing that matters."

And as for Dak, "Understanding this is when the real football begins, kind of why I alluded to a couple weeks ago that I hadn't done anything, you know what I mean. This team hadn't, so we're getting better, and that's the important goal.

"In front of us is everything that we want, and we have that, starting with this stretch here in December.

Starting Sunday. Cowboys. Eagles. AT&T Stadium. Eyes of the nation upon them.

Cowboys needing to prove they "know how to win."

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