Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid may be 12-0 after the bye during the regular season, but Dallas Cowboys rookie running back DeMarco Murray's breakout performance last week was even more impressive.
The two forces will collide this Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field in a battle between hated NFC East inhabitants.
Cowboy greats Don Perkins, Tony Dorsett or even Emmitt Smith never accomplished in their outstanding careers what Murray did to the St. Louis Rams in last Sunday's 34-7 romp at the Edward Jones Dome. Murray, a third-round draft pick out of Oklahoma, diced St. Louis for a franchise-record 253 yards on 25 carries, including a 91-yard touchdown scamper on his first carry that opened the floodgates. Murray's yardage was the second-most in a game by a rookie in league history, behind only Adrian Peterson's 296 yards in 2007.
Murray eclipsed Smith's team record of 237 yards rushing he earned back in 1993 against the Eagles at a rain-soaked Veterans Stadium. Murray was filling in for injured starter Felix Jones (ankle), but said afterward the possibility of taking over the starting spot permanently isn't much of a concern to him.
"I really don't care," Murray said. "You're always looking to compete, but at the same time it's easy to compete when you're winning and when you have good guys on your team who wish you well, who help you as much as Felix and Tashard (Choice) help me."
Choice got the start at running back last week in the Gateway City, but had only eight yards on two carries before getting injured on a fumble. Deep reserve Phillip Tanner even saw action, posting 34 yards and a score on six touches for the Cowboys, who ended a two-game slide for their third win of the season and had the fourth-most rushing yards in club history with 294.
The Cowboys are currently tied with Washington for second place in the NFC East, one game behind the New York Giants, but 1-0 in division play after defeating the Redskins back in Week 3.
Dallas began the afternoon rated 27th in the league in rushing, but Murray's effort pushed the team up to 12th overall with an average of 119.7 yards per game. The offensive line deserved some of the credit for the performance as well, as the group resembled the Cowboys line of old that featured the likes of Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton, Mark Stepnoski and Erik Williams in the 1990's.
Fast forward almost 20 years, and the Cowboys could have all of their offensive linemen healthy for this week's showdown in Philadelphia. Veteran Derrick Dockery is expected to play for the first time since Week 2 because of a knee/leg issue and could supplant Montrae Holland at the left guard spot.
The Eagles have a talented running back of their own in LeSean McCoy, who is fourth in the NFC with 569 rushing yards and fifth in the entire league with 94.8 yards per game on the ground. McCoy is enjoying a breakout year and will try to lift the Eagles to their second straight win since a four-game slide.
Philadelphia is currently last in the NFC East with a 2-4 record and had more than enough time to rest after their recent bye week. The team is an NFL-best 18-4 all-time after the break and entered the stoppage having recorded a 20-13 win in Washington on Oct. 16.
"Trent's good to go. Jason's good to go," Reid said this week.
With Peters coming back, Todd Herremans can return to his former position at right tackle and Cole's presence will only help newcomer Jason Babin, who benefited with his teammate in the lineup by recording seven sacks in the games Cole played. He hasn't had one since his fellow lineman's absence.
Philadelphia's defense has been a pin cushion for criticism this season under first-year coordinator Juan Castillo. The unit improved somewhat against the Redskins, but there are still some areas of concerns heading into Sunday. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is one of the more proficient passers in the game and will try to pick apart what some have called an overrated Eagles secondary.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has to protect the football as well, and should be happy to see Peters back in the lineup this week. Vick has been sacked just four times in the last three games, but has thrown six interceptions in that span and eight on the season.
The Eagles have some ammo saved up for this matchup after Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan started the trash talk in the summer by saying his squad was going to "beat their [expletive] when we play them."
Philadelphia hasn't fulfilled expectations after being labeled the "Dream Team" during the offseason, and a loss to the rival Cowboys would send the club to its first 2-5 start since opening the 1999 campaign with a lowly 2-7 ledger. That was Reid's first year as head coach.
The Cowboys hold a 56-44 advantage in their all-time regular-season series with the Eagles, with the longtime rivals recording an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home set. Philadelphia edged Dallas by a 30-27 count at Cowboys Stadium last December, with the Cowboys returning the favor with a 14-13 win at Lincoln Financial Field in the 2010 regular season finale, a game in which the playoff-bound Eagles rested several starters. Dallas defeated Philadelphia a total of three times in 2009, including a 34-14 home triumph in that season's NFC Wild Card Playoffs, and has prevailed in four of its last six trips to the City of Brotherly Love.
Dallas has a 3-1 edge in postseason games against the Eagles, including the previously-noted humbling of Philadelphia in the 2009 Wild Card round. Philadelphia was a 20-7 winner over the Cowboys in the 1980 NFC Championship, while Dallas won NFC Divisional Playoff games over Philadelphia following the 1992 and 1995 seasons.
Including the postseason, Reid has a career record of 15-10 against the Cowboys, while Dallas' Jason Garrett is 1-1 against both the Eagles and Reid as a head coach due to last season's split.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Romo (1,756 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT) threw for a season-low 166 yards in last week's win over the Rams, but tossed a pair of touchdown passes. He posted his third rating of 100 or better as well and owns a 17 touchdown passes to six interceptions in his last 10 road games. Romo should feel a lot better knowing that his offensive line was back at practice with a clean bill of health, as he'll need plenty of protection against Philadelphia's new-look defense that will have Cole at his end spot. Romo said the Eagles were blitzing when they came off the bus in the past, but now they're sitting back waiting for the quarterback to make a mistake under Castillo's direction. The Eagles don't possess great linebackers, so this could be a great matchup for tight end Jason Witten (36 receptions, 449 yards, 3 TD), who leads the Cowboys in receiving yards and receptions and can be a vital piece to Dallas' game plan this Sunday. Wide receivers Dez Bryant (19 receptions, 339 yards) and Miles Austin (23 receptions, 323 yards) are tied for the team lead with four touchdown catches apiece, but face a tough battle against the Eagles' secondary. Murray (324 rushing yards, 1 TD) hasn't been officially named Sunday's starter, but with Jones (253 yards, TD) still battling an ankle sprain, the rookie is expected to get the nod.
Cole (14 tackles, 3 sacks) had a few choice words for this week's opponent by saying that he doesn't like the Cowboys and wants to make sure Romo stays down when he's hit. The high-motor end hasn't played since injuring his calf against the San Francisco on Oct. 2, but is set to make his return alongside his hunting buddy Babin (19 tackles, 7 sacks), who will be in hot pursuit of some Cowboys come Sunday. He hasn't recorded a sack since the loss to San Francisco, however, coming up empty in each of the previous two contests. Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (17 tackles, 5 sacks) hopes to solidify Philadelphia's 23rd- rated run defense by making sure Murray doesn't go off for a second straight week. The Eagles tightened up their "wide-9" alignment in Washington, and it worked in a big way when the team allowed just 42 rushing yards to the Redskins. Linebacker Jamar Chaney (36 tackles) is a quick defender and must make sure his unit is on to Witten, especially across the middle. Safety Kurt Coleman (16 tackles) had three interceptions in the Eagles' last game and is also a heavy hitter, while corners Nnamdi Asomugha (16 tackles, 1 INT) and Asante Samuel (18 tackles, 1 INT) are two of the more talented defensive backs in the game. Samuel raised some eyebrows by recently calling out Philadelphia's front office, but later reconciled after a talk with Reid.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Vick (1573 passing yards, 9 TD, 8 INT) said during a radio interview over the summer he didn't like what Ryan said about his team after all of the Eagles' stockpiling of players. The lefty will try to make the Cowboys' defensive boss eat his words and had a nice break to rest his banged-up body. Vick has thrown an interception in every game this season save a Week 1 victory at St. Louis and is still searching for his first rushing touchdown of the year, but owns four such scores in his past six games at home. The Eagles have only played twice as the host this season -- and both were losses. Vick also became the first quarterback with 5,000 career rushing yards in the team's win at Washington before the bye. Speaking of running, McCoy (569 rushing yards, 6 TD) has been a breath of fresh air to the offense and despite facing a hard challenge this week, should benefit with the return of Peters at left tackle and Herremans going back to the right side. McCoy leads the NFL with 36 rushing first downs and 45 total, so expect the Eagles to go to him in close situations. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson (24 receptions, 456 yards, 2 TD) has burned the Cowboys on a few occasions in the past, as he had a career-best 210 receiving yards and a 91-yard score in the teams' last encounter. Fellow wideout Jeremy Maclin (37 receptions, 489 yards, 3 TD) is becoming more of a consistent receiver and posted his second 100-yard receiving game of the season against the Redskins, and he leads the Eagles in catches.
Dallas has the No. 1 rush defense in the league, holding opposing teams to only 69.7 yards per game on the ground, and arguably the fiercest linebacker in DeMarcus Ware (20 tackles, 8 sacks). The All-Pro pass rusher will be out to register a few more sacks this Sunday and is one of the toughest defenders in the league to block. He's had his fair share of past sacks on Vick, who said the Eagles must be aware of where No. 94 lines up before the snap. Ware brings the type of attention the great Lawrence Taylor used to and owns 9 1/2 sacks in his career against the Eagles. He had three in the last meeting between the teams and has 80 sacks since 2006, the most in the NFL. On the inside. linebacker Sean Lee (50 tackles) has turned it on in his second season and leads the team in tackles and interceptions. Dallas may be most tough against the run, but it's 14th in pass defense and seventh in both yards and points allowed. McCoy and the speedy Jackson pose as big threats for the Eagles, and Dallas safeties Gerald Sensabaugh (27 tackles, 1 INT) and Abram Elam (26 tackles) must help their corners eliminate the big plays Philadelphia will attempt to make during the game. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff (19 tackles) is a stout run-stuffer up front and a key part of Ryan's defense.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Eagles hope to establish the run against one of the toughest defenses in the league, and it will be up to the offensive line to make that happen. Peters is now back from a hamstring issue, and that should help both McCoy and Vick.
Will Murray duplicate the type of showing he had against St. Louis? Probably not, but then again the Eagles are 23rd against opposing ground attacks, allowing 123.8 yards per game. The Dallas offense is extremely dangerous if it can run the ball effectively.
Ware plays a major role in Dallas' defense and can change the momentum of a game with a sack or big play just at the right time. He'll be on Vick's tail most of the night, so it will interesting to see how the Eagles prepare for him and how effective they'll be in trying to stop him.
Vick has a chance to make Ryan eat his words this weekend, but it will be the Dallas defensive coordinator who has the last laugh in a close battle between these NFC East foes. A loss would pretty much eliminate the Eagles from their offseason goal of reaching the Super Bowl and dash any hopes of a playoff run, so Philadelphia should come out with a purpose. Dallas is also in the thick of a division race and must start playing better on the road in order to stay in contention. A triumphant departure out of the City of Brotherly Love would be a solid foundation to build upon for the weeks to come.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 27, Eagles 20