NFC East Race: Dallas & Philadelphia Race To A Final Showdown

The NFC East race appears destined to come down to a Week 17 battle between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, a circumstance that gives the Cowboys a chance for a rare trifecta–they could lose a head-to-head battle for the division to the New York Giants in 2011, the Washington Redskins in 2012 and the Eagles in 2013. All that’s needed is to make sure NBC flexes this year’s game into prime-time so all three could take place for the nation on Sunday Night Football.

Philadelphia currently holds a one-game lead, with an 8-5 record against Dallas’ 7-6 mark. The Cowboys own the tiebreakers though. They’ve got a head-to-head win over the Eagles, and Dallas has won all four of its division games, so it looks like Philly has no choice but to win it outright. The combination of the Eagles having the lead in the race, but the Cowboys having both tiebreakers and the Week 17 game at home seem to add up into making this race a dead heat with three weeks left.

To get a good grasp on the NFC East race, we’ll do some general statistical comparisons of how each team has gotten to this point, what that might mean for the future and then look ahead to the final three weeks.

Offense is the engine driving each team, with the Cowboys ranking third in the NFL in points scored and the Eagles being tied for ninth. They’ve gotten there through different means though.

Philadelphia might be using a hurry-up, innovative style under first-year head coach Chip Kelly, but the end result is decidedly old-fashioned. The Eagles don’t necessarily complete a high percentage of their passes (18th in the league), but they make big plays, ranking 2nd in yards-per-pass. The big-play passing game is set up by a potent running attack, with LeSean McCoy leading the way on a team tied for first in yards-per-rush.

Running the ball and big-play passing is a time-honored tradition in the NFL, from John Madden’s Raiders to Joe Gibbs’ Redskins and Kelly’s Eagles stand in sharp contrast to the high-percentage passing attacks that substitute short throws for running plays around the league.

Dallas is more conventional, which for a team with Tony Romo as its quarterback, is somewhat surprising. The Cowboys are in the middle of the league in yards-per-pass, but Romo is completing a high percentage and not turning the ball over, where his team is tied with Russell Wilson and Seattle for fewest interceptions. Is it possible that the Romo-Coaster is finally settling down?

The Cowboys are getting good enough run production, ranking ninth in yards-per-rush, even though they don’t have a back like McCoy.

Defensively is where Dallas is losing their comparative edge to Philadelphia,  a statement that will come as no surprise to anyone who watched the debacle this past Monday in Chicago, when the Bears scored on the Cowboy defense every time they had the ball, save the final possession when they took a knee.

Dallas is in the bottom quarter of the NFL in every notable defensive category, and the situation is dire enough that the name of coordinator Monte Kiffin was trending this week as a Google search term and owner Jerry Jones had to affirm his support of Kiffin.

In fairness to Kiffin, the Cowboys defensive front four has been ravaged with injuries, but Demarcus Ware is healthy now and really needs to ramp up his game in a year that’s seen him record only six sacks. Ware has Defensive Player of the Year talent and has played to that level (though he’s never won the award) in the past. Now would be a good time to find his mojo again.

Jones might also want to look at what happened with the Baltimore Ravens last year, when they boldly made a coordinator change in December. Baltimore cut loose offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and with good reason. The Ravens were seen hoisting a Super Bowl trophy not long after, and they weren’t playing a whole lot better than the Cowboys are at a similar point in the season.

Philadelphia’s defense isn’t great, but it’s in the upper half of the NFL, the reason they’re in first place and Dallas is not. The Eagles’ pass defense is problematic, thanks primarily to the lack of a pass rush, but they do defend the run well.

Both teams have excelled in winning the turnover battle, and it’s primarily due to the fact they take care of it their end, something that’s sustainable over the long haul. By contrast, recovering fumbles is more fluky, and while each team has padded their turnover differential with this, each offense is characterized by smart play and taking good care of the football.

This is also the characteristic that defines playoff victories, and something to keep in mind in the first round, where the winner of this race will probably be a home underdog to either San Francisco or the New Orleans/Carolina runner-up.

The schedule for the next two weeks breaks in favor of Dallas. The reports are that Sunday’s nationally televised home game with Green Bay (4:25 PM ET, Fox) will not involve Aaron Rodgers, and if that report holds, the Cowboys will be a sizeable favorite. Dallas then visits Washington to play a team whose coach, in my view, has quit on them.

Philadelphia has a tougher slate. Their road trip to Minnesota on Sunday suddenly looks tough, as the Vikings have been playing competitive football of late, choosing to compete rather than quit at the end of a lost season, something that speaks well of head coach Leslie Frazier. Like Dallas though, the Eagles may play a team without its star, as the status of Adrian Peterson’s ankle is up in the air.

If Peterson doesn’t play, it’s a double bonus for the Eagles–they almost certainly win the game, and McCoy widens his lead on A.P. for the rushing title. The only other contender is Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles, and with the Chiefs likely locking into the #5 AFC playoff seed in the near future, Charles might be sitting in Week 17. The odds are looking good that Philadelphia will have the rushing champ.

Philadelphia then has a tough home game with Chicago, albeit one they should win. That sets the stage for Week 17 in Dallas.

Las Vegas likes the Eagles to ultimately prevail, with the betting odds on Philadelphia to win this NFC East race at 5-9. You can bet Dallas with a slight advantage, at 3-2. As for myself, I picked the Redskins and Giants to each win ten games and make the playoffs out of this division, so I’m just set to cut my losses and forgo a pick. We’ll deal with it here in Week 17 if the ultimate showdown materializes.