There's no denying that Sunday night's tilt between the Cowboys and Eagles is a big one. The Eagles are 8-1, but untested, with their best win coming over the Panthers on Oct. 12. Beating the Cowboys in front of what's sure to be huge national TV audience in prime time will validate their hot start, solidifying the Eagles as the front-runner for the NFC's top playoff seed. If the Cowboys can pull off the upset, they'll curb growing fears about their ability to weather Ezekiel Elliott's extended absence and pull themselves to within two games of the Eagles in the NFC East, with one game between the two clubs still to go.
So it's a big game, worthy of its spot as NBC's game of the week, but it's a much bigger game for the Cowboys than it is for their rivals from Philadelphia. If the Cowboys win Sunday, it's a bonus for a team that could use one, but if the Eagles lose, it could set them up for a second half collapse thanks to a rugged closing schedule.
It's hard to imagine the Cowboys being in a worse spot. Elliott, who formally dropped his appeal of his six-game suspension on Wednesday, is sitting out for the second week in a row. Linebacker Sean Lee, the team's best defensive player, won't be on the field either, after injuring his hamstring during the first quarter of the Cowboys' loss in Atlanta on Sunday. All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith, the linchpin of the Cowboys' offensive line is likely to be out for the second week in a row, an especially portentous development considering that his replacement against the Falcons, Chaz Green, gave up six sacks in three-plus quarters of action.
The Cowboys have made adjustments this week to deal with their missing stars. Middle linebacker Justin Durant, inactive for the game against the Falcons, will play for the first time in a month against the Eagles. Durant isn't as good as Lee, but he is better covering flat and intermediate passing routes run by running backs than the Cowboys other option up the middle, Jaylon Smith. Durant could prove a steadying influence on the Lee-less defense and will allow the Cowboys regular middle linebacker, Anthony Hitchens, to take over for Lee on the weak side. At left tackle, Byron Bell is expected to get the start over Green, and the Cowboys offensive staff will have had a week more to figure out how to cover Smith's absence.
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Still, the Cowboys will face the Eagles being down three All-Pros. It's easy to envision continued struggles to move the football behind a hamstrung offense line, and to stop Philadelphia's potent, Carson Wentz-led offense from picking up yardage in chunks. The Eagles haven't proved they're great, but their offensive performances during their last two games against the Broncos and 49ers have shown that they have a potentially elite offense.
Whatever happens Sunday night, however, the Cowboys will have every opportunity to get well quickly. After taking on the Eagles, the Cowboys take on four straight teams with losing records — the 3-6 Chargers, the 4-5 Redskins, the 1-8 Giants and the 4-5 Raiders. With Smith expected back as early as Thanksgiving against San Diego and Lee trailing soon behind him, the Cowboys should win at least three of those games. Doing so would ensure the 3-3 split they needed from the six games Elliott is set to miss, leaving the Cowboys at 8-6 heading into a crucial game against the Seahawks on Christmas Eve, assuming they've lost to the Eagles Sunday. They'd have every chance to make the playoffs behind a healthy, rested Elliott.
If the Cowboys can pick off the Eagles — stranger things have happened, although the line on the game has recently crept up to Eagles -4.5, according to Bovada — they'll have an outside chance at a comeback run to the division title. After their tilt with the Cowboys in Arlington, the Eagles return home to take on the Bears, before heading west for a crucial two-game road swing against Seattle and the Los Angeles Rams. If they fumble one or both of those games, the Cowboys return trip to Philadelphia on the season's closing Sunday could be more meaningful than the Eagles would like.
Fully healthy and fully staffed, the Cowboys are one of the best teams in the league, as evidenced by their comprehensive win against the Chiefs earlier this month. If they're playing in the playoffs in January, they'll be the last team any of their potential opponents want to see. The trick is to get there.