Monday, January 04, 2010

NFC East Champs: Dal 24, Phi 0

The Cowboys have exorcised their December Demons. Now they much conquer their January Jitters.

Wade Phillips' defense posted a second consecutive shutout as the Cowboys rolled to a 24-0 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles to clinch the NFC East and a home playoff game next week, setting up a rematch between Dallas and Philly. The franchise's first-ever posting of back-to-back shutouts gave the Cowboys their third-straight win -- most among all playoff bound teams in the NFC -- and cost the Eagles a chance to clinch a first-round bye.

For all skeptics who say the Eagles held back and figured they'd just regroup to get after the Cowboys next week, I say hooey! No team capable of playing for a first-round bye lollygags through their final game to not only miss out on a week off but also forfeits any chance of a home playoff game. Oh sure, perhaps once the fourth quarter rolls around and Philly was down 24-0 they let up a little, but it's not like they pulled starters.

Dallas had everything to play for and came through to avenge last season's crushing 44-6 loss at the Linc to end the year and cost the Cowboys a shot at the postseason. Now the Cowboys are NFC East Division champs for the second time in Wade Phillips' three seasons as head coach.

The only real glitch of the day seemed to come late in the fourth quarter when the massive video board went out.

The Dallas defense worked efficiently to keep the Eagles off the field and the offense held the ball for more than 40 minutes. The Cowboys dominated every facet of the game to bullrush the Eagles, and while this game may not "count" as much as next week, that does not mean the contest was meaningless. Quite the contrary. The Cowboys now advance to the playoffs with something they haven't had in a decade: momentum.

More thoughts on the Division-winning day:
+ Defense
HOW BOUT THAT DEFENSE! Wade Phillips came in to Dallas in 2007 claiming to be Mr. Fix It, and it's hard to argue with his results after he took the reigns of this defense and guided them to be the best in the conference. The Cowboys posted a second shutout in a season (not to mention a second in a row) for only the third time in 50 years. The Eagles offense had three drives of more than four plays, but only one of those drives ended with a chance for points, a missed field goal from 53 yards. After that missed field goal, the Cowboys forced Philly to punt five straight times with four three-and-outs.

While you can make the argument that once it was 24-0 heading into the fourth quarter the Eagles weren't pushing as hard, but don't buy in to the fact that they were "saving something" or were "holding back" to prepare for next week. No team at all would give up a chance for the coveted first-round bye and a home playoff game to be able to come back to a division rival's house in less than a week. It doesn't make sense. It's not a valid point. Stuff it.

When Philly needed it the most, the Cowboys defense held them to their least. The Eagles got the ball to start the second half, trailing 17-0 and began driving toward Cowboys territory. The drive stalled and David Akers missed his lone attempt of the day. But when the Cowboys offense came out flat and punted on consecutive drives, the Cowboys defense forced Philly to do the same. With the Eagles offense held in check, Dallas needed just two plays to spring Fast Felix Jones done the left side for a long touchdown run. Jones, being led by right tackle Doug Free, provided a homerun shot that gave Philly a reason to seemingly mail it in for the final 20 minutes of the game.

Specifically, Anthony Spencer is becoming a beast opposite DeMarcus Ware. Coming into the season, many in Cowboysland had jitters with the departure of Greg Ellis, but Spencer has come on strong after a slow start to the season. He added another pair of sacks to his season total as Donovan McNabb faced constant pressure from the Cowboys front seven.

The other Cowboys defender who has really progressed in 2009, Mike Jenkins, again had a phenomenal day. The Eagles offense lives, thrives, off the big play. Deep balls to Desean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin or Brent Celek feed the black and green. Instead Jenkins and the Cowboys secondary starved the Eagles of the big play they so desperately needed. On one play, Jenkins out-leaped a receiver to tip a ball away and prevent a long gain.

Yes there were a few miscues on the Eagles that helped Dallas' cause. If McNabb doesn't overthrow Jackson or if Maclin catches the balls he dropped, perhaps this game is much closer in the 4th quarter than the 24-0 buffer the Cowboys built up.

+ Offense
With the Cowboys defense playing so well, it's easy to forget just how high-profile this offense was/is/can be. Tony Romo had another 300+ yard game, his eighth of the season (the Cowboys went 7-1 this year with Romo passing for 300+ yards). His passes looked crisp yet again and he was error-free save the tipped-ball-interception in the first quarter.

The Cowboys got it done on the ground and in the air pretty evenly. 34 passing attempts and 32 rushing attempts compared to Philadelphia's 36 passing attempts and 10 rushes. The Eagles have always been an unbalanced team, and they were behind which led to more passes. But the Cowboys rushing game controlled the clock and the passing game took advantage of the Philly secondary creeping up to stop the run. Marion Barber and Felix Jones each rushed for 91 yards on 14 and 15 carries respectively. That's the running game this team displayed early in the season.

In the passing game, Miles Austin grabbed a team-high 7 catches for 90 yards while Patrick Crayton, who is emerging as the true #2 receiver as Roy Williams continues to fade, caught 4 balls for 99 yards and a touchdown. With Austin consistently able to make plays and Crayton seemingly peaking going into the playoffs, do the Cowboys dare pull Roy Williams in favor of an Austin-Crayton duo at receiver. Williams did not record a catch and was thrown to just once in this game, a ball that either got away from Romo or Williams stopped running to on 3rd & 2 from the 26. Whoever's fault it was, it was an ugly result from what should have been a pretty play. While the Cowboys settled for a 44-yard field goal instead of a third first-half touchdown, Dallas missed a chance to have the Eagles put away even sooner and give starters a better opportunity to come out of the game.

+ Special Teams
One of the best players on the Cowboys special teams unit has to be David Buehler, the kickoff specialist. He set a new franchise record for touchbacks in a season by adding four more on five kicks in the game against the Eagles. Last season the Cowboys did not have even one touchback on a kickoff with Nick Folk handling the job, thus the Cowboys brought in a specialist. After 16 games, it's clear that Buehler was well worth his roster spot. And it's certainly not a wasted spot as the USC product also covers punts and blocks on returns. He may be the definition of a modern day special teamer.

To give you an idea, the starting field position for the Eagles yesterday (all on their own yard lines): the 20, 14, 19, 20, 20, 12, 20, 20, 20, 50, 47. By the time the Eagles got any decent starting field position, the game was already decided. And with the way the Cowboys defense has been playing in recent weeks, very few offenses will be able to drive on the Cowboys 80 yards for a score, let alone doing it multiple times.

However the special teams unit wasn't all peaches and cream. Placekicker Shaun Suisham raised more questions with a missed 30-yard field goal than he answered with his 44-yard make. He also squeaked his first extra-point just inside the upright. Frankly, the Cowboys need to be scoring touchdowns in the playoffs and hope that it doesn't come down to a kicker or else things could be very, very tense in the postseason.

+ Round 3 vs. Philly
Today everyone is talking about how it's so hard to beat a team three times in the NFL just because of the level of competition. Frankly, you'd have trouble convincing me the Colts couldn't beat the Lions three times. I realize that's a exaggerated example, but which team would you rather be: the team that's won the first two meetings or the team that lost both times? The answer is obvious.

The odds are also in the Cowboys favor (to some degree). In the 19 times since the 1970 merger that a team has faced an opponent in the playoffs it swept in two regular season games, teams have won 12 of the game to complete a three-game sweep. Granted the Cowboys have been in that position twice (1998, 2007) and lost playoff games against division rivals Arizona and New York, respectively, so side with whichever trend you choose.

Dallas has a chance to spoil the Eagles hot-streak (Philly has won 6 of it's last 7 games) with another win in the Wild Card Round on Saturday Night. It was a Saturday Night playoff game that saw Romo's infamous bobble in 2006. Perhaps it's a chance for another ghost to be exorcised in front of the NBC audience. The Cowboys got their revenge for last year's season-ending defeat in Philly. Now they can officially turn the tables with another win in the third meeting against the Eagles.

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