The Week 14 edition of "Sunday Night Football" is a gift of a matchup with first place in the NFC East on the line when the 10-2 Philadelphia Eagles visit the 9-3 Dallas Cowboys. Philadelphia held serve on its home turf in the first matchup, winning 28-23 in Week 9 in a game that was up for grabs until the final play when Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb caught a pass four yards away from the end zone.
This time, Dallas plays host, and it has taken full command at AT&T Stadium, winning its last 14 home games, good for the second-longest home winning streak in team history as well as the longest active one in the NFL The winner will assume first place in the NFC East, critical as winning the division ensures a home game in at least the team's first postseason contest. Prescott, Lamb and the Cowboys offense's ability to cash in drives near the red zone will ultimately have a critical impact on the winner of their rematch with the Eagles.
Dallas failed to score on three fourth-quarter drives that got inside the Philadelphia 30-yard line, something the Cowboys need to change to come out on top in Round 2. Lamb totaled a career-high 191 receiving yards in the loss, but he did not find the end zone. In the four games since, he has scored a touchdown each week, and Prescott's 26 touchdowns passes in 2023 are now the most in football. The Eagles secondary is susceptible given the unit has allowed 27 passing touchdowns, the second-most in the NFL ahead of only the Washington Commanders' 30. Philadelphia only allowed 22 a year ago during its NFC Championship-winning season.
"Yeah, huge," Prescott said when asked how critical winning on Sunday is as far as how it sets up their pursuit of the ultimate goal, a Super Bowl title. "Obviously it puts us in place for the division. Once again, I don't know how that shakes out to be honest with you. I just know we've got to get this game. There's multiple games left. So, we'll focus on that as we get there, but then also, in the sense of trying to get home field, understanding our success through the past couple of years and how great it would be to play the postseason here at home. It's huge. It's definitely a big game."
Here's a preview of some of the keys for each team on both sides of the ball plus a final score prediction.
How to watch
When the Eagles have the football
The Dallas defense limited Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and the Philly offense to its third-fewest total yards in a game this season (292) and its fourth-fewest net passing yards in a game this season (183).
The Cowboys forced four punts on the Eagles' last six drives in Week 9, the final three of which were three-and-outs. However, the two touchdowns they allowed to Philadelphia on its first two drives of the third quarter -- a 29-yard touchdown pass from Hurts to DeVonta Smith and a four-yard pass from Hurts to A.J. Brown -- saw their 17-14 halftime lead flip to a 28-17. This time around, there's a heightened sense of urgency to force turnovers.
"We have to have a chance to get the football and get it back to our offense," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Monday. "One of the things that make them who they are is how strong they are on third and fourth downs. They were right about 50% [against us in Week 9], which is right around what their average is. We have to be stronger in that spot. Some of these are going to turn into fourth downs. I think those are some of the big keys leaving that one and heading into [facing the Eagles] again."
One of the critical components of success will be limiting Hurts' legs. The 2022 NFL MVP runner-up quarterback has run for 50 first downs, the second-most of any player in the entire NFL, trailing only San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey's 63. Hurts has 121 carries this season, 35th in the NFL and nine more than the next-closest quarterback, Lamar Jackson, and his 112. That means Hurts averages a first down on 41.3% of his carries, the best such mark in the league. This success rate has come despite his designed runs per game dropping ever so slightly from 6.3 a game in 2022 to 6.0 per game in 2023. Some of that decline can be attributed to Hurts suffering a knee injury in Week 5 against the Los Angeles Rams.
The Eagles (10-2) have the best record through 13 weeks of the 2023 NFL season, and one of the many drivers of their success is their third- and fourth-down efficiency. Philly converts on third down at nearly a 50% clip, the third-highest conversion rate in the NFL. It converts fourth downs at a league-best conversion rate of 73.7%; no other team has a percentage in the 70s.
"As it relates to this week, one of the things Philadelphia does well amongst many is third down," Quinn said. "Going into our game the first time, they were hitting around 50% on third down, which is a really high number. Ironically that's the number they hit (against us, 7-for-14). That's where some of the secret sauce of this game is going to live because some of their third downs turn into fourth downs where they go. That's why I was referring to earlier in that they don't play in a traditional sense all the time on third downs. That adds another element to it. That's one of the games within the game. On third and fourth downs, that's going to be a big deal. We got to go make those stops in that space."
A key component to that NFL-best success is how effective the Eagles are at utilizing the rugby-style "tush push" quarterback sneak play. They convert third or fourth downs to first downs or goal line plays to touchdowns while using that play 87.5% (28-32) of the time. The rest of the NFL is barely above a 70% success rate (52-for-72) on the play.
"Every first down, it's first-and-9," Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni said after a 31-17 win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 7 in which the team successfully used the play on fourth-and-1 at their own 26-yard line. "Knowing that if you get to fourth-and-1, shoot, a lot of faith in that play.''
One of the keys to that productivity is simply getting into fourth-and-manageable situations, which the Eagles do by running the ball on an NFL-high 39.9% of their third downs.
"So oftentimes you'll see a team that's third-and-5 or third-and-4 or third-and-6, it's 100% pass," Quinn said Wednesday. "And that's why you see a lot of exotic defenses from you know blitzes and where to go. On their team that's not generally the case where you have some run and [run-pass option] actions into those, knowing that if it gets down to fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2, especially a fourth-and-1, they've been so successful at that play. Some of the third downs play like a second down knowing that fourth-and-1 is, in their mind, one of their most successful things that they do. So that's to me is where it's a little bit different. You see a lot of people try to do it a similar way, but they're the very best in terms of the quarterback sneak."
In order to defeat the Eagles early to avoid seeing the "tush push," Dallas may turn up the heat even more than usual just like Week 9. The Cowboys blitz on 35% of opponent dropbacks, the sixth-highest rate in the NFL overall. On first down this season, they're around league average when it comes to blitz rate (30.2%, 14th in the NFL). Quinn and Co. have turned up the heat on second down as well as third and fourth downs, and those trends only became more defined in Week 9.
Cowboys blitz rates by down this season (NFL ranks)
|BLITZ RATE/DROPBACK IN WEEK 9 LOSS AT EAGLES
"One thing (the 49ers did in their 42-19 Week 13 win), they kept the ball in front of them," Parsons said. "They made the Eagles earn everything. They didn't give up any big plays, that's always the key when you got an explosive team like the Eagles, they are very explosive. They did a great job containing Hurts and things like that. It didn't show up in the stats, we got some real good rushers over here too that are able to get after them pretty well."
San Francisco limited Philadelphia to one fourth-and-1 situation, which of course it did convert for a first down. Dallas looks to copy that formula Sunday night.
"That's the key. If you watch the game, think about how many fourth-and-1s the Eagles had," Parsons said. "The 49ers won on first and second down, and third down they made them force it because they didn't feel confident. You've almost got to strip the confidence. Then once they got the ball and started scoring, they forced them to play into their game and they let their rushers go. That's always the key when you're a playing a team like the Eagles. You don't really want them to get second-and-5 or things like that. Because when they get to second-and-5, they're like, 'Hey, we've got three downs right here, I know we're going to get four yards in the next two downs.' Winning those crucial downs is going to be important so the guys up front are going to have to play big this week."
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When the Cowboys have the football
In the same way that Christopher Walken needed more cowbell from Will Ferrell in the "classic Saturday Night Live" skit, the Cowboys can always use more CeeDee Lamb. The two-time Pro Bowler's 90 catches are the most in Cowboys history through the first 12 games of a season, and his 1,182 receiving yards have him on pace to break Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Irvin's single-season franchise receiving yards record of 1,603 set in 1995.
CeeDee Lamb stats in 2023 season
|Passer rating when targeted
Prescott's connection with Lamb, particularly on deep balls, has made the 24-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl receiver one of the most productive receiver in the league. His 318 receiving yards on go routes or vertical routes are the third-most in the league on an individual route, according to Next Gen Stats. One of the players he trails is Tyreek Hill, who is on pace to be the first player in NFL history with 2,000 receiving yards in a single season.
"The guy's a playmaker, he's fast," Prescott said when talking about what makes Lamb so effective going deep. "You've got to stretch the field, and I think we do that, show that we're going to do to that, it allows everything to come off of that. That's a credit to Mike [McCarthy] and just way we want to attack people. We're going to attack you and you've got to respect that and when you do, that opens up the whole playbook."
Lamb creates separation downfield better than almost anyone thanks to his ability to utilize his footspeed and leverage downfield when the ball is in the air.
"So the defensive back when you're running over, he's taught to lean into the window and try to shorten the space of the (throwing) window, and CeeDee has a very natural ability to stack and get on top or at least hold off the DB," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said Thursday. "That coincides with Dak's ability to throw the ball with good air because he trusts CeeDee. He knows CeeDee is going to be able to make the play on the ball, contested or not. Fifty-fifty ball or not, which allows [Prescott] to do a really good job of holding the safety (with his eyes). Safeties in this league, they play deep. Most of them can run really well. It's a number of things, but I think there's a part of it that goes back to the me-to-you factor. They've been throwing go balls together for a long time, and that's important."
Lamb's biggest focus when it comes to running go routes is simple: do it over and over again to strike fear into the opposing defense.
"Just want them to see it," Lamb said. "I'm a threat with the ball in my hands, but definitely the deep ball. Just getting those up and down and letting the defensive coordinator and defensive backs know that we can go behind you. I feel like along with that every route underneath that is open."
Prescott's play has improve in a massive way since Week 6, after the 49ers defeat, as he leads the NFL in passing yards per game (310.4), passing touchdowns (21), passer rating (121.5) and expected points added per play (0.34). Reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes averaged 0.25 expected points added/play during his 2022 campaign.
Dak Prescott since Week 6
"It's the level of productivity, and I think the consistency of it," McCarthy said Monday when asked how he would define an NFL MVP. "To be able to go out there week in and week out and put your team in position through production and performance to win the game. [Prescott's] obviously done that at an extremely high level here these last six weeks."
The numbers back up McCarthy's claim, as Prescott is one of only six players in NFL history to put up a seven-game stretch like he has in a single season. Three of the previous five walked away with league MVP honors at the end of the year.
70% comp pct, 300 pass YPG, 3 pass TD/game in 7-game span
(single season, NFL history)
One of the critical areas in which Prescott has taken a major leap in his first season with McCarthy calling plays is his ball security. He became the first player in NFL history to lead or co-lead the NFL in interceptions (15, tied with Texans quarterback Davis Mills in 2022) after missing five or more games last season. This season, his 1.3% turnover-worthy play rate is the lowest in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, as Prescott leads the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (26.6). That percentage is much closer to his career interception rate of 1.9%, tied for the eighth-lowest in NFL history with Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson, than his 3.8% interception rate from 2022.
Dak Prescott stats (2023 season)
|NFL QB RANK
|Expected points added/play
"It's just the discipline, the connection with his teammates, understanding the offense," McCarthy said when asked why Prescott has improved with his ball security in 2023. "He has total command. It's something we frequently speak about he needs to own the offense, starting with the cadence, the huddle command, the schematic communication, the process during the week and obviously, it always comes down to how you perform. He has that personality, he has that understanding. I clearly feel strongly where he is and frankly excited about where these guys can go off of him. It starts with him, his command and his ownership."
In order for Prescott and Lamb to make the most of their edge against the Eagles struggling secondary, Prescott will need more time to throw. He was sacked a season-high five times in the Week 9 with right tackle Terence Steele, who is still not 100% after tearing his ACL last season. Steele has allowed 39 quarterback pressures this season, the second-most in the entire NFL, and seven sacks, tied for the sixth-most in the NFL. He allowed 11 quarterback pressures against Philadelphia in Week 9, the second most allowed in a game this season ahead of only Carolina Panthers guard Chandler Zavala's 13 at the Seahawks in Week 3, and four sacks, tied for the most allowed in a single game across the entire league in 2023.
How well Prescott is protected could be the difference between in a win and loss on Sunday.
Score: Cowboys 31, Eagles 24
Dallas lost the first matchup between these teams despite outgaining Philadelphia, 406-292, and stifling the Eagles offense for much of the second half. The difference was the Cowboys failing to punch the football into the end zone on their three fourth-quarter drives that reached at least the Eagles 30-yard line.
One player who could make a difference for Dallas in that area near the end zone this time around is running back Tony Pollard. He suffered a gruesome, fractured left fibula injury in the NFC Divisional Round loss at the San Francisco 49ers in January. Since Week 10, after last playing the Eagles, Pollard has been a much more hard-charging, elusive runner as more time passes since his leg injury.
His 30% tackles avoided rate is the second-highest in the NFL since Week 10 among 20 players with at least 50 carries, and his 3.4 yards after contract per carry is the third-highest in the NFL in the same span. Pollard's three rushing touchdowns across the last three games are more than the two he had in the Cowboys' first nine. His ability to be a red zone weapon makes the difference for Dallas in a game with massive NFC playoff seeding implications.