Thanksgiving is next week, and we're about to hit the stretch run of the 2014 NFL season. The league, with its unquenchable thirst for drama and desire to eliminate ratings-killing starter-sitting, has shifted its scheduling to a super division-heavy slate in late November and early December. Think you have a grasp on the playoff picture though 11 weeks? You don't -- and things are about to get crazy.
Let's take a look at where the two teams sit right now, then you can place your bets on who comes out on top.
Football Outsiders' Playoff Odds has Philly at 61.0 percent to win the NFC East and Dallas at 38.9 percent. Overall, FO has the Eagles with a 73.4 percent chance to make the playoffs and the Cowboys at 63.9 percent. Their numbers are based on 50,000 simulations using their proprietary DVOA metric, which has the Eagles as the eighth-ranked team in the NFL and Dallas 12th.
Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight's ELO metric has the Eagles' chances to win the East at 58 percent and their odds to make the playoffs at 71 percent. The Cowboys are at 42 percent to win the division and 82 percent to make the playoffs.
If that doesn't make much sense to you, here's the takeaway -- both teams have a good shot at making the playoffs, but the East is still very much up for grabs, with Philly favored slightly.
The Eagles host the Titans this week before traveling to Dallas in Week 13. They return home to face the Seahawks before hosting the Cowboys. They then head onto the road to finish at Washington and at the Giants.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys travel to New York to play the Giants this week, host Philly, then head to Chicago to play the Bears. They stay on the road against the Eagles before coming home to host Andrew Luck and the Colts. They finish off on the road in Washington.
Per Football Outsiders' DVOA, the Eagles have the 24th-ranked future schedule, while Dallas gets the 21st-toughest homestretch. Not terrible, but neither schedule looks like a ton of fun, particularly in that both squads have some interesting cold weather games to potentially deal with.
Philly gets to play in their own place, at Washington, and at New York, while Dallas will have to travel to Chicago, Philly, and Washington. Snow, sleet, rain, sub-zero temps, and wind could be factors, not to mention rock hard footballs and sloppy fields. Just how it should be -- it's that time of year.
Where things stand
Through 11 weeks, the Cowboys are seventh in the NFL in points per game at 26.1. The Eagles are sitting pretty at fourth with 29.9 points per game. Both teams can get into the end zone, obviously.
In a flip flop from last season, Dallas is now the NFC East's dominant run team (second in the NFL with 153.2 yards per game) while the Eagles are mid-level (14th with 114.2 yards per game) after leading the NFL last year. The 'Boys throw it 234.3 yards per game on average (14th), compared to he Eagles' 292.6 (4th). Only the Colts and Saints throw the ball more than the Eagles, and only the Seahawks, Browns, and Texans run it more than Dallas. Interesting changes in identity over last season.
In more general terms -- the Cowboys are riding a dominant offensive line led by Tryon Smith, Zach Martin, and Travis Frederick. They made history earlier this year with DeMarco Murray's first eight games going over 100 yards each. They've combined this run game with Tony Romo's explosive passing attack, and balance has made Dallas a legit contender. They were arguably the NFL's best team over the first half of the season and found a way to take pressure off Romo to carry the offense. With the threat of the run, the Cowboys have been able to air it out with efficiency -- their 8.1 yards per pass attempt is third in the NFL behind Green Bay and Washington.
Dallas has DeMarco Murray (1,223 yards, seven touchdowns) and their run game to attack the middle of the defense, and have Dez Bryant (56 catches, 793 yards, eight touchdowns), Jason Witten, and Terrance Williams to attack the seams and the outside. Defenses are damned if they do, and damned if they don't. As an offense, this is what you want.
NFL Power Rankings
NFL Power Rankings
As for the Eagles, the rushing attack hasn't been as potent as last year (LeSean McCoy with 729 yards, two touchdowns and Darren Sproles 257 yards, four touchdowns), when they took the NFL by storm. The outsize zone read runs haven't been as explosive and Shady has had a tougher time getting loose into the second level. Injuries on the line haven't helped in that area.
At 7-3, Philly's obviously doing some things really well, and on offense, the passing game has ramped up. Chip Kelly's ingenuity in his offensive schemes give his quarterbacks well-defined reads and help get receivers open and in space. Jeremy Maclin has led the way for Philly in a bounce-back season with 57 catches for 921 yards and nine touchdowns thus far this year, and he's buoyed by rookie Jordan Matthews (44/558/6) and Riley Cooper (36/371/1).
Of course, the biggest story on the offensive side of the ball has been Nick Foles' injury and Mark Sanchez's promotion to starter. Foles' numbers had dipped from last year's improbably efficient outburst, and now the Eagles face the prospect of going through the ringer to end the year with Sanchez under center. The former Jet performed well in his first outing, throwing for 322 yards and two touchdowns against Carolina, but he wasn't close to enough against the Packers in Green Bay, connecting on 26 of 44 passes for 362 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
One of the most important numbers for the Cowboys' first eleven games of the 2014 season is 591. That's the number of defensive snaps they've taken this season, the lowest total in the NFL, and a big part of the reason Dallas' defense has fared considerably better than some had predicted. Dallas gives up 348 yards per game (15th) and 5.9 yards per play (26th), but because their offense is on the field so much, they've managed to only give up 21.2 points per game, good for 10th best in the NFL. Their defense is ranked 21st by Football Outsiders DVOA.
Free agent Henry Melton has been a strong edition to the defensive line. He's already grabbed five sacks from the interior -- no small feat. Rolando McClain could arguably be in the discussion for Comeback Player of the Year as he's had a renaissance with the Cowboys after busting his way out of the league in Oakland. The 'Boys get DT Tyrone Crawford back soon for the homestretch, which should be a nice boost.
Dallas isn't the most talented defense in the NFL, but they fly around and play hard. If they can maintain a level of play somewhere near their first ten games, they'll help put Dallas in a good spot.
Meanwhile, the Eagles' raw numbers aren't pretty -- they have given up 377 yards per game (26th), 5.4 yards per play (14th), and 25.1 points per game (20th), but on an advanced stats efficiency scale, they sit at eighth in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA metric. Part of Philly's problem with running an ultra-fast offense is that the defense tends to see a lot of snaps and possessions as well - 700 on the year thus far, which is the 4th most in the NFL.
Connor Barwin has become a surprising standout this season. He has 10.5 sacks, including maybe the most violent one the NFL has seen this season:
The Eagles secondary has taken a little heat after losses to the Packers and Cardinals this season so they'll have to tighten up over the next six weeks. Malcolm Jenkins leads the team in picks with three.
The stories to follow
For Dallas, much of their hope for winning the NFC East hinges on Tony Romo's back. He suffered two fractures in his transverse process but has only missed one game -- a testament to his toughness and mental fortitude. That said, he has to continue to take good care of his body and avoid re-aggravating the injury. Brandon Weeden is just not the same player as Romo. In Weeden's one start this year, he went 18-of-33 for 183 yards, a touchdown and a pick. Dallas' offense is neutered without their long-time signal caller in there.
The other thing to watch with Dallas is obviously the health of DeMarco Murray. Murray's already rushed the ball 244 times, nearly 50 attempts more than the next most prolific NFL back (Shady McCoy). Can Murray keep his record pace up in the last six weeks of the season while retaining his explosion and power as a runner? That will be a huge question to keep in mind.
As for the Eagles, the main obvious storyline is the impending question of whether we'll see Mark Sanchez explode or implode. Sanchez didn't work out in New York with the Jets but has gotten an amazing second chance with his new team. With Foles out indefinitely with a collar bone injury, Sanchez will be auditioning for not only the chance to lead the Eagles into the upcoming playoffs, but to rebuild his name and reputation as a starting quarterback in this league. The Eagles will need him until they can figure out how to get McCoy and Sproles back on track.
There's no easy answer. Both teams sit at 7-3. Right now, the Eagles have tie-breakers over the Cowboys in the form of a better division record, but the two teams have the same conference record. After the gauntlet both teams will have to run through to get to the end of the season, there's no telling who will come out on top.