|James D Smith / Associated Press|
|Miles Austin helped Dallas win the Week 9 matchup vs. Philadelphia with a 49-yard touchdown catch.|
If you're looking for a favorite to emerge in the NFC, look to the winner of the Dallas-Philadelphia showdown to carry the mantle heading into the postseason.
The Saints are in the midst of a two-game losing streak, and they havenât played good football in all three phases in a little over a month. The Vikings, on the other hand, have dropped three of four games, and the Brett Favre controversy indicates signs of discord within their locker room.
The Eagles, who are riding a six-game winning streak, have terrorized opponents with a quick-strike offense that features a bevy of playmakers at the skill positions.
Jackson, who has emerged as the leagueâs top big-play specialist with 12 touchdowns as a receiver/runner/returner, teams with Jeremy Maclin (52 receptions for 715 yards and four touchdowns) to give the Eagles a pair of speedsters in their aerial attack. Coach Andy Reid takes advantage of their explosiveness by routinely dialing up deep throws early in the game to stretch the defense.
With opponents forced to defend the long ball, TE Brent Celek and WR Jason Avant take turns picking apart the underneath areas of zone coverage. Add the lethal trio of Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver on the ground, and the Eagles have the ability to produce against even the best defenses.
As if the Eaglesâ dynamic offense isnât problematic enough for opponents, NFC foes have to contend with an aggressive defense that overwhelms foes with a host of exotic blitzes. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has closely followed the script of the late Jim Johnson, and attacked opponents with numerous overload blitzes. The high-risk, high-reward tactics have resulted in Philadelphia holding opponents to only 20.9 points per game, and led to 37 takeaways (tied for second-most in the league).
With a high-scoring offense and an ultra-aggressive defense, the Eagles have all of the requisite components to be a title contender.
The Cowboys, who have won eight of their last 11 games, have finally shaken their annual December malaise and are playing their best football of the season.
Tony Romo, in particular, has been sensational in directing the offense over the past five games. He has amassed a passer rating of 100 or more in four of his last five starts, and has tossed nine touchdowns with only one interception during that span. Although Romo has regularly posted gaudy numbers, it has been his improved game management that has been most impressive. While he has always been at his best when making improvisational plays from the pocket, he has cut down the number of chaotic throws made under duress. The more disciplined approach has resulted in fewer turnovers and game-changing mistakes.
Interestingly, Romoâs more efficient play has coincided with the team taking more deep shots early in games. The Cowboys have attacked defenses by throwing downfield to Miles Austin in the gameâs opening stages to set the table for the rest of their offense. The use of the vertical passing game has forced opponents to loosen their coverage early, which has allowed TE Jason Witten to re-emerge as a key factor.
In addition to attacking defenses with more vertical throws, the Cowboys have gotten back to using their powerful rush attack to control the tempo of the game. Marion Barber and Felix Jones are getting more touches in critical junctures, and the renewed commitment to the run has enabled the teamâs massive offensive line to wear down opponents by gameâs end.
With the Cowboys' offense finally clicking on all cylinders, the defense started to impose its will on opponents. Led by OLB DeMarcus Ware, Dallas has held seven of its last nine opponents to 17 points or fewer. Ware has been the primary catalyst to the surge, as he has racked up 11.0 sacks in the past 11 games. Additionally, his constant harassment off the edge has forced more harried throws from the pocket, which has produced more takeaways by the secondary.
Although the pressure from the front seven has clearly led to more turnover opportunities for the back end, the stellar play of Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman is noteworthy. The duo has not allowed the ball to fly over their heads in recent weeks, and the reduction of big plays has empowered coach Wade Phillips to be more aggressive with his pressure package. As a result, the Cowboys are using more five- and six-man blitzes, and crushing quarterbacks in the pocket with their attack-style defense. With a defense that is starting to show the swagger and confidence of a champion, the Cowboys are perfectly suited to end the "one-and-done" playoff hex that has plagued the franchise since 1996.
On Sunday, we will get a chance to see these bitter NFC East rivals battle for division supremacy, and the winner will be well on its way to representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.