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Eagles, Cowboys ready to battle for NFC East title Sunday in Dallas

  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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It's possible the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings will go back to playing as they did when they once looked like co-owners of the NFC.

Until that time, the Philadelphia Eagles, who have won six consecutive games, and the Dallas Cowboys, who rebounded from a 0-2 start to December with impressive victories over the Saints and Washington Redskins, share the distinction of being the hottest teams in the conference.

And unless the Saints and Vikings prove otherwise, the Eagles and Cowboys are the clubs that seemingly would be the last that anyone would want to face in the playoffs.

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"We're hot right now," Eagles tight end Brent Celek said. "(The Cowboys) don't have that long of a streak, but they are definitely a hot team, too. They are playing very well right now."

Appropriately enough, the NFL schedule has these teams facing each other in Sunday's regular-season finale at the Cowboys' new stadium with the NFC East title and playoff seeding positions on the line.

It's the perfect blend of a heated rivalry and a game with major ramifications for both sides, something not always found in Week 17. No one will be debating about if or how long the starters will be playing in this one.

"Basically everything that we've wanted all season comes down to one game against the Dallas Cowboys, who have been the big rival of us," Celek said. "We're so excited to go down there and play them in their new stadium. We understand that it's a huge game, and for us to be where we want to be, we have to win this game."

Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears has tried to downplay the game's magnitude for fear that it could create a distraction. But he knows he can't refer to it as "any other game" while keeping a straight face.

"As a team, we all have an understanding of what this game means and also putting us in the position to move forward," Spears said. "I think any time you have an opportunity like this, you need to do everything you can to try to make sure that you get it done."

The Eagles have been riding the wave of their explosive, quick-striking, high-scoring offense. They've been good for most of the season, but have played exceptionally well through their winning streak.

In the last six games, the Eagles have outscored opponents, 99-50, in the first half. Much of that is due to the familiarity that younger plays -- such as second-year wide receiver DeSean Jackson, a Pro Bowl selection; rookie receiver Jeremy Maclin, and rookie running back LeSean McCoy, who was pressed into heavier duty after Brian Westbrook suffered a concussion -- have with the scheme and their teammates.

"We were all young early in the season and once you play for a while with the same guys and you kind of stay healthy throughout the entire year, you start to get (into) a groove," Celek said. "You understand where guys are going to run certain routes. You just start to jell together as a team, and I think that's what we've done these past few weeks."

For the Cowboys, the turnaround after losing to the Giants and Chargers to begin December came from the players' collective willingness to reevaluate themselves. They concluded that they weren't paying close enough attention to details.

Since the start of the Saints' game, Spears has seen a team that is more focused on the mission it had before the season began.

"We have a goal and we're just playing to try to get to where we want to be," he said. "I think every guy on this team has that in mind; everybody's pushing more towards that. Even when we lost those two games, nobody really saw it as a state of emergency or a reason to panic. And to be a good football team, you've got to sometimes face that adversity and be able to bounce back from it.

"We've won two in a row, but at the same time, we're still not where we want to be. We're keeping a sort of humility through this thing. We still feel like it's a little premature to be talking about what we've accomplished."

Tony Romo, Miles Austin, and the rest of the NFL's third-ranked offense has grabbed much of the attention the past two games. But Dallas' defense has also been a large part of the story.

It clearly drew inspiration from the fact that linebacker DeMarcus Ware came back from a scary neck injury he suffered against San Diego on Dec. 13 to have two game-changing sacks, forcing a fumble on each, a week later at New Orleans. Ware's status on the Cowboys is, according to Spears, similar to that of what Michael Jordan had in the prime of his NBA career.

"It's just like when Chicago would give Jordan the ball and clear everybody out, you knew a play was about to be made," Spears said. "And when he went down, I think everybody said, 'All right, we've got to try to somehow make a way to compensate for what we lost.' It's hard to do when you lose a guy like that.

"And then for him to come back and play in the Saints game and play as well as he did? He was in pain, but he was out there for the guys that he played and battled with every day in practice and every Sunday. As a team, and as guys looking at that, it should do something for you. And when you've got guys playing for each other and kind of getting out of that selfish mentality and wanting to be that guy who makes all the plays and you're playing for those guys next to you, you tend to be a better football team as a whole."

The Cowboys' defense was particularly strong in their 20-16 victory at Philadelphia on Nov. 8. They held the Eagles below their season averages for points scored and yards. Jackson, whose receiving touchdowns in five straight games puts him one short of a franchise record, was held to only two catches for 29 yards.

"They had our number in the first game, so we're going to have to bring everything we've got in the second game to be able to beat them," Celek said. "We understand there are going to be ups and downs throughout the game and it's going to be a dogfight. We have to stay level-headed. If we get down or if we get up by a lot, we just have to keep the same mindset where we keep playing the ball that we did when it was 0-0. If we do that, then we'll be fine against them.

"But sometimes when you play teams that are your rival, you can get up by a lot, kind of feel like you're winning the game, and then you let down a little bit and the next thing you know they're right back into it. We've just got to be consistent throughout the game."

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