Cowboys' Game Plan:
When the NFL set the schedule last spring, pitting the Cowboys against the Eagles on Christmas Day, it was looking for ratings. Having Terrell Owens face his former team would surely draw a crowd.
But as the Cowboys get set for Monday's matchup against the Eagles, the T.O. part of the game has been reduced to a minor story line.
First of all, the much anticipated rematch was pre-empted by the Cowboys' visit to Philadelphia in October.
That game was all about T.O. facing nemesis quarterback Donovan McNabb and the Eagles for the first time since last year's very public divorce.
But there is more on the line Monday than revenge for Owens, as the NFC East title is on the line.
The Cowboys (9-5) could clinch the division title with a victory over the Eagles (8-6). A Cowboys loss would put the Eagles in first place in the NFC East with one game to go by virtue of their victory over the Cowboys earlier in the season.
"The last time it was all about T.O.," cornerback Aaron Glenn said. "This time it's about the division. It's a lot bigger than T.O. It's us trying to win the division. It's a big one. This is why you play the game for situations like this. Either you are going to do it or you are not. This is the game you love to be in."
"This is really one of our biggest games," linebacker Bradie James said. "We all knew the Colts game was big. But we had to get over the hump with that game. Now we are here playing for the division. We hadn't done that since I have been here, so that goes without saying."
Considering that the Eagles have been revived by quarterback Jeff Garcia, there remains an Owens story line to this game.
Remember, the week began with Owens being fined $35,000 for spitting on Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall. But Hall is just the latest person to be disrespected by Owens. As before Hall and before McNabb last year, there was Garcia, who played with Owens in San Francisco. Among other things, Owens questioned Garcia's sexuality in an interview.
So it goes without saying that Garcia would love nothing more than to beat Owens and the Cowboys on Monday.
Still, from the Cowboys' point of view, nothing can top the distractions of the first meeting between the two teams in Philadelphia. Eagles fans were so riled up that the NFL brought in extra security for the game. They had extra security at the team hotel and security stationed behind the Cowboys bench during the game.
"It was crazy the last time," James said. "I was so happy that the game was over so we can play another game because it was so many story lines that didn't have anything to do with the game. Now the biggest thing is playing for our division. Hopefully the talk will be us against the Eagles and the not the rest of the stuff."
Eagles' Game Plan:
When the NFL schedule came out last April, the Eagles thought the league was playing some kind of a sick joke on them.
At Washington. At the New York Giants. At Dallas. All in a row. Three straight road games in December against the rest of the NFC East.
Winning three in a row against the rest of a division that, at the time, was viewed as the toughest in the NFL, seemed next to impossible. The Eagles just hoped they'd be able to stack up enough wins in the early part of the season to survive that three-game late-season division death march.
But it didn't quite work out the way head coach Andy Reid had hoped. After a 4-1 start, the Eagles proceeded to lose five of their next six and were teetering on the edge of playoff extinction after a 45-21 late November loss to Indianapolis left them 5-6.
For the second straight year, they also had lost their starting quarterback, Donovan McNabb, who suffered a season-ending knee injury the week before the loss to the Colts.
But then, a funny thing happened. Behind McNabb's 36-year-old replacement, Jeff Garcia, and running back Brian Westbrook, and a defense that rediscovered the art of the takeaway, the Eagles started winning again.
The Eagles used a last-minute end zone interception by Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard to squeak out a three-point win over Carolina. They then went down to Washington and held on to beat the Redskins by two points despite a 16-minute time-of-possession disadvantage. And then they went up to the Meadowlands and forced four turnovers in a 36-22 win.
Now, suddenly, they're at 8-6 and not only can clinch a playoff berth Monday with a win over the Cowboys in Dallas, but also can vault into first place in the division.
A year ago, the Eagles won just six games and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1999, Reid's first season in Philadelphia. They failed to win a single division game, going 0-6. If they beat the Cowboys on Christmas, they will finish their '06 division dance card with a 5-1 record, losing only to the Giants in overtime in Week 2 in a game they led in the fourth quarter, 24-7.
"I'll talk to you about that next week," Reid said when asked about his team's 4-1 division record. "We've got one more game left here in the division."
Even if they lose to Dallas, the Eagles still can clinch a wild card spot with a win at home over Atlanta on New Year's Eve in their final regular-season game. But if they beat the Cowboys, which they've already done once before this season (38-24 at home on October 8), both teams will have 9-6 records, but the Eagles will have the tie-breaker edge by virtue of their two head-to-head wins over Dallas. If they beat the Cowboys and then beat the Falcons, they would win the NFC East and either host a first-round game or possibly have a first-round bye.
The last time the Eagles faced the Cowboys, they sacked the quarterback seven times. But the Cowboys' quarterback in Week 5 was immobile Drew Bledsoe. Now, it's the elusive Tony Romo. Since that win over the Cowboys, the Eagles' pass rush has been non-existent. They've got just nine sacks in the last nine games.
Reid knows it's not going to be easy going on the road on Christmas and beating a team that has won six of its last eight games.
"I talked to the guys a little bit about it after the (Giants) game," he said. "They have to look at it like going to Dallas is a Christmas present (he was joking).
"I'm not sure there's any way around it. A lot of these guys have kids. That's tough. It's not an easy thing to do to be away on Christmas. But we have a pretty focused group. They'll work it out here."
Cowboys' News and Notes:
"You can say what you want but you're out there playing and when bad things are happening, you can call it what you want, but they happened," Parcells said. "So I don't know whether (it comes down to a lack of) experience, stage fright or whatever you want to call it. You choose your adjective."
"I think a lot is on the line especially with the playoff race in effect, so it's not only meaningful for me, but for this team as well," Owens said.
Eagles' News and Notes:
KEYS TO THE GAME: RB Julius Jones remains the starter for the Cowboys, but Marion Barber will continue to receive significant touches. His hard-nosed style should help wear down an undersized Eagles front seven, and if Dallas is successful on the ground it will open more man coverage for WRs Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn to work against downfield. The Eagles' Andy Reid is typically a pass-heavy coach, but the offense actually has one more run play than pass attempt since QB Jeff Garcia took over for Donovan McNabb. While the Cowboys are allowing 4.5 yards per carry their past three games, Garcia is going to have to push the ball downfield for the Eagles to keep pace. To beat the Cowboys, especially in Dallas, opponents have to take advantage of their struggles to defend the deep pass.