The Eastern Front: NFC East Game Scout

The Eastern Front 11.13.05--NFC East Game Scout--Can Brad Johnson and the Vikings pull the upset in the Meadowlands? And, can the Cowboys put another nail in the Eagles' coffin or does Philly still have some fight left in it?

Minnesota Vikings (3-5) at New York Giants (6-2)

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 11/13/05
SURFACE: FieldTurf
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Brian Baldinger, Jay Glazer

SERIES:

21st meeting. The series is tied 10-10, but the Giants have beaten the Vikings each of the past three seasons at the Metrodome. The teams are 6-6 against each other in New York/New Jersey. The Vikings and Giants have played the last six seasons, but this will be the first regular-season meeting at Giants Stadium since 1999.

*2005 RANKINGS:

Vikings: offense 24th (23rd rush, 17th pass); defense 27th (26th rush, 23rd pass). Giants: offense 12th (9th rush, 16th pass); defense 25th (9th rush, 28th pass)

PREDICTION:

Giants 27-24

KEYS TO THE GAME:

With their already beleaguered secondary minus injured CB Fred Smoot, the Vikings, who have allowed a league-high six touchdowns to tight ends, must find a way to deal with Giants TE Jeremy Shockey. To prevent QB Eli Manning & Co. from moving the ball through the air at will, the Vikings, who are back to a 4-3 alignment, must get a strong pass rush. They also need a strong running game on offense to protect immobile QB Brad Johnson and avoid getting run out of the building after getting outscored 133-34 in their first four road games. But Johnson will need to make some plays downfield, because the Giants' defense is far stronger against the run than the pass.

FAST FACTS:

Vikings: Rookie P Chris Kluwe is second in the league with a 47.1-yard average. No rookie has led the league since Bob Grupp in 1979 (43.6). ... RB Michael Bennett rushed for a career-high 167 yards against the Giants on Nov. 10, 2002. Giants: Seek third 7-2 start since 1990. They reached the Super Bowl the previous two times. ... Manning has thrown at least one touchdown pass in nine consecutive games.

PERSONNEL NEWS:

Vikings:

--QB Daunte Culpepper has selected renowned orthopedist James Andrews to perform surgery on his right knee. Culpepper tore the anterior cruciate, medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in the knee in the Vikings' loss at Carolina on Oct. 30. Culpepper has been waiting for the swelling to go down and the procedure is expected to take place early next week.

--RB Mewelde Moore practiced for a second consecutive day despite having to wear a splint on his sprained right wrist. Moore has said he will play and also continue to return punts, but coach Mike Tice made it clear that Thursday's practice would be a crucial test. That is one of the Vikings' most physical practices of the week, and Tice said Moore needed to prove he can block. If Moore can't play, Michael Bennett will get the start.

--DL Spencer Johnson will miss a game for the third time in four weeks because of an injury to his right knee. That could force the Vikings to mix in some more 3-4 looks with the 4-3 defense they returned to using the majority of the time last week. Rookie nose tackle C.J. Mosley will suit up if Johnson can't go.

--DE Erasmus James, who saw limited action in the second half of Sunday's game against Detroit because of a strained hamstring, is fine and should see plenty of action Sunday.

--CB Brian Williams has taken over for Fred Smoot as the starter. Smoot will miss four to six weeks with a fractured right collarbone.

--RB Moe Williams will miss a second consecutive game because of knee and back injuries. Williams attempted to practice Wednesday but sat out Thursday.

--Rookie RB Ciatrick Fason will remain in the third-and-1 role normally held by Moe Williams.

--Rookie WR Troy Williamson returned to practice Thursday after missing one day because of an illness.

Giants:

--SS Shaun Williams (re-injured hamstring) is likely not to play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. He has played in all eight games this season, starting none of them. Williams, the No. 1 draft pick in 1998, is the team co-leader with two interceptions. He also has 16 tackles and two passes defensed.

--RCB Will Peterson (back, likely stress fracture of the transverse process), started only the second and third games of the season and has been inactive for the other six. There is no indication that he will play any time soon, and in fact reports hold that within the next two weeks, pending a final medical exam, he could be placed on season-ending injured reserve.

--RT Kareem McKenzie, signed as a free agent from the New York Jets last spring and the team's highest-paid offensive lineman, has been a bulwark in run blocking but not quite as effective against the pass rush. "You need to know the guys you're playing against," he says, "and I don't know much about the ends in this conference. Even if we played them when I was with the Jets, it was only once every two or three years."

--QB Eli Manning, when asked if he had heard the early predictions that Super Bowl XL might be a Manning Bowl, visibly grimaced. "No, we don't talk about that kind of stuff," he said. "We only think about the next game. I don't get to see my brother (Peyton, the Indianapolis QB) play on television much, I am not going to deal with any of those kinds of speculations."

--LG David Diehl has been available for 40 Giants games since joining the team as a fifth-round pick in the 2003 draft, and he has started all 40 - the first 16 as the RT, the next 16 at RG and the past at LG. "I don't care where I play," he said, "as long as its on the offensive line and as long as I'm starting."

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Vikings:

Zygi Wilf's first season as Vikings owner has been far more difficult than he could have expected, but a victory Sunday over the host New York Giants would go a long way toward making things better.

Wilf grew up a Giants fan and spent his youth attending the team's games at Yankee Stadium. He still has a signed Lawrence Taylor jersey and a team scrapbook he made as a kid.

"For me as a Giants fan, I'll always be deep inside a Giants fan, but now I have my team to really root for," said Wilf, whose Garden Homes Development, a retail and private residential development, is based in New Jersey. "I still have a lot of sentiment toward the Giants. I don't think that ever goes away, but certainly I think for my team, it will go a long way for us to beat them."

The Vikings enter Sunday's game with a 3-5 record and without starting cornerback Fred Smoot, who is sidelined for four to six weeks after fracturing his right collarbone last Sunday against Detroit. Minnesota also has yet to win a game on the road this season, going 0-4.

All of these factors make the Vikings a long shot to pull off an upset victory.

"Certainly, we would like to come in with a winning record, but I think that we're getting more consistent," Wilf said. "I think the guys are getting comfortable in their positions, and I think to start the second half of the season in New York could really set the tone for our team for the rest of the season. So I have no mixed feelings about where we are right now."

The Vikings ownership contingent also includes Zygi's brother, Mark, who is the team president, and a cousin, Leonard Wilf, who is vice chairman. The Wilfs have a suite at Giants Stadium and the visiting owner's box also will be available. But Zygi Wilf probably will watch the game from field level.

"I haven't determined where I'm going to watch the game," he said. "But (to be) quite honest with you, I really feel, probably for the first time, probably the only time, that the only place that I'm seeing right now in my head feeling comfortable is to be on the sideline with my team. It's the only place where I really feel at home, when I have my players around me."

Wilf said he hasn't spent much time on the sidelines this season.

"I really haven't," he said. "I have not done that and I don't know I'll ever do it again. But I know for this game, when I was thinking where I should be, I realized that the only place that I'll feel at home will be with my players."

Giants:

Last year, Kevin Lewis was the Giants' starting middle linebacker, and he started all 16 games. This year, he was released.

Last summer, the first training camp in the reign of coach Tom Coughlin, Lewis was pitted in competition with young Nick Greisen for the middle linebacker job and he won.

Greisen was relegated to the bench, even after each man received equal time in the final preseason game - and Greisen had 12 tackles to Lewis' two.

The choice, made by Coughlin and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, remained a mystery all season. But now Lewis (the linebacker) is gone, and has not been signed by any other team. Greisen was again denied a starting job at the start of the 2005 season.

The three linebackers who opened the season were Antonio Pierce in the middle, Carlos Emmons on the weak side and Reggie Torbor on the strong side. That involved a switch of positions for Emmons, always a strongside operator.

But then things happened. Torbor didn't play well, Emmons was moved over to strong side and suddenly Greisen, a four-year veteran, had a job at weakside linebacker. Then Emmons was hurt, Torbor came back to play on the strong side and Greisen stayed on the weak side.

Lucky thing, too. He has been playing phenomenally well, with 34 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two passes defensed - and he has even added six special teams tackles.

But since his reprieve, Torbor has played well, too. And when Emmons returns (his partially torn right pectoral muscle should heal soon), he's going to get his job back, as befits a quality performer of 10 years.

So what happens to Greisen?

"Nick is playing exceptionally well," said Coughlin, who didn't add that the 6-1, 245-pound Wisconsin product has also filled in at middle and strongside linebacker. "I don't see as to how you would want to take him out of the lineup now."

Nor, perhaps, was there any solid reason to deny him the job a year ago.


Dallas Cowboys (5-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (4-4)

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Monday, 9:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 11/14/05
SURFACE: Grass
TV: ABC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Sam Ryan

SERIES:

93rd meeting. Dallas leads the series 52-40. Dallas has faced no team more than Philadelphia and has defeated the Eagles more times (52) than all but two teams (Arizona, 55, and Washington, 54). Dallas and Philadelphia have met in two divisional playoff games and an NFC Championship Game. The Cowboys won 11 consecutive games over the Eagles from 1967-1972, marking the second-longest win streak over one opponent in club history. Dallas and Philadelphia have combined to win 21 NFC Eastern Division titles. Philadelphia has won three of the last four head-to-head battles, but the Cowboys won 33-10 on Oct. 9 at Texas Stadium.

*2005 RANKINGS:

Cowboys: offense 6th (12th rush, 8th pass); defense 5th (6th rush, 13th pass). Eagles: offense 8th (32nd rush, 1st pass); defense 26th (19th rush, 24th pass)

PREDICTION:

Cowboys 27-24

KEYS TO THE GAME:

The Eagles need a better effort from their special teams after allowing the Cowboys to start five of 12 possessions in Philadelphia territory in a 33-10 loss in Dallas last month. The Cowboys had just two scoring drives of more than 52 yards, so the Eagles want to force Dallas to put long drives together. Without suspended WR Terrell Owens, Philadelphia also needs other playmakers to emerge on offense. The Cowboys are allowing just 14.6 first downs per game and LB Demarcus Ware has become a pass-rushing threat the Eagles must account for. QB Donovan McNabb moved much better in Sunday night's loss than he had since the season opener, and his ability to buy extra time could prove critical.

FAST FACTS:

Cowboys: Coach Bill Parcells' teams are 7-4 in games immediately following a bye week. ... Parcells would pass Paul Brown (170) for ninth place on the all-time wins list with a victory. Eagles: Have a six-game home winning streak against Dallas. ... Running backs have not lost a fumble in 747 carries over the past 38 games. ... Are 8-3 on Monday nights under coach Andy Reid.

PERSONNEL NEWS:

Cowboys:

As if the Eagles offense isn't struggling enough, it now has to deal with the loss of center Hank Fraley.

Fraley, who has been the starting center for the last five seasons, suffered a torn rotator cuff in Sunday night's 17-10 loss to the Washington Redskins. He had surgery earlier this week and will be out for the remainder of the season.

Eagles coach Andy Reid is considering two replacement options. One is second-year man Trey Darilek. The other is Jamaal Jackson, who was signed earlier this week from the practice squad. Darilek's natural position is guard, while the 6-4, 330-pound Jackson is a center.

"We've felt good about Jamaal since he's been here," Reid said. "He's been banged up a little bit with injuries. But he's healthy now and we feel comfortable he can go in there and play. He's a smart kid. He's big and strong. He would have been our second center this year had he not been hurt. We feel good about him."

There actually isn't a big talent dropoff between the overachieving Fraley and Darilek and Jackson. But Fraley made all of the line calls, which is going to put the Eagles' line at a disadvantage against the Cowboys' blitzing 3-4 defense Monday night.

Eagles:

--C Jamaal Jackson, who was signed off the practice squad earlier this week, could be the team's starting center Monday night against Dallas.

-- DE N.D. Kalu, who injured his shoulder last week, was downgraded to doubtful Thursday. He isn't expected to play Monday night against Dallas.

--DE Trent Cole likely will get his first start Monday night. The fifth-round rookie will replace injured N.D. Kalu at right end if Kalu can't play. Cole had a sack and a forced fumble last week.

--TE L.J. Smith didn't practice Thursday and remains listed as questionable with a concussion. But coach Andy Reid is optimistic that he'll play against Dallas.

--CB Rod Hood, the club's nickel corner, has some inflammation in his left heel that limited what he could do in practice Thursday. But he is listed as probable for Monday night's game.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Cowboys:

One of the biggest focuses of the second half of the season for the Cowboys is finding a way to continue to protect quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

As coach Bill Parcells predicted before the season, when Bledsoe is protected, he will make plays.

He wasn't protected in Buffalo the last three years, getting sacked 140 times. It showed in his play and was the main reason many critics thought he was done.

The Cowboys have been giving Bledsoe time to throw and he has thrived. He is on pace to set a team record for passing yards in a season. He has a career high 97.4 passer rating.

He has simply been the team's most valuable player in the first half of the season.

Protecting Bledsoe will remain a challenge because of the inexperience the team has at tackle.

Right tackle Rob Petitti is a rookie and left tackle Torrin Tucker is an injury replacement for the sidelined Flozell Adams.

But while Pettiti remains a work in progress, the Cowboys like what they have seen for far from Tucker, who has been a more than adequate replacement for Adams so far.

The Cowboys say Tucker's play has been one of the biggest surprises of the first half.

Considering his performance as a failed starter at right tackle last season and his nearly being cut in training camp because of early struggles, Tucker's play is more shock than surprise.

"I spent a lot of time with Torrin and some of it wasn't pleasant," Parcells said. "Some of it has been threatening over the years. I call him 'El Gato' because he has nine lives."

Parcells never gave up on Tucker, partly because of a conversation he had with the player's mother during the summer.

Parcells said she was very supportive of what "I was trying to do with her son, and I kind of looked at him in a different light from that point on."

Now Tucker is headed in the right direction.

"I'm not relaxing around him, but I think he's getting ready to cross the line," Parcells said. "And when I see that, then I turn from being a guy that's always on your case to one that's trying to encourage him to go further, because he's now making progress. I think he has a chance to be OK."

Eagles:

As if the Eagles offense isn't struggling enough, it now has to deal with the loss of center Hank Fraley.

Fraley, who has been the starting center for the last five seasons, suffered a torn rotator cuff in Sunday night's 17-10 loss to the Washington Redskins. He had surgery earlier this week and will be out for the remainder of the season.

Eagles coach Andy Reid is considering two replacement options. One is second-year man Trey Darilek. The other is Jamaal Jackson, who was signed earlier this week from the practice squad. Darilek's natural position is guard, while the 6-4, 330-pound Jackson is a center.

"We've felt good about Jamaal since he's been here," Reid said. "He's been banged up a little bit with injuries. But he's healthy now and we feel comfortable he can go in there and play. He's a smart kid. He's big and strong. He would have been our second center this year had he not been hurt. We feel good about him."

There actually isn't a big talent dropoff between the overachieving Fraley and Darilek and Jackson. But Fraley made all of the line calls, which is going to put the Eagles' line at a disadvantage against the Cowboys' blitzing 3-4 defense Monday night.

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Minnesota Vikings (3-5) at New York Giants (6-2)

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 11/13/05
SURFACE: FieldTurf
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Brian Baldinger, Jay Glazer

SERIES:

21st meeting. The series is tied 10-10, but the Giants have beaten the Vikings each of the past three seasons at the Metrodome. The teams are 6-6 against each other in New York/New Jersey. The Vikings and Giants have played the last six seasons, but this will be the first regular-season meeting at Giants Stadium since 1999.

*2005 RANKINGS:

Vikings: offense 24th (23rd rush, 17th pass); defense 27th (26th rush, 23rd pass). Giants: offense 12th (9th rush, 16th pass); defense 25th (9th rush, 28th pass)

PREDICTION:

Giants 27-24

KEYS TO THE GAME:

With their already beleaguered secondary minus injured CB Fred Smoot, the Vikings, who have allowed a league-high six touchdowns to tight ends, must find a way to deal with Giants TE Jeremy Shockey. To prevent QB Eli Manning & Co. from moving the ball through the air at will, the Vikings, who are back to a 4-3 alignment, must get a strong pass rush. They also need a strong running game on offense to protect immobile QB Brad Johnson and avoid getting run out of the building after getting outscored 133-34 in their first four road games. But Johnson will need to make some plays downfield, because the Giants' defense is far stronger against the run than the pass.

FAST FACTS:

Vikings: Rookie P Chris Kluwe is second in the league with a 47.1-yard average. No rookie has led the league since Bob Grupp in 1979 (43.6). ... RB Michael Bennett rushed for a career-high 167 yards against the Giants on Nov. 10, 2002. Giants: Seek third 7-2 start since 1990. They reached the Super Bowl the previous two times. ... Manning has thrown at least one touchdown pass in nine consecutive games.

PERSONNEL NEWS:

Vikings:

--QB Daunte Culpepper has selected renowned orthopedist James Andrews to perform surgery on his right knee. Culpepper tore the anterior cruciate, medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in the knee in the Vikings' loss at Carolina on Oct. 30. Culpepper has been waiting for the swelling to go down and the procedure is expected to take place early next week.

--RB Mewelde Moore practiced for a second consecutive day despite having to wear a splint on his sprained right wrist. Moore has said he will play and also continue to return punts, but coach Mike Tice made it clear that Thursday's practice would be a crucial test. That is one of the Vikings' most physical practices of the week, and Tice said Moore needed to prove he can block. If Moore can't play, Michael Bennett will get the start.

--DL Spencer Johnson will miss a game for the third time in four weeks because of an injury to his right knee. That could force the Vikings to mix in some more 3-4 looks with the 4-3 defense they returned to using the majority of the time last week. Rookie nose tackle C.J. Mosley will suit up if Johnson can't go.

--DE Erasmus James, who saw limited action in the second half of Sunday's game against Detroit because of a strained hamstring, is fine and should see plenty of action Sunday.

--CB Brian Williams has taken over for Fred Smoot as the starter. Smoot will miss four to six weeks with a fractured right collarbone.

--RB Moe Williams will miss a second consecutive game because of knee and back injuries. Williams attempted to practice Wednesday but sat out Thursday.

--Rookie RB Ciatrick Fason will remain in the third-and-1 role normally held by Moe Williams.

--Rookie WR Troy Williamson returned to practice Thursday after missing one day because of an illness.

Giants:

--SS Shaun Williams (re-injured hamstring) is likely not to play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. He has played in all eight games this season, starting none of them. Williams, the No. 1 draft pick in 1998, is the team co-leader with two interceptions. He also has 16 tackles and two passes defensed.

--RCB Will Peterson (back, likely stress fracture of the transverse process), started only the second and third games of the season and has been inactive for the other six. There is no indication that he will play any time soon, and in fact reports hold that within the next two weeks, pending a final medical exam, he could be placed on season-ending injured reserve.

--RT Kareem McKenzie, signed as a free agent from the New York Jets last spring and the team's highest-paid offensive lineman, has been a bulwark in run blocking but not quite as effective against the pass rush. "You need to know the guys you're playing against," he says, "and I don't know much about the ends in this conference. Even if we played them when I was with the Jets, it was only once every two or three years."

--QB Eli Manning, when asked if he had heard the early predictions that Super Bowl XL might be a Manning Bowl, visibly grimaced. "No, we don't talk about that kind of stuff," he said. "We only think about the next game. I don't get to see my brother (Peyton, the Indianapolis QB) play on television much, I am not going to deal with any of those kinds of speculations."

--LG David Diehl has been available for 40 Giants games since joining the team as a fifth-round pick in the 2003 draft, and he has started all 40 - the first 16 as the RT, the next 16 at RG and the past at LG. "I don't care where I play," he said, "as long as its on the offensive line and as long as I'm starting."

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Vikings:

Zygi Wilf's first season as Vikings owner has been far more difficult than he could have expected, but a victory Sunday over the host New York Giants would go a long way toward making things better.

Wilf grew up a Giants fan and spent his youth attending the team's games at Yankee Stadium. He still has a signed Lawrence Taylor jersey and a team scrapbook he made as a kid.

"For me as a Giants fan, I'll always be deep inside a Giants fan, but now I have my team to really root for," said Wilf, whose Garden Homes Development, a retail and private residential development, is based in New Jersey. "I still have a lot of sentiment toward the Giants. I don't think that ever goes away, but certainly I think for my team, it will go a long way for us to beat them."

The Vikings enter Sunday's game with a 3-5 record and without starting cornerback Fred Smoot, who is sidelined for four to six weeks after fracturing his right collarbone last Sunday against Detroit. Minnesota also has yet to win a game on the road this season, going 0-4.

All of these factors make the Vikings a long shot to pull off an upset victory.

"Certainly, we would like to come in with a winning record, but I think that we're getting more consistent," Wilf said. "I think the guys are getting comfortable in their positions, and I think to start the second half of the season in New York could really set the tone for our team for the rest of the season. So I have no mixed feelings about where we are right now."

The Vikings ownership contingent also includes Zygi's brother, Mark, who is the team president, and a cousin, Leonard Wilf, who is vice chairman. The Wilfs have a suite at Giants Stadium and the visiting owner's box also will be available. But Zygi Wilf probably will watch the game from field level.

"I haven't determined where I'm going to watch the game," he said. "But (to be) quite honest with you, I really feel, probably for the first time, probably the only time, that the only place that I'm seeing right now in my head feeling comfortable is to be on the sideline with my team. It's the only place where I really feel at home, when I have my players around me."

Wilf said he hasn't spent much time on the sidelines this season.

"I really haven't," he said. "I have not done that and I don't know I'll ever do it again. But I know for this game, when I was thinking where I should be, I realized that the only place that I'll feel at home will be with my players."

Giants:

Last year, Kevin Lewis was the Giants' starting middle linebacker, and he started all 16 games. This year, he was released.

Last summer, the first training camp in the reign of coach Tom Coughlin, Lewis was pitted in competition with young Nick Greisen for the middle linebacker job and he won.

Greisen was relegated to the bench, even after each man received equal time in the final preseason game - and Greisen had 12 tackles to Lewis' two.

The choice, made by Coughlin and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, remained a mystery all season. But now Lewis (the linebacker) is gone, and has not been signed by any other team. Greisen was again denied a starting job at the start of the 2005 season.

The three linebackers who opened the season were Antonio Pierce in the middle, Carlos Emmons on the weak side and Reggie Torbor on the strong side. That involved a switch of positions for Emmons, always a strongside operator.

But then things happened. Torbor didn't play well, Emmons was moved over to strong side and suddenly Greisen, a four-year veteran, had a job at weakside linebacker. Then Emmons was hurt, Torbor came back to play on the strong side and Greisen stayed on the weak side.

Lucky thing, too. He has been playing phenomenally well, with 34 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two passes defensed - and he has even added six special teams tackles.

But since his reprieve, Torbor has played well, too. And when Emmons returns (his partially torn right pectoral muscle should heal soon), he's going to get his job back, as befits a quality performer of 10 years.

So what happens to Greisen?

"Nick is playing exceptionally well," said Coughlin, who didn't add that the 6-1, 245-pound Wisconsin product has also filled in at middle and strongside linebacker. "I don't see as to how you would want to take him out of the lineup now."

Nor, perhaps, was there any solid reason to deny him the job a year ago.


Dallas Cowboys (5-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (4-4)

GAME SNAPSHOT\r\n
KICKOFF: Monday, 9:00 ET\r\n
GAMEDATE: 11/14/05\r\n
SURFACE: Grass \r\n
TV: ABC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Sam Ryan\r\n

SERIES:

93rd meeting. Dallas leads the series 52-40. Dallas has faced no team more than Philadelphia and has defeated the Eagles more times (52) than all but two teams (Arizona, 55, and Washington, 54). Dallas and Philadelphia have met in two divisional playoff games and an NFC Championship Game. The Cowboys won 11 consecutive games over the Eagles from 1967-1972, marking the second-longest win streak over one opponent in club history. Dallas and Philadelphia have combined to win 21 NFC Eastern Division titles. Philadelphia has won three of the last four head-to-head battles, but the Cowboys won 33-10 on Oct. 9 at Texas Stadium.\r\n

*2005 RANKINGS:

Cowboys: offense 6th (12th rush, 8th pass); defense 5th (6th rush, 13th pass). Eagles: offense 8th (32nd rush, 1st pass); defense 26th (19th rush, 24th pass)

PREDICTION:

Cowboys 27-24

KEYS TO THE GAME:

The Eagles need a better effort from their special teams after allowing the Cowboys to start five of 12 possessions in Philadelphia territory in a 33-10 loss in Dallas last month. The Cowboys had just two scoring drives of more than 52 yards, so the Eagles want to force Dallas to put long drives together. Without suspended WR Terrell Owens, Philadelphia also needs other playmakers to emerge on offense. The Cowboys are allowing just 14.6 first downs per game and LB Demarcus Ware has become a pass-rushing threat the Eagles must account for. QB Donovan McNabb moved much better in Sunday night's loss than he had since the season opener, and his ability to buy extra time could prove critical.

FAST FACTS:

Cowboys: Coach Bill Parcells' teams are 7-4 in games immediately following a bye week. ... Parcells would pass Paul Brown (170) for ninth place on the all-time wins list with a victory. Eagles: Have a six-game home winning streak against Dallas. ... Running backs have not lost a fumble in 747 carries over the past 38 games. ... Are 8-3 on Monday nights under coach Andy Reid.

PERSONNEL NEWS:\r\n

Cowboys:\r\n

As if the Eagles offense isn't struggling enough, it now has to deal with the loss of center Hank Fraley.\r\n

Fraley, who has been the starting center for the last five seasons, suffered a torn rotator cuff in Sunday night's 17-10 loss to the Washington Redskins. He had surgery earlier this week and will be out for the remainder of the season.\r\n

Eagles coach Andy Reid is considering two replacement options. One is second-year man Trey Darilek. The other is Jamaal Jackson, who was signed earlier this week from the practice squad. Darilek's natural position is guard, while the 6-4, 330-pound Jackson is a center.\r\n

"We've felt good about Jamaal since he's been here," Reid said. "He's been banged up a little bit with injuries. But he's healthy now and we feel comfortable he can go in there and play. He's a smart kid. He's big and strong. He would have been our second center this year had he not been hurt. We feel good about him."\r\n

There actually isn't a big talent dropoff between the overachieving Fraley and Darilek and Jackson. But Fraley made all of the line calls, which is going to put the Eagles' line at a disadvantage against the Cowboys' blitzing 3-4 defense Monday night.\r\n

Eagles:\r\n

--C Jamaal Jackson, who was signed off the practice squad earlier this week, could be the team's starting center Monday night against Dallas.\r\n

-- DE N.D. Kalu, who injured his shoulder last week, was downgraded to doubtful Thursday. He isn't expected to play Monday night against Dallas.\r\n

--DE Trent Cole likely will get his first start Monday night. The fifth-round rookie will replace injured N.D. Kalu at right end if Kalu can't play. Cole had a sack and a forced fumble last week.\r\n

--TE L.J. Smith didn't practice Thursday and remains listed as questionable with a concussion. But coach Andy Reid is optimistic that he'll play against Dallas.\r\n

--CB Rod Hood, the club's nickel corner, has some inflammation in his left heel that limited what he could do in practice Thursday. But he is listed as probable for Monday night's game.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:\r\n

Cowboys:\r\n

One of the biggest focuses of the second half of the season for the Cowboys is finding a way to continue to protect quarterback Drew Bledsoe.\r\n

As coach Bill Parcells predicted before the season, when Bledsoe is protected, he will make plays.\r\n

He wasn't protected in Buffalo the last three years, getting sacked 140 times. It showed in his play and was the main reason many critics thought he was done.\r\n

The Cowboys have been giving Bledsoe time to throw and he has thrived. He is on pace to set a team record for passing yards in a season. He has a career high 97.4 passer rating.\r\n

He has simply been the team's most valuable player in the first half of the season.\r\n

Protecting Bledsoe will remain a challenge because of the inexperience the team has at tackle.\r\n

Right tackle Rob Petitti is a rookie and left tackle Torrin Tucker is an injury replacement for the sidelined Flozell Adams.\r\n

But while Pettiti remains a work in progress, the Cowboys like what they have seen for far from Tucker, who has been a more than adequate replacement for Adams so far.\r\n

The Cowboys say Tucker's play has been one of the biggest surprises of the first half.\r\n

Considering his performance as a failed starter at right tackle last season and his nearly being cut in training camp because of early struggles, Tucker's play is more shock than surprise.\r\n

"I spent a lot of time with Torrin and some of it wasn't pleasant," Parcells said. "Some of it has been threatening over the years. I call him 'El Gato' because he has nine lives."\r\n

Parcells never gave up on Tucker, partly because of a conversation he had with the player's mother during the summer.\r\n

Parcells said she was very supportive of what "I was trying to do with her son, and I kind of looked at him in a different light from that point on."\r\n

Now Tucker is headed in the right direction.\r\n

"I'm not relaxing around him, but I think he's getting ready to cross the line," Parcells said. "And when I see that, then I turn from being a guy that's always on your case to one that's trying to encourage him to go further, because he's now making progress. I think he has a chance to be OK."

Eagles:\r\n

As if the Eagles offense isn't struggling enough, it now has to deal with the loss of center Hank Fraley.\r\n

Fraley, who has been the starting center for the last five seasons, suffered a torn rotator cuff in Sunday night's 17-10 loss to the Washington Redskins. He had surgery earlier this week and will be out for the remainder of the season.\r\n

Eagles coach Andy Reid is considering two replacement options. One is second-year man Trey Darilek. The other is Jamaal Jackson, who was signed earlier this week from the practice squad. Darilek's natural position is guard, while the 6-4, 330-pound Jackson is a center.\r\n

"We've felt good about Jamaal since he's been here," Reid said. "He's been banged up a little bit with injuries. But he's healthy now and we feel comfortable he can go in there and play. He's a smart kid. He's big and strong. He would have been our second center this year had he not been hurt. We feel good about him."\r\n

There actually isn't a big talent dropoff between the\r\n overachieving Fraley and Darilek and Jackson. But Fraley made all of the line\r\n calls, which is going to put the Eagles' line at a disadvantage against the\r\n Cowboys' blitzing 3-4 defense Monday night.
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