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Thursday, November 21, 2013
Week-by-week look at Eagles' playoff path

By Phil Sheridan

PHILADELPHIA -- Quarterbacks Tony Romo and Nick Foles will have a lot to say about whether Romo's Dallas Cowboys or Foles' Philadelphia Eagles wind up going to the playoffs as NFC East champions.

The two could even face off in a winner-take-all season finale at Dallas on Dec. 29.

Two other quarterbacks, however, could have almost as much impact on the NFC East race: the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler and the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers.

The Eagles (6-5) already banked a win at Lambeau Field thanks in large measure to the absence of Rodgers, who broke his collarbone six days earlier during a Monday night game. The Cowboys (5-5) host the Packers on Dec. 15.

The availability and effectiveness of Rodgers, who has thrown on the side without a helmet or pads, will have a huge impact on that game, obviously. The Packers are 0-3 without him, including the game in which Rodgers was injured. They were 5-2 with him.

As for Cutler, he had the hard cast removed on the sprained ankle that has kept him out since Nov. 10. He is listed as week to week and, while Josh McCown has played well in his absence, Cutler is a difference-maker when healthy.

The Cowboys play the Bears at Soldier Field on Dec. 8. The Eagles host Chicago two weeks later. Cutler's status could have a huge impact on both games.

So Cutler and Rodgers could profoundly influence three of the 11 remaining games that will determine the NFC East champion. Here's how the path to Dec. 29 looks (if you want to use ESPN's Playoff Machine to work your own scenarios, it's here):

Sunday: The Eagles, in their bye week, can watch Dallas play the New York Giants at the Meadowlands. That's a tough game for the Cowboys, who are coming off their own bye and, before that, a brutal beating at the hands of the New Orleans Saints.

A win would tie the Giants with the Cowboys at 5-6, so technically New York would also be in the race. We're omitting them for now because the possibility of a team that started 0-6 going to the playoffs is too depressing to consider.

Projection: Eagles 6-5, Cowboys 5-6.

Week 13: The Eagles host the Arizona Cardinals, who could be 7-4 pending the outcome of this weekend's home game against the Indianapolis Colts. With rookie head coach Bruce Arians and veteran quarterback Carson Palmer, the Cards' profile is similar to the one the Eagles encountered against Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers. The Eagles defense is miles better than it was then and, while this is a tough game to pick, the Eagles are likely to be favored.

By kickoff of that game, the Eagles will know exactly where the Cowboys stand. After the Giants game, Dallas has four days to prepare for a Thanksgiving Day home game against the Oakland Raiders. The Cowboys have to be favorites in that one.

Projection: Eagles 7-5, Cowboys 6-6.

Week 14: The Eagles host the Detroit Lions while the Bears play the Cowboys on an afternoon with profound consequences on the NFC East and North. With Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson on one side of the ball and Ndamukong Suh on the other, the Lions are probably the toughest of the Eagles' remaining opponents. Put another way, a win here would put the Eagles in a commanding position.

If Cutler is Cutler, the Bears are likely to be favored at home, especially as weather becomes a factor in Chicago.

Projection: Eagles 7-6, Cowboys 6-7.

Week 15: The Eagles travel to the Minnesota Vikings for what should be a comfortable win. Unless Josh Freeman is playing quarterback at an unexpectedly high level by then, the Eagles defense can focus on bottling up Adrian Peterson.

Dallas, meanwhile, hosts the Packers. Here's where Rodgers could really swing the NFC East race. If he plays at his usual level, it's hard to imagine Green Bay losing. If not, the game belongs to the Cowboys.

Projection: Eagles 8-6, Cowboys 7-7.

Week 16: Cutler comes back into the picture here. If he plays against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, it's a very different game than if he doesn't. The guess here is that, with the Bears in playoff contention, he will.

Dallas goes to Washington.

Projection: Eagles 8-7, Cowboys 8-7.

Week 17: Eagles at Cowboys. Factoring in the Cutler and Rodgers variables, either team could be 9-6 or 7-8 just as easily. But what fun would that be? If they're both 8-7, this essentially becomes a playoff game.

Ah, but what if both teams are 7-8? That might be worse for the Eagles, since it would mean they went 1-3 between now and then. That could indicate injuries or instability at quarterback.

If the Eagles are 9-6 and Dallas is 8-7, the Eagles still might have to win the game to take the division. The first tie-breaker is head-to-head competition, so the Cowboys would edge them out if they both finish 9-7 that way. The second tie-breaker is record within the division. The Eagles are 3-2. Dallas is 3-0 with games against all three division opponents on their schedule. Winning any of those three would give the Cowboys the second tie-breaker.

Projection: A big game in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 29.