Audibles: NFC East Week 17 preview

December, 26, 2008
12/26/08
4:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Dallas Cowboys (9-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (8-6-1), 4:15 p.m. ET

The Eagles will find out before kickoff whether they're playing for a playoff spot or pride. A lot of people think the prospect of keeping the Cowboys out of the the playoffs would be enough to motivate the Eagles, but going from playoff hopeful to spoiler in a matter of minutes can be devastating to a team. I watched it happen to the Cowboys three seasons ago and they went out and went through the motions in a loss to the Rams.

Eagles coach Andy Reid has to make a commitment to the running game like he did against the Giants a couple of weeks ago. It's a crime for Brian Westbrook to only get 16 touches -- as he did in last Sunday's loss to the Redskins. Even if the Cowboys stop the running game early in the game, Reid needs to stay with it. Quarterback Donovan McNabb could be playing in his last game as an Eagle. It will be interesting to see how the fans responed to him. His wide receivers failed him against the Redskins. He needs to get in a good rhythm early and get the ball to Westbrook on screens and dump passes. Give Correll Buckhalter some touches as well. He's a nice player whom the Eagles don't properly utilize.

The Cowboys will use a lot of press coverage in an effort to force McNabb to hold the ball an extra second or two. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, a defensive MVP candidate, will be a lot to handle for aging left tackle Tra Thomas. Ware has a legitimate chance to tie or break Michael Strahan's season sack record against the Eagles. Right tackle Jon Runyan has shown a lot of determination playing through injuries, but he could struggle with the combination of Anthony Spencer and Greg Ellis. If the Cowboys can get a couple of shots on McNabb early, they could set the tone.

This is a huge opportunity for the Cowboys. They're fortunate to be in a position to clinch a playoff spot after being so erratic throughout the season. It's still a dangerous team, but Tony Romo has to do a much better job of protecting the football. He can't throw balls up for grabs because Terrell Owens and Roy Williams haven't been making catches in traffic. Asante Samuel will make the Cowboys pay if Romo gets too careless. Lito Sheppard has always been a Cowboys killer, but he's not playing much right now. The Eagles have been solid against the run, but rookie Tashard Choice has been a pleasant surprise for the Cowboys. Jason Garrett needs to keep feeding him the ball. We need to pay close attention to whether there's any hangover from those two long touchdown runs the Ravens had.

Washington Redskins (8-7) at San Francisco 49ers (6-9), 4:15 p.m. ET

Now that Vinny Cerrato has finally come out in support of Jim Zorn, the Redskins can focus on finishing with a winning record. They've lost their starting left and right tackles and that will make life tough against the 49ers' linebackers. Mike Singletary's about to have the interim tag taken off his name, but a win here would validate him even more. This is a great opportunity for Jason Campbell to finish on a high note after a roller-coaster season. He needs to take advantage of Chris Cooley early in the game. And he should continue to take off running when he needs to. I think he gains a lot of confidence when he's able to run for a couple of first downs.

Cerrato should face a lot of scrutiny for his three second-round picks that haven't made much of an impact. Maybe Devin Thomas will actually make a play or two against the 49ers. Clinton Portis is still banged up (hand), but Ladell Betts should be able to have some success against the 49ers. Portis hasn't had a 100-yard game since Week 12 against Seattle. And he was an MVP candidate at one point.

The Redskins need to win this game on defense. They were superb against the Eagles last week and Jason Taylor was finally able to get to the quarterback. London Fletcher is one of the best players in the league not playing in the Pro Bowl. He'll be keying on Frank Gore the entire game. Gore's been banged up, but he's still a threat on the ground and through the air. No matter the outcome, the Redskins should be disappointed about this season. But a two-game winning streak would make things a bit more palatable.

New York Giants (12-3) at Minnesota Vikings (9-6), 1 p.m. ET

The Vikings have more to play for than the Giants, but don't expect Tom Coughlin to roll over. There's a good chance he rests Brandon Jacobs for most or all of this game, but he'll still play to win. The Vikings won't have Pat Williams in the middle of their defense and that's a big loss. These teams have a lot
in common. Both are solid against the run and both run the ball really well. DeAngelo Williams found some cutback lanes against the Giants in last Sunday night's game and ran for 108 yards and four touchdowns. Justin Tuck

was banged up and had the flu in that game. We'll have to see if Coughlin wants to push him Sunday.

The Vikings will put the ball on the carpet, and the Giants do a nice job stripping the ball. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will sell out at the line of scrimmage to stop the run and make Tarvaris Jackson beat him. Corey Webster has tremendous ball skills, but Aaron Ross is still recovering from a concussion. I think Coughlin's really torn about how to approach this game. The extra rest would be great for some of his players, but he doesn't want them to be rusty in the divisional playoff game. I think he'll do everything it takes to win for a half and then reassess the situation. It wouldn't surprise me if Eli Manning gets a little rest in the second half. The only thing holding him back is the fact that he needs more work with Domenik Hixon, who had a strong performance against the Panthers. Hixon needs to gain confidence heading into the playoffs, and playing with David Carr wouldn't be the same thing. Hixon's also a little banged up and could use some rest.

I'd love to see more of Mario Manningham in this game. He could be a downfield threat, but it will be tough for Coughlin to throw him out there in a playoff game if Manningham hasn't proven himself in regular-season games. Look for Antonio Pierce to make a ton of tackles. He has to try to keep Adrian Peterson from getting to the second level. The Giants have to do a much better job of maintaining their gaps than they've done over the past three weeks.

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