Back in August, when they looked ahead to their Week 10 matchup against each other, the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles probably envisioned two rivals in the thick of a race for the postseason, hooking up in a game packed with glorious import.
Sunday's game in Philadelphia is not that. It is a game between two 3-5 teams ranked near the bottom of the league in scoring offense who have combined to win exactly one game since September. Let's just say the first-place Giants aren't going to be glued to their televisions sweating this one out.
The winner of the Cowboys-Eagles game on Sunday may plausibly be able to convince itself its season is not over, though the road back to contention will remain difficult. The loser will have the same record as the Redskins and probably will be thinking about offseason plans. But just because both of these teams are in the same leaky Week 10 boat doesn't mean they share an identical long-range outlook. I don't think either will rebound and reach this year's playoffs, but in the short term and beyond, the Cowboys are the team in considerably better shape. Here's a look at the reasons why:
Quarterback: Tony Romo is not having his best season, this is true. He's thrown a league-leading 13 interceptions against just 10 touchdowns, and his passer rating is just 82.2. He's never finished lower than 90 in a season in that category. After he had his best statistical season in 2011, more was expected, and disappointment is understandable. But Romo's still got more track record as a top NFL quarterback than the Eagles' Michael Vick does, and the Cowboys are trying to sign him to a long-term contract. Management and the players believe in Romo and are prepared to move into the future with him as their quarterback. The Eagles, assuming they don't make a miracle recovery, are likely to opt out of Vick's contract at the end of this season and rebuild with rookie Nick Foles or look for someone else. The Cowboys have far greater stability at the most important position.
Head coach job status: Obviously, the Eagles' Andy Reid is a better and more accomplished head coach than the Cowboys' Jason Garrett. But his situation is a far greater fiasco. Regardless of any outside perceptions or assumptions, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has expressed nothing but strong support for Garrett as his head coach. So unless the players choose to read and get caught up in all the Sean Payton speculation, they don't have reason to wonder who's going to be coaching them next year. By contrast, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie gave Reid an apparent ultimatum before the season to finish over .500 or lose his job. The players know all about that, and Reid is obviously much more uncomfortable and (justifiably) worried about his job status than Garrett is about his. It's an inescapable issue that hovers over the Eagles right now, and it has to be affecting players. If you don't feel like your coach is going to be around next year, you necessarily have to wonder whether you will be too.
The offensive line: The Cowboys' offensive line isn't about to win any awards, and it obviously will need upgrades in key places in the offseason. But within the context of 2012, it is showing improvement week over week. The Eagles' line keeps losing starters to injury and disintegrating. The Cowboys also have a franchise left tackle in Tyron Smith around whom they can build. The Eagles don't know whether or when they'll get franchise left tackle Jason Peters back from his Achilles injuries, or whehter he'll be the same player he was before he got hurt. The Eagles' offensive line schemes are specifically tied to the teachings of second-year line coach Howard Mudd, and (see last paragraph) there's no guarantee he's back next year, which means they might need to reconstruct the line in the mold of a new coach. There's more uncertainty in an area that is absolutely vital to any kind of success, as the Eagles have seen this season. The Cowboys' line is a mess, but with Smith at left tackle and Bill Callahan coaching it, it at least can see the path forward.
Defensive identity: The Cowboys' defense is one of the toughest in the NFL this year under second-year coordinator Rob Ryan. Led by DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher up front and with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne doing what they were brought in to do at cornerback most weeks, Dallas knows what it wants to do and is doing it consistently. The Eagles' defense is on its third coordinator in the past two years and seems unable to get everyone on the same page from quarter to quarter, let alone from game to game. The pass rush has vanished, the coverage schemes are unreliable and the firing of coordinator Juan Castillo for Todd Bowles preceded their worst two defensive games of the year. The Eagles are going to have major decisions to make about their defensive schemes and personnel once this season ends.
The schedule: After Sunday, five of the Cowboys' remaining seven games will be at home, and only one (Week 15 versus Pittsburgh) will be against a team that currently has a winning record. The Eagles also face only one winning team (Week 17 at the Giants), but four of their final seven games are road games and four are division games. If you believe either of these teams can make a run, or that the Giants may yet come back to the pack, the Cowboys' remaining schedule appears more favorable. So their short-term outlook is better too, for all of those other reasons and this one.
Sunday's matchup may look like a game between two teams with nothing going on. But everything is relative, and in the big picture it's actually a game between two teams moving in somewhat opposite directions. And the Cowboys are the team that looks as though it's trending up.