Both the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles can breathe easy heading into their NFL Week 18 regular-season finale. Each of them has clinched a playoff spot and could potentially face off again in the NFC Wild Card Round next week.
The Cowboys (11-5), NFC East division champs, enter this game as the No. 4 seed and can fall no further than that. A win could put them as high as No. 2, with some help, but they're eliminated from the race for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and a first-round bye.
The Eagles (9-7), meanwhile, enter this weekend the No. 7 seed after securing their spot with a win at Washington last week. Based on a quirk in NFL tiebreaker rules, they can actually lose this game and still move up to No. 6 based on other results around the playoff bubble.
With little to gain, expect both teams to play it safe as they keep the larger goal of a Super Bowl in mind. That said, either of these longtime division rivals could use a win as they look to gather a little extra momentum entering the postseason. The Eagles come in hot, 6-1 in their last seven games, but were dismantled by the Cowboys 41-21 in prime time earlier this season. They'd love to avenge that loss the same way the Cowboys would like to recapture that rhythm after they stumbled to a 25-22 loss last Sunday against the Cardinals.
Dallas (11-5) at Philadelphia (9-7)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 8 at 8:15 p.m ET
Spread: Cowboys -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the starters for each team play the full game?
For Dallas, the answer appears to be a resounding "yes." Owner Jerry Jones made clear this week he expects little, if anything, to change with the game plan if he has anything to say about it.
"We plan to play," he said on Dallas' 105.3 The Fan this week. "We plan to play to win … obviously, the debate over the two ways to go is pretty obvious, but I like to play. In this particular case, we're going to have an extra day's rest [Saturday night game] between our last game and the first playoff game. I think we're better served by going out there and executing and having our team out there really playing like it's the playoff game we'll be playing the next week."
With that type of public proclamation, don't expect Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy to change course. There are, indeed, things to work on for this group after quarterback Dak Prescott fumbled three times (one lost) against the Cardinals while the team's 10th-ranked rushing attack was held to just 45 yards and no touchdowns. It's a far cry from the dominant performance Prescott (four TD passes), running back Ezekiel Elliott (rushing TD) and the offense put together in a 56-14 thumping of Washington the week before.
Whether the Eagles pursue the same full-game, play-your-starters strategy is unclear. First-year head coach Nick Sirianni is keeping his cards closer to the vest, saying in a press conference earlier this week, "We'll keep everything on the table. Not sure what we're going to do quite yet."
However, the team's star running back, Miles Sanders, is not expected to play despite improvement from a broken hand suffered in Week 16 against the Giants. That's a small clue Sirianni might hold back with some other key offensive players (QB Jalen Hurts, ankle; T Lane Johnson, knee) who could benefit from additional rest. Keep in mind backup quarterback Gardner Minshew was sensational in his lone start this year (20-for-25, 242 yards, 2 TDs, 133.7 passer rating), so the Eagles don't feel they lose much if they dip down into their reserves.
2. Who will be out because of COVID-19 protocols?
Sadly, this is still a question that needs to be asked every week with the virus raging over the country like never before. Among the Eagles starters currently parked on the list are Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, tight end Dallas Goedert, cornerback Avonte Maddox, and safeties Rodney McLeod and Marcus Epps. Running backs Boston Scott and Jordan Howard, who had been sharing the backfield load with Sanders out, also have landed themselves on the list.
The good news for the Eagles is those dozen players are now exempt from testing for the next 90 days, meaning all will be automatically eligible for their wild-card game next week. Running back will be the position affected the most, illness and injury leaving Kenneth Gainwell the only healthy one on the roster guaranteed to play.
For the Cowboys, their big COVID-19 name is Defensive Rookie of the Year contender Micah Parsons. The linebacker was added to the list on Wednesday, joined by two other starters, tackle Tyron Smith and cornerback Anthony Brown. All of them, unlike some of the Eagles players, are guaranteed to miss Saturday's contest based on the ever-changing NFL quarantine rules.
Parsons and Brown performed well against the Eagles earlier this year, totaling an interception and a half-sack as Hurts was left off-balance throughout the night. But overall, the sheer number of Eagles potentially out puts them at a far greater disadvantage on Saturday night.
3. Will the Eagles be able to run the ball?
This question could be a moot point depending on how many running backs actually suit up. But the league's No. 1 rushing offense fell flat against the Cowboys the first time around, racking up a season-low 64 yards with Sanders only getting two carries.
Since then, there's been an offensive metamorphosis that led to the Eagles' second-half turnaround. They've averaged almost 39 rushing attempts per game during their recent 6-1 surge; compare that with a season-low 12 carries against the Cowboys in Week 3. With a solid chance that they'll face this team again in the playoffs, expect the Eagles to at least test the waters with their new ground-and-pound attack to see how they stack up against the NFL's 15th-ranked rushing defense.
This one's hard to handicap considering the sheer number of players who might be missing. What tips the scales here is how many running backs are eligible for the Eagles Saturday night. If Scott and Howard play, Philadelphia should win this rematch at home even if they choose to rest some of their starters. (Minshew is more than capable of being a starting QB in his own right.) The Cowboys looked a bit overmatched against a good Cardinals team and will be missing some of their key defensive playmakers on the road.
But if the current COVID-19 list holds, Philadelphia might simply be down too many good players to stay competitive. The Cowboys technically have more to gain, potentially moving up the playoff seeding list, and their insistence on playing starters means you have to give them the edge while keeping a side-eye on which Eagles suit up to play.
Prediction: Cowboys 24, Eagles 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.