By Jason Keidel
Had I told you the Cowboys and Eagles would enter the final week of December with 13-2 and 8-7 records, you’d nod your head. But not if I told you which team had the better record.
Indeed, the Eagles had blazed through the NFL, entering Sunday with a chance to end up 14-2, a record normally reserved for special (see: Super Bowl) clubs. Some folks thought the Eagles would push for a playoff spot, but no one saw this coming. Nor did anyone see Dallas, who were a robust 13-3 last year, led by the two best rookies in pro football, plunge down the rungs of relevance.
As always, America’s Team led the league in drama, if not wins. Owner Jerry Jones picked a few public fights with commissioner Roger Goodell, lost all of them, and saw his star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, serve his six-game suspension based on a sexual assault case shortly after he was drafted. Some teams, like the Bronx Zoo Yankees, and even the early-’90s Cowboys, thrive on locker-room turbulence and back-page fodder. But the Cowboys aren’t mature enough to look past their bad press, injuries, or suspensions.
The Eagles, led by shooting QB star Carson Wentz, were the closest the NFL had to a complete team. They had Pro Bowl-worthy players everywhere. On offense, the Eagles had a strong running game, fine wideouts, a fantastic tight end, and the runaway NFL MVP in Wentz before he blew out his knee a few weeks ago. On defense, they have a rabid pass rush that sometimes compensated for a suspect secondary. But overall the Eagles are the only club that has a top-five offense and defense (No. 4 and No. 5 respectively). And only the Rams have scored more than the Eagles’ 457 points, hence the 13-2 mark, secured NFC East title, and No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs.
Not that you parse or pick a football game based on the point spread, but it feels wholly odd that the Dallas Cowboys are traveling to Philadelphia to play the Eagles on New Year’s Eve, and arrive as 2.5 to 3-point favorites, depending on the sports book. Sure, Nick Foles is a downgrade from Carson Wentz, but the Eagles keep winning no matter who plays under center or anywhere else.
If the point spread reflects the lack of incentive the Eagles have to win the game, then the Vegas betting-line lords forgot that the Cowboys are equally gelded in this game. They had a real shot to play a January game last week, when they were 8-6 and hosting the emaciated and recently humiliated Seattle Seahawks, who had just lost by four touchdowns, at home, to the Los Angeles Rams. Plus, it was Elliott’s first game back from suspension. Elliott seemed eager, hungry, and fit, with his shirt eternally flipped upward to show his ab-roller stomach. Elliott spent weeks in Mexico working on his game, and was so motivated he also filmed a documentary about it. Then the Seahawks stomped the Cowboys, 21-12, ending Dallas’ dreams of their first Super Bowl in over two decades.
Dallas has now been eliminated from the playoffs for the sixth time in eight seasons. Despite the dearth of dominance, we can’t stop looking or talking about them. Whether it’s the star on the helmet, the cheerleaders, the wildly popular Larry Hagman soap opera bearing the city’s name, the stoic mien and iconic fedora of their patriarch, Tom Landry, or the triplets — Aikman, Irvin, and Smith — who italicized the team’s longtime handle, America’s Team, we can’t get enough.
Frankly, this year’s Eagles are last year’s Cowboys, shocking the media and masses alike with their stellar play, a QB who played out of his mind, and a record with about five more wins than we expected. And until a few weeks ago, they were clearly the best team in the sport. But no matter how advanced a backup Nick Foles may be — including a season in Philly that included 27 TD and 2 INT — you lose your handle as Super Bowl favorites when you lose the QB who got you here. Foles just doesn’t have the strength, mobility, or leadership that made Wentz the likely league MVP this year.
But the Eagles are still smiling with the best record in the sport, assured home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs, and the odds-on favorite to beat the Dallas Cowboys, no matter what the point spread, sports books, or Vegas cognoscenti says.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.