The Week 3 edition of "Monday Night Football" tonight features two NFC East rivals doing battle for the right to an early-season claim of first place in the division.
The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles each enter Monday's showdown with 1-1 records, and the two shorthanded squads will have to figure out a way to get past each other in order to take pole position in the East. With Washington dropping to 1-2 and the Giants falling into an 0-3 hole, whichever team comes away victorious will have put a decent amount of distance between itself and the rest of the teams in the division.
In the interest of getting right down to business, let's break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Eagles have the ball
The matchups on this side of the field are affected by a ridiculous volume of injuries. The Eagles will be without both left tackle Jordan Mailata and right guard Brandon Brooks, while the Cowboys will not have any of [deep breath] Demarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae, Carlos Watkins, Neville Gallimore, Trysten Hill, Keanu Neal, or Donovan Wilson. Backup Eagles tackle Andre Dillard will be primarily responsible for blocking Randy Gregory, while the Cowboys seem likely to again shift rookie linebacker Micah Parsons to the edge, where he'll largely work against Lane Johnson. Parsons had an absurd amount of success in his first action on the edge last week, leading the NFL in pressures, but Johnson is a far tougher test for him than Storm Norton.
Which of the two depleted units wins the day will have a dramatic effect on how Jalen Hurts is able to attack a Dallas defense that has been surprisingly not-terrible through two weeks. If the offensive line can hold up against a makeshift pass rush, there should be opportunities for Hurts to push the ball downfield. (Hurts has thrown a greater share of his passes behind the line of scrimmage than any quarterback in the NFL, per Tru Media, but he also ranks among the most aggressive downfield throwers so far, with 13.8 percent of his attempts traveling at least 20 yards in the air.) They'd be particularly wise to attack cornerback Anthony Brown, who has been repeatedly victimized in coverage through the early portion of the season; and with Parsons likely to spend a bunch of time on the edge and Neal sidelined with COVID-19, Philly's tight ends should have matchup advantages against Leighton Vander Esch and (especially) Jaylon Smith.
Hurts' favorite target so far this year has been first-round pick (and former Alabama teammate) DeVonta Smith. It'll be interesting to see if the Cowboys use No. 1 cornerback Trevon Diggs to shadow him. He's a much different kind of player than either Mike Evans or Keenan Allen, whom Diggs followed around the field for much of the team's first two games. He held the big-bodied Evans down throughout the evening while Tom Brady picked on the team's other corners, and with the exception of a ridiculous hole-shot over Diggs' head in Cover-2, he did an excellent job on Allen as well. Smith's outrageous speed would provide a significant test against what was considered Diggs' biggest weakness in most pre-draft evaluations. Dallas could play more zone and/or shift a safety over to Smith's side and dare Hurts to beat them by throwing to someone else.
Of course, Hurts is arguably a more dangerous threat as a runner than a passer, and with the Cowboys likely being unable to rotate their defensive linemen as often as they'd like to due to their various injuries, that could pose a pretty big problem for them. Hurts, Miles Sanders, and Kenneth Gainwell each have the ability to test the Cowboys' ability to hold the edge, while the interior of Philly's offensive line will likely work against rookie third-rounder Osa Odighizuwa, rookie sixth-round Quinton Bohanna, and veteran undersized nose tackle Brent Urban. That could provide Philly with an additional advantage in the run game.
When the Cowboys have the ball
Dallas has faced two dramatically different defenses in the first two weeks of the season, and will face another one in Week 3. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore went extremely pass heavy against the Buccaneers and their monster defensive front in Week 1, and the Cowboys nearly upset the defending champs on the road. They came back and ran the heck out of the ball with not just Ezekiel Elliott but also Tony Pollard against the Chargers' Brandon Staley-coached defense that prioritizes stopping the pass at all costs and practically dares opponents to run it.
Dallas will again be without right tackle La'el Collins as he serves his five-game suspension, but Terence Steele acquitted himself just fine in the run game last week, and the team gave him enough help in pass protection to survive. There's no Joey Bosa rushing across from Steele on Monday night, and the Eagles will also have to work without their best edge rusher in Brandon Graham. Philly's best chance at pressure figures to come from getting Fletcher Cox matched up on center Tyler Biadasz, who has struggled badly against two very good defensive lines.
Even with pressure bearing down in his face, though, Dak Prescott has been electric so far this year, completing 76.5% of his passes at an average of 7.5 yards per attempt and taking just three sacks on 88 dropbacks. He looks nothing like a guy coming off a gruesome broken ankle, and while his arm strength does not seem to be 100% recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered during training camp, it has been plenty good enough.
The Eagles don't appear to have any good answers for either Amari Cooper or CeeDee Lamb, who have been running wide open in secondaries through the first two weeks of the year. Lamb, in particular, has been damn near uncoverable, and were it not for (at least) three drops, he would have an even more outrageous stat line than his current 15 catches for 185 yards and a score. Cooper will play through a rib injury that limited him last Sunday and during practices early last week, but after the last two years of playing through lingering foot ailments, he's used to gutting it out through injuries that would debilitate other wideouts.
Dallas has also shown an increased willingness to involve Pollard in the pass game, designing touches to get him matched up on linebackers in open space. He's too fast and too slippery for most of them to deal with, and he could cause some issues for a Philly linebacker corps that leaves a lot to be desired in coverage. Pollard likely won't earn a near-even split with Elliott in carries like he did a week ago, but he's looked like the more explosive runner of the two for two-plus seasons now. Elliott finally showed some open-field burst on a few runs against Los Angeles, though, and whenever the Cowboys run behind Zack Martin on the right side of the line they seem to find easy yards.
Prediction: Cowboys 30, Eagles 20