Our beat writers make their picks for week 16

Our beat writers make their picks for week 16

The Eagles visit the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday. Here are the game predictions from our Eagles beat writers for Week 16.

Gardner Minshew will get his first start since last season’s finale against the Cowboys, but the quarterback will have a much better cast around him than he did in that 51-26 drubbing. While the Eagles offense is built around Jalen Hurts’ duality, the system is versatile enough to accommodate Minshew’s skill set. And with five Pro Bowlers playing next to him, all he needs to do is be a pointer and distribute the ball to receivers like AJ Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert, or hand off to Miles Sanders. Goedert, who returns from a five-game absence, and Sanders had two of their best games with Minshew under center against the New York Jets last season. But Brown, Smith and Quez Watkins should still get their due against a shorthanded Dallas secondary. No. 1 cornerback Trevon Diggs is dangerous, but his counterpart Anthony Brown is out, as is slot Jourdan Lewis.

Minshew will need protection, of course, as the Cowboys have one of the best pass-rush defenses in the NFL with Micah Parsons, Demarcus Lawrence and Co. Nick Sirianni and his offensive coaches neutralized Parsons early in the first game by simply leaving him unblocked and having Hurts read him. But Minshew isn’t the same threat on the ground, meaning tackles Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata will share most of the responsibility for containing the checkerboard-like Parsons. Johnson kept him in check in October until he suffered a concussion late in the first half.

» READ MORE: ‘The best tackle around’: Eagles’ Lane Johnson earns 4th Pro Bowl nod, sets standard at position

If Minshew is supposed to be an on-paper downgrade at quarterback, the Cowboys have upgraded at the position since the first meeting with starter Dak Prescott back and backup Cooper Rush back on the sideline. However, Prescott has been inconsistent since returning. His interception rate is last in the league among qualified quarterbacks. If the Eagles defense can continue to run back Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott from wide stretches of the ground, they will force Dallas into obvious passing situations. They have done the above in the previous three games and have recorded 19 sacks in part as a result. Cowboys quarterbacks have been among the least pressured in the NFL. But the battle between Haason Reddick and the aging Tyron Smith and Jason Peters rotation at right tackle could favor the Eagles. CeeDee Lamb has been a tough cover for most secondaries, but it’s a significant drop off from the Pro Bowl receiver and the rest of the group. It might make sense for Jonathan Gannon to use a game plan similar to the one he used to shut down Justin Jefferson in Week 2.

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The Cowboys are a talented bunch, but they are prone to mistakes and rank fifth in penalties. Coach Mike McCarthy has also been known to lose a game or more with his game management. While the Hurts absence obviously hurts, ahh, Minshew is more than capable and brings an element of surprise coaches, with smart game planning, can exploit. Dallas has a lot more at stake than the Eagles, who are virtually assured the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and that could be a motivating factor. But I think Sirianni and his players still think they have something to prove – even though most objective observers know they really don’t.

Prediction: Eagles 27, Cowboys 24

In a way, the absence of Hurts this Saturday could improve the Eagles’ chances in Dallas.

The Eagles won’t admit it, but the potential for a playoff matchup against the Cowboys is high when the teams meet. There’s a good chance Dallas ends up heading back to the Linc in about a month, and an even better chance the Eagles’ coaching staff is aware of that possibility. If Hurts were at the controls, it would be easy to see why Siianni and Shane Steichen, who need just one win over the next three weeks to secure the No. 1 seed, would avoid clearing the call sheets.

With Minshew, the staff can throw caution to the wind a little more. Just as the Eagles defensive staff chewed on the Cooper Rush film from the Eagles’ Week 6 win over Dallas this week, the Eagles can now muddy the picture with 60 minutes of Minshew Mania in case there’s a grudge match.

» READ MORE: ‘I’m trying to win’: Gardner Minshew goes from looking to free agency to holding Eagles’ playoff future in hands

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Aside from playmaking, there’s reason to believe Minshew can be productive in the Eagles offense. Vondt is critical to what the group does, but there are plenty of offensive staples that are quarterback-agnostic: Goedert’s screens, Brown’s slant routes, the run-pass options that require opposing edge defenders to cover the flat, etc.

Removing Hurts will likely lead to less perfectly placed deep shots and will undoubtedly change the Eagles’ favorable numbers in the run game, but there are plenty of matchups to exploit. Dallas has dealt with a rash of injuries at cornerback, and the secondary struggled to match up against Jacksonville last week. Expect the Eagles to test reserve outside cornerback Kelvin Joseph, who was torched multiple times against the Jags. Parsons is a game-destroying pass rusher, but the Eagles were successful in making him the playmaker on option plays in the first game and matching up as well as any team could hope for with Johnson and Mailata.

» READ MORE: Blood feud begins: Micah Parsons gives Jalen Hurts and Eagles another reason to hate the Cowboys | Marcus Hayes

On the other side, the Cowboys’ offensive line has been statistically solid this season, but struggled against Jacksonville while rotating former All-Pro tackle Smith and all-time Eagles great Peters at right tackle. Pressuring Prescott will be critical to the Eagles’ success, but generating pressure should be doable. Lam is dangerous, but the Eagles secondary should be able to force Prescott into the tight windows he’s been so inclined to do this season.

This looks to be an even matchup, but the Eagles have enough matchup advantage to suggest there could be some Minshew magic on Christmas Eve.

Prediction: Eagles 27, Cowboys 24

With the NFC East currently in a heightened state, it’s a shame the Eagles and Cowboys won’t face each other — at least during the regular season — with both of their starting quarterbacks under center. After Prescott missed the first meeting between these teams, Hurts is now slated to miss Saturday’s game at AT&T Stadium with a sprained shoulder. With Hurts sidelined, the Eagles will turn to Minshew.

» READ MORE: Jalen Hurts’ injury has some Eagles followers freaking out. Is it really time to panic? | Mike Sielski

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Coincidentally, Minshew’s last start was Week 18 of the 2021 season against the … Cowboys. It’s worth noting that the Eagles played with a handful of reserves during the regular season finale, but Minshew had an underwhelming performance; he completed 19-of-33 passes for 186 yards with two touchdowns with one interception. This time, Minshew takes control of the keys to a high-octane offense led by stud wide receivers Brown and DeVonta Smith. He also wants Goedert back in the mix after Goedert’s five-game absence with his own shoulder injury. The passing game is complemented by freshman Pro Bowl running back Sanders, along with one of the league’s top offensive lines (three Pro Bowl selections, two Pro Bowl options). After the coaching staff neglected Sanders last Sunday’s game in Chicago, the Eagles would be wise to get him involved early against Dallas. The Cowboys present a tough challenge defensively, but Minshew should have opportunities to air it out. From a play assignment perspective, Sirianni may not necessarily have to worry about emptying the locker with Minshew under center as opposed to Hurts.

Saturday gives the Eagles an opportunity to clinch both the division and the NFC’s No. 1 seed. While the Week 16 showdown is prominently elevated given the difficult circumstances, the reality is the Eagles need to win just one of their final three games. After the Christmas Eve contest with the Cowboys, the Eagles return for a pair of home games against the Saints and Giants to close out the season. In all likelihood, they will have the conference’s top seed locked up at some point in the next couple of weeks. However, that moment may not come this weekend.

Prediction: Cowboys 24, Eagles 21

Inquirer Eagles beat reporters EJ Smith and Josh Tolentino preview the team’s Week 16 game against the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday at 15.00 See at Inquirer.com/EaglesGameday

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