Dallas (CBS)–The air guitar is gone and so is the player last seen strumming it. And what happened last year, the miserable shutout, first-round playoff meltdown and losing three games by a combined score of 78-30, can go with it.

The Philadelphia Eagles are a much different team than they were just over 11 months ago—and so are the Dallas Cowboys. The last time these NFC East Division rivals met, the Cowboys were being viewed as Super Bowl contenders, while the Eagles were seen as a tired team looking into a dubious and uncertain future with Donovan McNabb at quarterback.

Since then, Michael Vick has resurrected his career with the Eagles, the Cowboys are anchored deep in the depths of the NFC East with an 4-8 record and the NFC’s Super Bowl darling slippers seem to have the Eagles’ name embroidered on them.

Sunday night’s nationally televised game between the Eagles and Cowboys means quite a bit for both teams. First, it’s unusually late for the teams to meet for the first time, but we know so much more about both teams than usual.

For one, the Cowboys are playing with a renewed sense of confidence and pride since Wade Phillips got fired after a 1-7 start and Jason Garrett has stepped in, going 3-1—and one Roy Williams’ Thanksgiving Day fumble from being 4-0.

The Eagles, however, have far more at stake, where every game could now mean a playoff berth. Philadelphia seems to generate steam in November and December under head coach Andy Reid, especially the last three years.

Perhaps no other coach in the NFL is as adept as Reid in finding out and adjusting what players work in what roles, and what players do not fit. The Eagles are a combined 15-6-1 in November and December under Reid since 2007, and they seem to be getting better again during the most important time of the year.

Vick is the key. He’s the one who got the Eagles on the board in last year’s 34-14 playoff loss to Dallas, the second-worst postseason loss in Eagles’ history (behind the 34-10 defeat to Dallas in 1992). For a brief moment, Vick made what eventually became a route somewhat competitive, when he hit Jeremy Maclin with a 76-yard TD pass—tying the game at 7-7. After that, it was a train wreck, as Dallas scored the next 27 points (thanks also to four Eagles’ turnovers).

“We’re going to come out on a mission in this game,” admitted Maclin, who had 146 yards receiving in the playoff game.

The Eagles had matchup problems, specifically with Cowboys’ nose tackle Jay Ratliff, in Dallas’ 3-4 defensive alignment, on undersized and over manned center Nick Cole. Now Ratliff is matched against the beefier Mike McGlynn, who’s filled in well for Jamaal Jackson. Don’t kid yourself, preventing Ratliff from pushing McGlynn up the field and collapsing the pocket around Vick will be a problem again.

Cowboys’ linebacker DeMarcus Ware isn’t having the kind of year he had last season, but he’s still a threat anywhere on the field.

Offensively, Dallas looks like a new and different team since September. Despite losing starting quarterback Tony Romo for the season, Dallas has averaged 33.3 points a game since Garrett took over. Most of that production has been the result of an improved rushing attack, producing 595 yards the last four games—just 10 yards less than what the Cowboys did in their first eight games.

Dallas quarterback John Kitna is serviceable—at best, but he won’t have one of the NFL’s most feared young receivers on the field at his disposal. Rookie receiver Dez Bryant broke his right ankle returning a kickoff against Indianapolis and is lost for the season.

The Cowboys, however, won’t look for Kitna to beat the Eagles. Dallas slammed Indianapolis for a season-high 217 yards rushing (behind seldom-used Tashard Choice, who ran for a season-best 100 yards on 19 carries vs. the Colts)—which means long drives that could keep the Eagles’ offense off the field.

That’s the only way Dallas may win this game—a steady and aggressive commitment to the run.

Otherwise, the Eagles’ offense could chew up Dallas with their speed, which has caused problems for every team that the Eagles have faced this year. Sunday night will be no different. Indianapolis scored 35 points with a one-dimensional attack that produced a paltry 40 yards rushing.

Philadelphia has more balance and the most explosive offense in the NFL, averaging 400.7 yards a game. The Eagles are also second (28.7 points/per game) in the NFL in scoring, behind only New England (31.6).

Vick, at times, has been unstoppable this season. Running back LeSean McCoy has emerged as a viable complement to Vick, and gives the Eagles some semblance of a rushing game. But a key factor is DeSean Jackson, who caught eight passes for 90 yards and a touchdown over the three Dallas games last year.

But Jackson has had his problems with the Cowboys, since torching Dallas for six catches and 110 yards in an Eagles’ 41-37 loss at Dallas on Sept. 15, 2008—Jackson’s first game against the Cowboys. Since then, he’s caught seven passes for 112 yards. A 16-yard per/catch average still looks impressive. But that average has steadily dropped. Jackson was nonexistent in last year’s playoff loss, catching three passes for 14 yards, averaging 4.67 yards a catch (his career average is 17.43 yards a catch).

Defensively, the Eagles need to shut down the run—it’s as simple as that, if they have any intentions of winning this important NFC East showdown.

Eagles All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel (knee injury) and defensive end Juqua Parker (hip) have each missed the last two games, but are expected to play against Dallas.

The Eagles haven’t beaten the Cowboys since their 44-6 throttling of Dallas at Lincoln Financial Field on December 29, 2008 to make the NFC playoffs. It marked the most lopsided victory in Eagles’ history over Dallas. The Cowboys exacted their revenge three times last year.

It seems as if the tables may be turned this time. This is a vastly different team than the one Dallas last saw. The air guitar is gone. So is the player last seen with it.

Reported by: Joseph Santoliquito

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