NFL playoff race: Eagles and Cowboys renew rivalry with stakes sky high

<span>Photograph: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As the regular season draws to a close, we’ll take a look each Friday at a game likely to affect the playoff race, along with the teams whose fortunes are rising and falling. And, so we don’t neglect the also-rans, we’ll see which teams are in the hunt for next year’s No 1 pick.

Game of the week

Philadelphia Eagles (10-2) v Dallas Cowboys (9-3)

Story of the season: Sometimes the obvious choice is the right choice. The 10-2 Eagles meeting with the 9-3 Cowboys in Dallas will help decide the No 1 seed in the NFC while a melange of scenarios could result in both teams securing a playoff place. If the Eagles bounce back from last week’s humbling then their soft schedule the rest of the way puts them in the driving seat for the bye, but lose and the race is opened up considerably. The juiciest subplot is how linebacker Shaquille Leonard choosing to sign for the Eagles over the Cowboys will pique this bitter rivalry. As Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, put it, this is a “unique time”. Dallas are annoyed, Philadelphia are annoyed, sparks are going to fly.

What the Eagles need to do to win: “Please ensure that all members of your game-day staff understand that their role does not extend to being involved with game-day altercations,” read a memo to teams on Wednesday regarding Philadelphia’s head of security being ejected from the 49ers defeat. This is what can happen if a coach shows his team a rival team trash-talking about them, says to take it personally and then can’t help but run his mouth at the opposition before kickoff. Even poor Dom DiSandro tries to pick a fight with an opposing linebacker. Nick Sirianni needs to accept that while he operates successfully on such a highly-strung emotional level, thinking his team is a set of 53 Michael Jordans and will instantly respond well to such an intense atmosphere is naïve against the best. Sirianni appears to have an inferiority complex which needs to be dialed back, as his team are anything but. Coach aggressively but in how you call plays in the game, instead of distractedly punting on fourth and two when two scores down. On the field, the defense needs to show up after a display that made tepid receiver Jauan Jennings look like Deebo Samuel Jr. Covering CeeDee Lamb will be a challenge but stopping another avalanche on the ground is possible as linebacker Zach Cunningham returns to the starting lineup. But get Leonard, who pointed to Sirianni’s time as offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts as the reason for joining, in the game early and often to establish your strong suit. Let the snub simmer and rankle, then show why he picked you, don’t tell.

What the Cowboys need to do to win: Put simply, the Cowboys need to find their best performance yet from a very good but not great season. The record against their NFC rivals reads poorly after being embarrassed by the 49ers and losing to the Eagles. They need to make stopping receiver AJ Brown their focal point, throw a blanket over him and make sure a safety is always on hand too so when he inevitably does make a grab, he doesn’t cause too much damage. On offense, targeting the Eagles’ hobbled secondary worked for the 49ers so Mike McCarthy should be scheming up ways for Dak Prescott to shine but the quarterback needs to improvise too, some of the best moments of a stellar season have come when he has escaped the pocket and looked deep downfield for CeeDee Lamb and company. But it is Lamb (on pace for 1,700 yards this season) who has the athleticism to bury a defense that looked shattered against San Francisco and have now given up the league’s second-most passing touchdowns at 27.

Playoff race risers and fallers

Rising: Green Bay Packers (6-6, currently No 7 in NFC)

The Packers minted their status as a serious threat to shake up the playoffs with their dominant win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Jordan Love’s continued growth at quarterback has been the key factor. He drove the Packers to a lead from the outset and never let up as his once unpredictable play has found accuracy and poise to go with the fireworks. The Chiefs powerful defense attempted to knock him off his spot but he avoided pressure like a veteran in the pocket giving him time to harmonise with receiver Christian Watson to devastating effect. His turn from game-wrecker to winner shows in the statline: 843 passing yards and eight touchdowns in three successive wins. Matt LaFleur’s patience has paid dividends to put his team in the final NFC wildcard spot as it stands at 6-6 and he is unlikely to falter from here as no tram the Packers have yet to face have a winning record at present.

Falling: Kansas City Chiefs (8-4, currently No 3 in AFC)

Green Bay and Kansas City like ships that pass in the night. While the former enhanced their playoff credentials, the latter dinged their shot at the AFC’s No 1 seed. Christian Watson’s day, specifically his second touchdown highlighted just how down the Chiefs’ offense has been – how Patrick Mahomes would dominate with a tall, powerful route runner who could stretch the field and grab contested balls at his disposal. Travis Kelce is still on hand though and needs much more of the ball against the Buffalo Bills to help quickly flip the game in their favor. An unfamiliar lack of composure has crept in, though. The Bills will be zeroed in on winning at all costs with their season on the line, a focus that could manufacture mental mistakes as Green Bay did. Mahomes seemed unnecessarily frustrated by a lack of pass interference calls against the Packers but, when they were finally adjudged to have overstepped the mark, he made a bad throw and was intercepted. A drive that could have resulted in a first lead of the night, with five minutes to go, drifted away as his pass did over an unwitting Skyy Moore and into the arms of Keisean Nixon. Isiah Pacheco’s ejection with a minute remaining as he carried the offense on his back was less pivotal but more boneheaded. A quick rebound would be helped by cleaning up the errors.

Race for the No 1 pick

With the Carolina Panthers showing little to no improvement after Frank Reich’s departure, it is safe to assume that the New Orleans Saints will keep the Chicago Bears locked in for next year’s top draft pick, winning the NFC South is still on the table but the motivation to avoid an embarrassing season-ending defeat may be a larger factor. Elsewhere, we have the 4-8 New York Jets. A five-game losing streak has them picking at No 6 at present but there is capacity to go much higher. Aaron Rodgers is not returning, Tim Boyle has been mercifully released, Zach Wilson is returning as the starter while a friend in the building claims he is “reluctant” to do so and Brett Rypien has been signed as a potential fifth signal caller of the season. This mountain of self-inflicted chaos means wins against the Texans and Dolphins are hard to fathom leading to a potential pick around No 3, can Wilson spare Rodgers from a rookie QB hanging in the shadows?