Gil LeBreton

Cowboys’ defense needs to put it in Sanchez’s hands

Jeremy Mincey and the Cowboys couldn’t get a handle on Mark Sanchez on Thanksgiving Day. If they repeat that performance in Philadelphia, their playoff hopes might be doomed.
Jeremy Mincey and the Cowboys couldn’t get a handle on Mark Sanchez on Thanksgiving Day. If they repeat that performance in Philadelphia, their playoff hopes might be doomed. Star-Telegram

OK, they were tired. Still jet-lagged from London. Romo-tized by not getting their customary Wednesday nap.

Whatever.

A veritable full deck of excuse cards has been played on the Dallas Cowboys’ behalf for their 33-10 spanking on Thanksgiving Day.

We get it. Some days you’re the pilgrim. Other times you’re the giblets.

Plus, there was that mysterious X-factor in this unusual Cowboys season: They can’t seem to win at home.

Or maybe it was just the Philadelphia Eagles that day, exposing the Cowboys for what they are: a team that’s not quite on the same level as the NFC’s top contenders.

The Cowboys are the best of the next group, but it’s the second group nevertheless.

They can go a long ways toward dispelling that notion Sunday night. But they’ll have to be a different team than they were Thanksgiving Day.

Better blocking, without question.

Better quarterback play from Tony Romo, no doubt.

Better defense, absolutely. When a team runs over, through and around you for 256 yards, as the Eagles did, it’s time to revisit the defensive game plan.

Coordinator Rod Marinelli’s group always seemed a step slow or a man short against Chip Kelly’s offense. When the Cowboys went to their nickel defense, which was often, the Eagles ran. When the Cowboys went with personnel to try to stop the run, Kelly gave quarterback Mark Sanchez a repertoire of short, safe passes.

Sanchez had only two pass attempts of more than 20 yards. LeSean McCoy, meanwhile, ran for 159.

Quarterback Nick Foles appears to be at least one week — and one successful collarbone scan — from resuming his starting role. Philadelphia, therefore, is stuck with Sanchez again for Sunday night.

If it’s the Sanchez who guided the ship so efficiently in the earlier meeting with the Cowboys, the Eagles should again gain a lot of yards. The mismatches are still there.

But if it’s the Sanchez who completed only 10 passes for 96 yards in last week’s loss to Seattle, the Eagles will find themselves in a different game.

Is Marinelli confident enough to stack his Cowboys defense to stop McCoy and the Eagles’ running game and dare Sanchez to try to beat them? Or is he too worried about, among others, Darren Sproles?

The Seahawks had the right idea, but they have size and speed on defense that the Cowboys can’t match.

The Cowboys have applied minimal pressure on opposing quarterbacks all season. How is that going to disrupt Sanchez, who can dump off the ball to McCoy or the dangerous Sproles?

The Cowboys will need answers by Sunday night. The playoff tiebreaker math does not favor them, should they lose and give Philadelphia the season sweep.

The Eagles will finish the schedule with games at Washington and the New York Giants. The Cowboys will host the Colts next week and travel to Washington for the season finale.

“It’s like a playoff game,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “It’s almost like one of those you have to win.”

Even the national media was quick to point out the quirks in the Cowboys’ schedule after the Thanksgiving defeat.

They were tired, Romo’s back was hurting, the offensive line didn’t have its legs, etc., etc. Whatever you believe, it still added up to 33-10.

The Cowboys’ playoff fate likely will be in the hands of their defense this time.

They’ll be desperate. It may just be enough.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton

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