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NFC East Notebook: No stranger to comebacks, Jalen Hurts’ rise to starting QB is Eagles’ best hope

Here are the headlines from around the division this week

New Orleans Saints v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Credibility is (slowly) building in the NFC East.

After the New York Giants and Washington Football Team earned some respect back for the division last week with upset wins over the Seattle Seahawks and then-undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively, the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys stepped up in Week 14.

The Cowboys handily defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 30-7, in Andy Dalton’s return to Cincinnati. But the Eagles were the real story, defeating the now 10-3 New Orleans Saints, 24-21, snapping the Saints’ nine-game winning streak.

The win itself was just as notable as the quarterback who earned it. Rookie Jalen Hurts ignited life back into the Eagles offense, using his arm and legs to power Philly to its highest point total since Week 6. In place for the struggling Carson Wentz, Hurts was 17-for-30 for 167 yards and one touchdown. He also ran the ball 18 times for another 106 yards. Before last Sunday, the Saints had gone 56 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, the longest streak in the Super Bowl era. Hurts was not the only productive runner as Miles Sanders also eclipsed the century mark with 14 rushes for 115 yards, including an 82-yard touchdown.

Hurts’ performance calls into question the future of the quarterback position in Philadelphia. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Wentz will stick around for now, and with the four-year, $128 million contract he signed, that certainly makes sense. But Hurts will continue to be the starter for the remainder of the season and his play over the next three games will provide insight into his skill level.

Hurts has always been known for more than his on-field performance. After leading Alabama to the national championship game in 2017 - a game that the Crimson Tide lost - he brought them back the following year. But then he was benched at halftime in favor of freshman Tua Tagovailoa. Hurts is forever remembered though for his reaction when Tagovailoa threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to defeat Georgia in overtime. He sprinted onto the field, grinning from ear to ear. The following season, when Tagovailoa won the starting job, Hurts stuck around. And he saved the Tide’s season in the SEC championship game against Georgia. Hurts transferred to Oklahoma the following season and led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff once again.

He is beloved by both programs. Nick Saban and Lincoln Riley both have nothing but positive things to say about Hurts. Hurts’ college career highlights his patience, work ethic and loyalty.

It’s safe to say that the media cares more about the Eagles’ starting QB job than Hurts himself. At 4-8-1, the Eagles are not out of the NFC East race as they sit in third place, just one game behind the Giants. And Hurts is no stranger to comebacks.

Now let’s check out the headlines from around the league this week.

Washington Football Team

The Eagles are not the only team fielding a new starting quarterback this week. Alex Smith was ruled out of Sunday’s game with a strained right calf. He left last week’s game against the San Francisco 49ers in the second half and did not return. Sophomore QB Dwayne Haskins Jr. replaced Smith last week and will get the start Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.

Haskins has not started a game since the team’s Week 4 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. The former Buckeye was benched after the game and demoted all the way down to third-string.

Coach Ron Rivera said after last week’s win that Smith was removed from the game out of an “abundance of caution.” Smith did not practice this week. He went through some drills but told the staff that his calf still felt tight. Because of Smith’s serious injury history, resting him makes the most sense.

Though Smith was not explosive in his five starts, tallying three touchdowns and three interceptions, his impact on the offense was noticeable. The 14-year veteran brought patience to the pocket and that level-headedness extended throughout the offense.

Haskins does not promise to bring that some poise to the huddle. The Washington staff has criticized Haskins in the past for his lack of preparation and poor work ethic. Observing Smith over the last five weeks should only help the young QB. With a one-game lead in the NFC East and a crucial game against the Seahawks, Haskins no longer has time to be unprepared.

Dallas Cowboys

The 4-9 Cowboys meanwhile, will take on the 5-8 49ers Sunday. Both Dallas and San Francisco began the 2020 season in similar spots. The offseason moves made by the Cowboys vaulted them into Super Bowl conversations and the 49ers seemed poised to compete for the Lombardi Trophy once again. But both teams suffered major injury setbacks, most notably at the quarterback position. Dallas lost Dak Prescott and the 49ers lost Jimmy Garoppolo to a high-ankle sprain.

Strangely, the Cowboys are hosting the 49ers in Arlington for just the second time ever. The last time San Francisco visited Dallas was back in 2014 and Colin Kaepernick was the starting quarterback. Despite that loss, the Cowboys have won five of their last six meetings against the 49ers and appeared poised to keep that streak alive.

Win or not though, the Cowboys’ season will continue to be a disappointment. Linebacker Jaylon Smith is one among many players who have underperformed this season and questions are beginning to surface about his future.

After being selected to the Pro Bowl in 2019, Smith’s play has slowly regressed. Smith signed a five-year, $64 million contract extension last year, but the Cowboys staff has reportedly noticed a downturn in performance. The numbers are still mostly there as Smith has recorded 123 tackles, one fumble recovery, one interception and 1.5 sacks. But the Pro Bowler has demonstrated an inability to execute assignments and a tendency for missing tackles.

Smith’s off-the-field attitude has not helped. Smith only learned that the Cowboys were flexed out of primetime this week when asked about it in a press conference Thursday. His response?

“If the owner ain’t trippin’, we good.”

Probably not the right answer.

Philadelphia Eagles

Philly put together its most convincing win of the season against the Saints last week, but it did not come without losses.

The secondary in particular was hit by injuries. Cornerbacks Darius Slay (head) and Avonte Maddox (knee), and safety Rodney McLeod (knee) all left last week’s game with injuries and did not return. Defensive linemean Malik Jackson, Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat were also hurt in the game.

Slay was initially listed as questionable for Sunday, but has since been downgraded to out. Maddox was placed on Injured Reserve Friday. The loss of Slay is significant as the Eagles needed him to defend against DeAndre Hopkins.

It is now unclear who the Eagles will start at both the cornerback and safety positions in Sunday’s game. The Cardinals are not overly impressive in their passing game, clocking in at No. 18 in the league in passing yards with 3,097, but a decimated Eagles secondary is at an immediate disadvantage.

These injuries to the secondary place more pressure on Hurts as the Eagles are going to need to do better than their measly 21.3 points per game average if they want to be competitive.