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Cowboys’ key edge over Eagles seems to be entrenched

Second of four breakdowns on the first round of the NFL playoffs:

Big pressure on big men

The Eagles have a robust assortment of speedy playmakers, but the guys who absolutely have to make plays on every snap are the big men up front. Stopping the Cowboys in the trenches has been a problem, as evidenced by the four sacks of Donovan McNabb in each of the last two meetings.

Former USC standout Winston Justice, Philadelphia’s right tackle, was overwhelmed Sunday by outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, who had two sacks, a hurry and forced a fumble.

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“We just didn’t improve as an offensive line,” Justice told reporters. “We didn’t do our part today.”

On the left side, tackle Jason Peters drew flags for a false start and for a late block on Dallas cornerback Mike Jenkins.

The Eagles could have anticipated some problems at center, where Nick Cole was making his first career start in place of Jamaal Jackson, who’s done for the season with a knee injury. It wasn’t entirely smooth -- Cole botched a shotgun snap in the red zone that led to a McNabb fumble -- but he did a good job blocking Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who was held without a tackle.

The Justice-Spencer and Cole-Ratliff battles are worth watching in the rematch.

Decisions, decisions

Dallas’ Wade Phillips has a problem any coach would envy. He has a glut of good right tackles.

It looks as if Phillips will start the recuperated Marc Colombo at the position, even after understudy Doug Free played an outstanding game against the Eagles.

Colombo had started every game for three years until suffering a broken left ankle and high ankle sprain against Green Bay on Nov. 15. He underwent surgery the next day to repair ligament damage, and now he’s ready to return.

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That displaces Free, who made a jaw-dropping play against Philadelphia, getting all the way downfield on Felix Jones’ 49-yard touchdown run to throw the final block on cornerback Sheldon Brown.

“It was a tremendous play,” Phillips said. “Doug finishes plays and that’s what I really like about him.”

DeSean denied

Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson is headed to the Pro Bowl. That’s not based on his performances against the Cowboys this season, though. They have done a masterful job of containing him, limiting the second-year player to five catches for 76 yards and no touchdowns in two games. Those numbers would look better, however, had McNabb not overthrown him on a deep ball Sunday.

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To make things worse, Jackson suffered a groin injury as the result of a twisting tackle on a punt return. His ego was a little bruised too.

“You definitely don’t ever draw these kinds of losses up,” he said. “We came out here and stunk it up, if that’s what you want to call it. It’s not a good thing.”

Here comes trouble

One player who gives Dallas headaches is Philadelphia tight end Brent Celek. In two games against the Cowboys, he has caught 10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown, and has been an effective safety valve for a harried McNabb.

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Both teams have excellent tight ends, although Celek has a little extra incentive. He has six more touchdowns than Dallas’ Jason Witten this season, but it’s Witten who’s headed to the Pro Bowl.

Another viewpoint

NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said the Eagles’ most recent loss to the Cowboys was “just one bad day” -- “Donovan has played in the playoffs, played in the Super Bowl, and I just flat-out think that Andy Reid is a better coach [than Phillips]. So I’m picking Philly to win this game, and I’m picking Philly to go all the way to the Super Bowl.”

Stats comparison

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PHLDAL
Points scored 26.8 (5) 22.6 (14)
Points allowed 21.1 (19) 15.6 (2)
Pass offense 255.6 (10) 267.9 (6)
Rush offense 102.3 (22) 131.4 (7)
Pass defense 216.4 (17) 225.4 (20)
Rush defense 104.7 (9) 90.5 (4)
Turnover ratio +15 (2) +2 (13)
Sacks 44 (3T) 42 (7)
Penalties 115 (3T) 115 (3T)

* NEXT: BALTIMORE AT NEW ENGLAND

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer


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