FRISCO, Texas — Vegas noticed quickly.
The Dallas Cowboys had opened as 1.5-point favorites over the Philadelphia Eagles in the looming Saturday matchup of playoff-bound NFC East teams.
Then news broke Monday afternoon that Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts may not play.
Hurts suffered a sprain in his throwing shoulder, a person with knowledge of the diagnosis confirmed to Yahoo Sports, and his status is “up in the air for this week.” The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose Hurts’ medical information.
The loss of any team’s starting quarterback hurts. The loss of an MVP candidate-caliber player like Hurts, more so.
By Monday evening, the Cowboys were 6-point favorites. NFL pundits know: Hurts’ dynamic, dual-threat game can’t easily be replicated.
“He’s playing at an extremely high level, so super productive,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. “I don’t think you could argue with just the production he’s put on film.”
If the 13-1 Eagles rest Hurts to ensure he’s healthier for a postseason run, fourth-year backup Gardner Minshew will start. The 2019 sixth-round draft pick brings 30 games’ experience and 22 starts to the line. He has won eight of those, including one of two starts in two seasons with Philadelphia.
The Cowboys, McCarthy said, will “be ready for both quarterbacks.”
Hurts has raced to 3,472 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and five interceptions this season while completing 67.3% of his passes. That doesn’t factor in his rampant ground threat, Hurts rushing for 747 yards and 13 touchdowns. No NFL quarterback has raced into the end zone more, the Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields (eight rushing TDs) and the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen (six) the closest.
The divergence is highly relevant for a Cowboys team that just allowed 192 rushing yards in a 40-34 overtime loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Our run defense will be the first area that’s under attack each and every week,” McCarthy said. “You look at the games where things didn’t go as well as we’d like on defense, that’s been a consistent attacking point.”
Minshew is liable to use his legs occasionally, but his career high of 56 rushing yards (in 2019) and one career rushing touchdown don’t come anywhere near Hurts.
The Cowboys need not imagine what Minshew could do against them. His last start was, in fact, against Dallas in the final regular-season contest last season. Minshew completed 19 of 33 passes (57.6%) for 186 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a 51-26 loss to the Cowboys in which the Eagles rested some players. Minshew had started once more last season, leading Philadelphia to a 33-18 win over the New York Jets on Dec. 5, 2021. His play, with a stronger supporting cast, was clean: 20-of-25, 242 yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers.
Minshew found tight end Dallas Goedert for 36- and 25-yard scores in that game.
Expect receiving tandem AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith, who accounted for 307 of Hurts’ 315 yards Sunday against the Chicago Bears, to make Minshew’s day easier.
Add in one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, a stingy defense and the league’s fourth-best running game, and Minshew will not be asked to carry the load alone.
“They have some exceptional players,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “They’ve got a lot of good pieces to feature. And most often — not all the time but most often — the system stays pretty consistent.”
Perhaps ironically, Cowboys All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons created a stir last week when he questioned Hurts’ MVP candidacy on the basis of how talented Philadelphia’s roster was beyond the quarterback position. “If we look at the Eagles,” Parsons wondered, “is it Hurts or the team?” Parsons clarified that he meant “no disrespect to Hurts” while philosophizing about the relative value of roster positions in football. Now, visiting Parsons and the Cowboys, the Eagles will have a chance to show what they can do without their likely soon-to-be franchise QB.
“As far as who would play and how they would utilize guys, their run game, the receivers they would use, the tight end — I’d imagine that would be all the same,” Quinn said. “Then maybe some of the specific runs that Jalen does, I imagine that would change if they had another quarterback. So, I would say in my mind maybe 80% [of their game plan] would be similar to 20[%] would be different.”
Both NFC East teams have already clinched a playoff spot. The Eagles’ league-best record is on pace for the NFC’s top postseason seed and thus a first-round bye. With three weeks left in the season, the Cowboys would need to win out, and the Eagles lose out, for Dallas to steal the division.