Five matchups that will define NFL Week 8: Eagles, Cowboys pit strength on strength

Sunday's prime time tilt between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys won't be short on star power.

The three rookies featured — Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz — represent some of the league's best hope for head-turning talent in season sorely lacking just that.

But the most important action might be up front, where the Cowboys' stable front and the Eagles' disruptive line could set the course for the NFC East showdown.

Dallas has had little troubling mowing down defenders while establishing the league's top rushing offense (161.2 yards per game). Philadelphia will also be without starting defensive tackle Bennie Logan, one of its best run defenders.

The Eagles allowed 230 rushing yards to the Washington Redskins in Week 6, but defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's group has not permitted much otherwise. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is one of the league's most disruptive defenders, and his battle against the Cowboys' interior line, which includes all-pro left guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick, could be one of the day's best.

Prescott's day also could be determined by how things play out up front. Dallas has given the rookie plenty of time to operate, as he has been sacked just four times in the last four games. But Philadelphia leads the NFL in sacks per game (3.33). Keep an eye on defensive end Brandon Graham, who might be too much for Cowboys right tackle Doug Free to handle alone.

Schwartz opted for an unusually blitz-heavy attack last week and racked up six sacks in a win against the Minnesota Vikings. Dallas, however, has had plenty of time to prepare as it comes off a bye. Whichever team can dictate the level of pressure should emerge with a substantial advantage.

Here are four other matchups that will define Week 8 in the NFL:

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Bills safeties

Facing Tom Brady for the first time this season is a big enough obstacle for Buffalo. But a fully healthy Gronkowski also could be key in preventing the first sweep of the Patriots by an AFC East foe in the last 15 years.

A hamstring injury limited Gronkowski to a minimal role in the Patriots' 16-0 loss to the Bills in Week 4, as he caught just one pass for 11 yards. Now recovered, he has recorded 364 yards in his last three games. The New York native has been a particular thorn for Buffalo over the course of his career, with an average of 70.4 yards per game and 10 total touchdowns in 10 contests.

Bills coach Rex Ryan has mixed up his coverages on Gronkowski, but giving the tight end a free release frequently has led to big plays. Safety Aaron Williams is out with a neck injury, leaving the Bills without one of their best coverage options.

Broncos RB Devontae Booker vs. Chargers' front seven

With C.J. Anderson sidelined after meniscus surgery, the rookie running back from Utah steps into a feature role. Kapri Bibbs should also contribute in the run game, but this is Booker's show.

Denver has the eighth-highest run percentage with rushes on 44.7% of its plays. That figure would be even higher if not for the Broncos' Week 6 loss to the Chargers, in which Trevor Siemian attempted 50 passes while playing catch-up. Booker, a decisive and downhill runner, will need to take on a larger role after gaining 46 yards on just five carries in that game.

San Diego's run defense has been solid, with second-year standout Denzel Perryman and rookie revelation manning the inside linebacker positions. Forcing Siemian into third-and-long situations is the Chargers' best bet for containing the Broncos' offense once again.

Packers OLB Clay Matthews vs. Falcons OT Jake Matthews

Defensive back Micah Hyde said prayer was needed to stop Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, and the Packers might need divine intervention this week. Green Bay is already 31st in the league with 101 yards allowed per game to opposing teams' No. 1 wide receiver, according to NFL research, and its top three cornerbacks will be out this week. Now coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers must find a way to slow Jones, who leads the NFL with 830 receiving yards.

The Packers might have to count on their pass rushers rather than their defensive backs. The second NFL match-up of the Matthews cousins might not materialize if Clay is hampered by a hamstring injury, as he was ruled questionable. Even if Matthews is available, Green Bay will need outside linebackers Nick Perry and Julius Peppers to provide additional pressure on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

If Atlanta can give Ryan time, it should find favorable looks throughout the day. Jones had 259 yards against the team two years ago and likely will be matched up with LaDarius Gunter, a promising but inconsistent second-year cornerback.

Panthers QB Cam Newton vs. Cardinals' front seven

Neither of last year's NFC Championship Game participants have thrived since the 49-15 victory that launched Cam Newton and the Panthers to the Super Bowl. With Carolina sitting at 1-5 and Arizona at 3-3-1, each side is facing some urgency to jump-start its season.

Newton has had his share of lapses, but the offensive line has eradicated many of his chances at attacking defenses downfield. He ran just twice in his first game back from his concussion, but he insisted this week he would not pull back on that part of his game.

Arizona has surrendered just five passing touchdowns this season, but it hasn't faced a test like Newton yet. Chandler Jones has given the pass rush an edge and could prove vital in corralling the Panthers' star quarterback.

Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

Copyright 2016 USA TODAY Sports


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