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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, December 24, 2011 at 9:01 AM

This has to be one of the weirdest football days ever. The drama of the NFL playoff chase takes up a full SATURDAY on the sports calendar because the league didn't want to have games scheduled on Christmas Day. They also didn't want any road team to have to play on Christmas Eve! So, the prime time treat for football fans tonight is the Hawaii Bowl matching Southern Miss and Nevada.

We've put together stat previews of that game...and the most appealing of the late afternoon NFL matchups. Let's jump right in because there's a lot to talk about today.

First...Saturday afternoon's Eagles/Cowboys game that should have the feel of a playoff war, even though it's possible that neither team will make the playoffs! Here are our standard indicator stats...

DRIVE POINTS
Philadelphia: 13.9 on offense, 11.9 on defense
Dallas: 13.9 on offense, 12.1 on defense

These teams are virtual clones in what we consider to be the single best indicator stat in all of sports. These are points scored and allowed per game on drives of 60 yards or more. Both offenses are right at two touchdowns offensively...which is better than average. No surprise there given the downfield capabilities of both quarterbacks. Both defenses are within a decimal point of 12.0. As many great things as you've heard about the Dallas defense supposedly improving (we debunked some of that recently in the NOTEBOOK), and as much as you've heard about Philadelphia's defense falling apart this year...it's a wash on that side of the ball.

Differentials:
Philadelphia: +2.0
Dallas: +1.8

Toss-up on a neutral field if you're only looking at the basic fundamentals of ball movement and production. What separates these teams...do the degree there's separation...comes from other areas.

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Philadelphia: 41% on offense, 35% on defense
Dallas: 41% on offense, 39% on defense

A bigger edge than you might expect for the Eagles in terms of differential. In fact, this number is suggesting that the Eagles defense is better than the Cowboys defense regardless of what you've been hearing in media coverage. The Ryans are like the Kardashians in terms of blinding the hype machines. We have another dead heat on offense. One of the reasons the line has dropped in this game from an opener of Dallas -3 to Dallas at just -2 or -1.5 is that the consensus is that the Eagles are the slightly better team. We now present the possible monkey wrench...

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Philadelphia: -12 (19 takeaways, 31 giveaways)
Dallas: +5 (23 takeaways, 18 giveaways)

Ouch! The reason the Eagles are a longshot to make the playoffs is right here. The offense is so mistake-prone that they can't be trusted to win games. A whopping 31 giveaways is just ridiculous for a team with this much talent. There's such a thing as high-risk, high-reward. But, a lot of Philadelphia's mistakes are just sloppiness or carelessness. And, Michael Vick can be stubborn with his attempts to be Superman under duress.

Look at how powerful Philadelphia looks on the scoreboard when Vick is playing quarterback, and the team makes just 0 or 1 turnovers in a game:

Philadelphia 31, St. Louis 13 (1 turnover)
Philadelphia 34, Dallas 7 (0 turnovers)

Two blowouts...with scores that are consistent with the "dream team" storyline before the season started. Of course, the bad news is that there have been only two games all year where Vick played and the team avoided turnovers. As sloppy as you think Tony Romo can be, Dallas has eight games with 0 or 1 giveaways this season.

To get more samples into the picture, let's move the threshold up to 2 turnovers in Vick's games:

Philadelphia 20, Washington 13
Chicago 30, Philadelphia 24
Arizona 21, Philadelphia 17
Philadelphia 26, Miami 10

A mixed bag here. Note that Vick was hurt during the Arizona game and tried to battle through the injury with disastrous effect. That's not really a clean sample because he was useless after the injury. The loss to Chicago was a poor performance. The two wins both came on the road in reasonably impressive fashion.

So, that's the big key tonight. Can Philadelphia avoid turning the ball over? Will Dallas get overly aggressive in a high pressure spot and start making the mistakes they've been avoiding the past two months? The first two indicator categories are coin flips. Turnovers will determine who wins and covers in our view.

A quick review of what's at stake in the NFC East:

  • Dallas will win the division if they beat the Eagles, and then win again on the road against the NY Giants next week, or if they beat the Eagles and the Giants lose their early game today with the NY Jets.

  • Philadelphia will win the division if they win out and the Giants beat the Jets before losing to Dallas. The Eagles win the tie-breaker in a three-way knot at 8-8. They'd also win in a two-way tie with Dallas at 8-8 because a win here would give Philly a series sweep. The Eagles must win out to get to 8-8, and then get help.

It's possible for Dallas to finish 9-7 by beating Philly then losing to the Giants in a way that leaves them in the runner-up spot in the East. They would still have a chance at a Wildcard depending on what happens with Atlanta and Detroit the next two weeks.

Bottom line...Philadelphia at Dallas is a playoff game involving teams that may not reach the playoffs!

When that game is in the books, you'll be jumping over to ESPN for college football. Here are some numbers in that game...

HAWAII BOWL (Honolulu, HA)
NEVADA (7-5) VS. SOUTHERN MISS (11-2)
Vegas Line: Southern Miss by 7, total of 62.5
Market Moves: The opener was Southern Miss by 6 with a total of 60, so there's been clear smart money sentiment on the favorite at the Over. Southern Miss impressed many with a strong ROAD win at Houston in the Conference USA Championship game. Nevada took a step back this year from past squads because some impact players graduated. It's not surprising that the Southern Miss squad that looked so good vs. Houston would get support vs. a 7-5 team from a weaker conference. Totals guys liked the Over, given the shootout possibilities that are always present when Nevada takes the field.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Nevada: 87th
Southern Miss: 99th

As always we're using the Jeff Sagarin numbers from USA Today. Nevada played the slightly tougher schedule this year even though they were in the lesser conference. They faced both Oregon and Boise State in non-conference play, which is really stepping up in class. They also played Texas Tech, losing a 35-34 heartbreaker. Nevada is from the WAC, and that conference has already seen two teams in action.

Utah State lost, but should have won and covered vs. Ohio
Louisiana Tech lost, but covered and almost won vs. TCU

Those teams impressed in the boxscore stats considering pre-game expectations, which gives Nevada a shot to be competitive here. Note though that the Wolfpack did lose their regular season games to those two teams. We've covered Nevada's five losses already...the three out-of-conference challenges plus those two league losses to bowl teams.

Southern Miss's toughest non-conference opponent was Virginia. That was a respectable 30-24 road victory though. Southern Miss also played Marshall, who you saw beat FIU the other night. That was a stunning early season loss that caught Southern napping. The Golden Eagles took their eyes off the ball twice this year...vs. Marshall and UAB.

The key point in this hunk...Nevada played a better schedule, so make allowances for that as you run through these other stats...

OFFENSE
Nevada: 5th (30th passing, 8th rushing)
Southern Miss: 13th (31st passing, 23rd rushing)

Nevada still knows how to move the ball. They typically don't play quite as well as their raw offensive math would suggest because this style of play flies between the 20's...but bogs down in the red zone vs. good teams, or gives the ball away too often. Great jobs this year from both of these teams on the offensive side of the ball.

DEFENSE
Nevada: 52nd (63rd passing, 57th rushing)
Southern Miss: 31st (70th passing, 20th rushing)

Southern has a clear edge here...and showed you some of that defensive prowess vs. high octane Houston in the CUSA title tilt. That victory would normally be considered as great preparation for somebody like Nevada. The problem is...stunning Houston in a game with BCS ramifications in a way that also has you lifting a trophy afterward could inspire quite a letdown. At top speed and focus, Southern Miss would be a defensive force of magnitude vs. Nevada. Flat and emotionally hung over, they could be flat-footed.

ADDING IT ALL UP: We've seen some very weird results in the Hawaii Bowl in recent years, with double digit underdogs posting humongous straight up victories. The dog isn't so big this year...but you certainly have upset potential if Southern Miss doesn't bring it's A game. Should Southern Miss keep its mojo going...they can certainly win by double digits against a Nevada team that might put on a show in the middle of the field but not get enough on the scoreboard. It's worth noting that the stat rankings would have suggested Nevada should have beaten Utah State and Louisiana Tech. Nevada just can't live up to what their stats suggest as a general rule.

JIM HURLEY will be working closely with his sources for both the Philadelphia-Dallas and Southern Miss-Nevada games on Saturday. You can purchase our full slate of games, including one of our top NFL releases all season right here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

We hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We'll be posting a preview for you overnight for the only Christmas football action...Chicago at Green Bay in the NFL. That report will also take a brief look at each of the five games in the NBA holiday quintupleheader that FINALLY tips off the pro basketball season.

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!

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