ARLINGTON, Texas — Nick Foles and Kyle Orton were backup quarterbacks when the season began.
With Tony Romo out after back surgery, they will be the starters for Philadelphia and Dallas when the Cowboys play their third straight season finale against an NFC East rival with a division title on the line Sunday night.
Foles has a 7-2 record in nine starts and leads the league in quarterback rating, which is why Michael Vick didn’t get his job back when he was healthy again last month.
Orton is almost exactly two years removed from his last start, back when Kansas City was finishing a 7-9 record in the same season he was dumped by Denver in favor of Tim Tebow. He’s played three games — and thrown just 15 passes — in two years as Romo’s backup.
Add the absence of defensive leader Sean Lee with a neck sprain, and the Cowboys are facing long odds trying to end a three-year playoff drought most notable for losses the past two seasons to the New York Giants and Washington in playoffs-or-bust finales.
"Obviously for him and I, everything you’ve worked for, you’ve done over the course of a decade is for moments like this," said tight end Jason Witten, who came into the league with Romo in 2003. "And if he’s not able to go, obviously that’s a blow. But you want to do it for guys like that."
Not so fast on the advantage for the Eagles, says Foles as he tries to finish a worst-to-first rebound from 4-12 to the postseason for Philadelphia under first-year coach Chip Kelly.
"I don’t care who’s quarterbacking, who’s playing," said Foles, who has 25 touchdowns and two interceptions. "If you’re not up for that, I don’t know if you’ll ever be up to play football."
Some things to consider as the Eagles visit the Cowboys five years after blowing out Dallas 44-6 in a winner-take-all finale in Philadelphia:
NO ROMO: He injured his back in the fourth quarter of last week’s 24-23 victory at Washington that kept Dallas’ playoff hopes alive. After the injury, Romo directed the winning drive capped by his fourth-down pass to DeMarco Murray for a 10-yard touchdown. But Witten said Romo was clearly in a lot of pain after the game.
Coach Jason Garrett said Romo had season-ending surgery Friday. The Cowboys added 41-year-old Jon Kitna to have another arm in practice, and he will be Orton’s backup two years after retiring and becoming a teacher and coach.
"He has knowledge of the game in terms of he’s been through issues and problems and he knows how to solve them," offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said of Orton. "That’s why we have that opportunity to have a veteran quarterback as a backup."
MY HOW THINGS CHANGE: The Eagles have been held without a touchdown once this season, in a 17-3 loss to Dallas in October. Foles was 11 of 29 for 80 yards before the Cowboys knocked him out of the game with a concussion.
Since then, Foles is 6-1 and averaging 287 yards passing per game. He tied the NFL record for touchdown passes in a game with seven against Oakland the first start after the Cowboys shut him down.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have given up the first two 600-yard games in franchise history; an NFL-record 40 first downs; eight straight scoring drives to Chicago backup Josh McCown; and five in a row to Green Bay sub Matt Flynn when the Packers rallied from 26-3 down at halftime. Dallas did get two late stops that were big boosts in the rally to beat Washington.
HIGH-FLYING EAGLES: LeSean McCoy leads the NFL with 1,476 yards and has a chance to be Philadelphia’s first league-leading rusher since Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren in 1949. He can also break Brian Westbrook’s franchise record of 2,104 yards from scrimmage. He needs 93. The Eagles’ DeSean Jackson needs 106 yards receiving to break Mike Quick’s franchise record of 1,409 in 1983.
The Cowboys won the first game in large part because they limited the damage from McCoy (55 yards rushing, 26 receiving) and Jackson (three catches for a season-low 21 yards).
GARRETT’S HOT SEAT: Dallas owner Jerry Jones gave Garrett another vote of confidence on his radio show this week — the second one in about a month. Romo’s absence will be an interesting factor if Jones is stuck with a fourth straight season without a trip to the playoffs.
If the Cowboys don’t win, they’ll have 8-8 records in all three full seasons under Garrett, who currently is 29-26 since replacing Wade Phillips during the 2010 season. "His future is bright in my eyes with the Cowboys," Jones said.
KELLY’S CLIMB: Win or lose, Kelly’s first season in Philadelphia is a success. A 10-6 finish would match the 1999-2000 seasons for the best turnaround in franchise history at six games (from 5-11 in 1999 to 11-5 in 2000). Those were the first two years under Andy Reid, who was replaced by Kelly in the offseason.
Kelly smoothly handled the decision to keep Foles as the starter ahead of Vick, and his fast-paced offense has a chance to join the 2011 Saints and 2013 Broncos as the only franchises with 13 games of 400 yards or more of total offense in a season.