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December 27, 2020

First half observations: Cowboys 20, Eagles 17

The Eagles stormed out to a double-digit lead against the Cowboys on Sunday, but they're locked in a tight one at halftime, trailing Dallas 20-17 with 30 minutes left to play.

Here's what I saw.

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The Good

• Jalen Hurts' first drive against the Cardinals last week ended with a safety and segments of the fanbase taking a victory lap over the quarterback battle. The first drive for Philadelphia in Dallas went a heck of a lot better, and the Eagles marched right down the field playing power football, bullying Dallas at the line of scrimmage.

A lot of that power came from the QB himself. The Eagles didn't line up with the intent to have Hurts run it on almost every other play, but after going through his progressions or being pushed out of the pocket, Hurts showed the Cowboys how dangerous he can be with his legs. A would-be touchdown was called back after replay showed him stepping out of bounds, but Hurts lowered the boom at the goal line and sent a message.

But it wasn't just Hurts doing it all by himself. Miles Sanders had a big first series, showing excellent burst out of the backfield and not wasting much time with side-to-side running, playing with a purpose behind good blocking up front. Sanders scored an easy touchdown on third-and-goal after Hurts' touchdown was overturned, getting the Eagles off to the start they were after:

There are a lot of people who will be happy with the run-heavy approach to the beginning of this game, and while they made it a point to go to Sanders, a lot of that comes down to Hurts tucking and running when nothing was there. Whatever it takes, obviously.

• Jim Schwartz's defense looked determined to immediately give back Philly's early lead until Vinny Curry stepped in to save the day. The Cowboys were marching down the field and deep in Eagles territory when Curry came off a stunt and rattled Andy Dalton, eventually combining with Brandon Graham to come up with a big sack on second down. After Dalton sailed a pass out of bounds on the pivotal third down, the Eagles emerged relatively unscathed.

It's not often you've heard Curry's name on the broadcast this season, but with Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat both out for a pivotal division game on the road, there's no better time than now for the veteran lineman to get going. Good start.

• The only defensive player bigger than Curry's sack was Rudy Ford's stop of Andy Dalton near the goal line in the second quarter. Dallas appeared to be on the verge of taking the lead when the fill-in safety turned on the jets to force the (admittedly sorta slow) QB out of bounds, forcing Mike McCarthy to decide between showing some guts and kicking the field goal. 

As anyone who has followed McCarthy's career would have told you ahead of time, he chose the cowardly route. This game might go down to the wire and we could very well look back on that stop from Ford as the most important play of the game.

• Eagles fans have had to wait all damn season for DeSean Jackson to suit up and stretch the field, and while I don't know if it's fair to say it was "worth the wait" — missing most of the season is not made up for with one touchdown — scoring in the first quarter is one way to get back in the good graces of the city. Jackson has a knack for scoring in Dallas and doing so in the most disrespectful way possible, and he added to his Texas infamy with another trot into the endzone:

Not Hurts' greatest throw on a deep ball to date, but he continues to give his playmakers a chance to go and get it, whether that's a jump ball down the sideline to Alshon Jeffery or a bomb like this one to Jackson. Pressure in his face has not fazed Hurts when he's loading up to throw downfield, and while that may leave him susceptible to taking a few big hits, it's also a big reason the Eagles' offense has looked much improved the last few weeks.

What Jackson lacks in consistency and availability, he attempts to make up for with big-play potential. On Sunday evening, he put himself at the very top of a big-play category, passing Jerry Rice for the most 60+ yard touchdowns (26) in NFL history. Jackson still lags behind Rice in 50+ yard touchdowns (32 vs. 36 for the 49ers legend) but it shows you just how dangerous he is to break a big play off at any given time. The Eagles will have to hope he's got a few more of these left in him.

• It looks worse and worse by the week that Philly kept Jason Peters on the field at the expense of Jordan Mailata/Jordan Mailata's development. Mailata has had some downright destructive moments at the point of attack, and he helped lead a strong first half in the trenches for Philly. On more than one occasion, Cowboys players looked like they ran into a brick wall when trying to shed Mailata to get into the backfield.

I'm not ready to call this group a strength of the team or anything close, but they had some great moments in the first half, particularly on a play where Hurts hit Travis Fulgham for a first down after standing motionless in the pockets for what felt like at least five seconds. No complaints about this group so far tonight.

The Bad

• It's hard to get too fired up about Philadelphia's failures in pass coverage with the state this group is in right now. Down several starters and backups in the secondary, the unit that is typically expected to bail them out (the defensive line) is dealing with a bit of an injury crisis themselves. Already down Barnett and Sweat coming into the game, Fletcher Cox was spotted on the bench with his pads off early in their tilt with Dallas, a bad sign for how much pain the anchor of their line is/was in.

That said, if Dallas ends up with a chance to win this game when the fourth quarter rolls around, look no further than Philadelphia's inability to stop the Cowboys through the air. Dallas' first play from scrimmage was a big play to Amari Cooper down the sideline, and Michael Gallup had an absolute field day in the first 30 minutes of football, with Andy Dalton picking on Michael Jacquet early and often on Sunday.

Not sure what adjustment they can make that isn't getting on their knees and praying for a spirit to aid them from beyond the grave a la Kadeem Hardison in The Sixth Man. The offense is going to have to carry the banner for the team today.

• With the above in mind, I did not like how conservative Doug Pederson got after the Eagles got out to a 14-3 lead. Philadelphia got out to the two-score lead in the first place as a result of mixing up their runs with shots down the field, and they briefly stalled when they tried to lean a little too hard on the rushing attack.

They're most likely going to have to win a shootout in order to emerge victorious today. Balance is the way to go, but they skewed a little too far toward clock control for my liking in the middle portion of the first half. They showed more creativity on the fake kneeling play to close the half than they did for much of the 29 minutes prior to that moment.

• Penalties on the fringe of field goal range have been an issue all year, and while it might not have made a difference anyway, Matt Pryor's false start midway through the second quarter was a killer. Third-and-nine became third-and-14, with the double whammy of pushing Philly out of field-goal range in a tight game. The margin for error is small for this group with all the defensive holes they have right now, and the offensive line needs to play mistake-free football for pretty much the rest of the way.

• Boston Scott was bailed out of a bad fumble early in the second quarter, but we should not let a Cowboys player stepping out of bounds overshadow how miserable this special teams unit has been all season. No explosiveness in the return game, inconsistent kicking game, unforced errors like this one, they've really hit the full spectrum of mistakes across the last 15.5 games. If by chance the Eagles make the playoffs, it would not shock me at all to see them lose a game because of a special teams mistake or series of mistakes. They've been that bad.

You could make a solid argument Scott didn't even have the biggest special teams error of the first half. Cameron Johnston, usually the most steady guy of the group, totally botched a punt attempt with the Eagles in no man's land midway through the second quarter. I know he was in the concussion protocol this week so I guess you can cut him some slack for not looking right, but when things are going wrong for the punter, you know Philly is in trouble.

• Hurts did almost everything right in the first half against Dallas, but he is going to want the late-half throw he sailed over Jalen Reagor back. There was a window for Hurts to fit the ball into for a touchdown, and he just missed it. That was the difference between six points and three points, and we'll have to see whether that comes back to haunt him.

• Alright, I changed my mind, it's worth getting fired up/angry when Michael Jacquet gets beaten to a pulp for 30 straight minutes. Brutal performance. Dallas targeted him all half and was rewarded for it.

The Ugly

• For once, we're using this section to talk about the opposite of ugly. The new 4K sideline cameras being used by Fox are absolutely beautiful, and as the below tweet points out, for a lot of people this looks better than it would if they were on the field using their own eyes:

I'm not expecting every single camera and angle to look this good, but I can't wait until the day when this is the norm.

• Saying, "The Eagles can't afford to lose anyone in the secondary" was true roughly a month ago, and when we get to the point where you have to express a legitimate concern about Marcus Epps limping off the field with an injury, you start to understand the crisis Philly is dealing with. Epps was able to return after a brief spell on the sideline, but Schwartz is going to have to hold this whole thing together with paperclips, shoestring, and a crate filled with glue sticks.

• Let's hope Fletcher Cox's "stinger" that he was ruled out with is not as bad as it seems, because a must-win game in Week 17 without the anchor of their interior would be brutal.

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