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December 22, 2019

Final observations: Eagles 17, Cowboys 9

Eagles NFL

The Eagles were undermanned and presumably outgunned, and they still stuck it to their biggest rival in the biggest game of the year anyway. Philadelphia beat the Dallas Cowboys 17-9 and they have control of their own fate in the season finale next week.

Here's what I saw on Sunday.

The Good

• You want to talk about leading by example, look no further than what Fletcher Cox did early in the second half. He appeared to bang his ailing elbow on Ezekiel Elliott's helmet on a power run, and stayed down on the field for a while before heading briefly to the blue medical tent. But rather than linger on the sidelines, he summoned the strength to get back on the field and try to help his team contain a Cowboys rushing attack that came out firing.

And on a pivotal third-down right after his return, it was Cox who got his hand on the football and stripped backup running back Tony Pollard, forcing a monster turnover in Eagles territory.

Playing on basically one arm, Cox got back in the mix and changed the game. That is a hell of a play, given the circumstances.

(The only bad part about this play? We were robbed of the triumphant post-recovery moment because Doug Pederson had to use a challenge for the officials to get the call right. Brutal.)

• One difference for Carson Wentz on Sunday vs. some of his poorer performances? He was hitting on the easy throws that he was rushing or overthinking early in the season. You don't need to come up with explosive plays all of the time to put points on the board, and you can move the football by simply nailing the short throws to your guys in space.

This is a big reason why Miles Sanders has been able to take off in the passing game. Sure, Sanders has made plays downfield as well, but there's a big difference between hitting a running back in-stride and forcing him to come to a stop to come up with a football. Wentz struggled with those sorts of throws in the middle portion of the season, and they've been cleaner as they've come down the stretch.

(Of course, I say all this, and when the Eagles needed it most, Wentz threw a ball at Sanders' feet that killed a drive for the Eagles in crunch time. The writer's curse, I suppose.)

It has certainly helped that he finally seems to have developed some chemistry with this rag-tag cast of skill position players and that they are stepping up when the Eagles have needed them more than ever. Greg Ward is no longer just some cute story of a guy who has emerged from the practice squad. He has been a legitimate contributor all over the field, finding gaps over the middle and even occasionally giving Wentz a target to hit down the field.

And Dallas Goedert, by the way, had easily the best game of his young career on Sunday evening. Zach Ertz got banged up early, and it was up to Goedert to pick up the slack in his absence. He did that and then some, showing off his versatility with big plays over the middle, on the outside, and in the screen game, carrying the passing attack at times.

• The stretch run Miles Sanders has been having is absolutely outrageous. Jordan Howard was a critical part of a thunder-and-lightning rushing attack for the Eagles, and his "day-to-day" issue turning into a prolonged absence should be a bigger deal than it has been. But thanks to Sanders, you've hardly even noticed that Howard has been gone, with Sanders adding the tough yards in the trenches onto his ability to make guys miss in the open field.

• The Eagles have been duped by trick plays and basic misdirection a ton this season, and I thought they did a much better job on Sunday of staying home and trusting guys to make plays on the other side of the line when it was necessary. It didn't lead to many big plays in the backfield, but it forced Dak Prescott to sit back and make a few tough throws on the move instead of having real estate to either run or suck coverage into.

While we're on the subject of the defense, they sure picked an ideal time to return to form. Perhaps it's just a product of playing at home, where they have been quite a bit better this year, and Dak Prescott left some throws on the table that might have changed the game. But the gameplan was sound — stack the box to stop Ezekiel Elliott from beating you, and minimize the damage Dallas' weapons can do to you over the top.

We haven't been able to say this much, if basically ever with this Eagles group, but their open-field tackling was tremendous on Sunday, with guys like Nigel Bradham, Malcolm Jenkins, and more killing opportunities for extra yards dead in their tracks. Their pursuit of the ballcarrier was a strength for once.

• Miles Sanders has done quite a bit of his own heavy lifting for the Eagles this season, but his third-quarter touchdown was the stuff offensive-line coaches dream of. After getting stopped short on the previous play, Sanders waltzed through the middle of the line on the next play for a huge touchdown to close out the third.

You win in the trenches, you win football games. It's often that simple, and it helps to have a dynamic threat like Sanders running through those holes.

• Probably the best game of Josh Sweat's career to date. He has grown in stature with more reps and playing time, and he made a few notable plays in the backfield on Sunday, including a huge third-down sack of Prescott midway through the fourth quarter. 

And let's show a little love to Vinny Curry, who came up with a monster play just when it looked like Dallas might drive all the way down the field and score a crushing touchdown.

• When the Eagles were in the process of throwing up on themselves in the first half of the Giants game a couple of weeks ago, the thought ran through my mind that Philly looked like a team that had given up, which is always a poor reflection on the coach. Well, then what does it say of the work they've done since that moment, and what does it say about Pederson's ability to get his guys to rise to the occasion when they absolutely need it the most?

For years now, the Eagles have been a team that can dig down deep and find a win when they need it, even as guys are injured and backups are forced into roles they seem underqualified for. Nick Foles deserves a ton of the credit for those responses in years past, as he guided them masterfully through high-stakes situations, but Pederson certainly deserves a healthy share of the credit as they continue to put up wins when everyone has counted them out for the year.

I will sit here and say we should all remember this in the future (myself included) if and when the Eagles sputter through early chunks of the season, but I know it's a lot harder to think like that in the moment. Right now, my advice would be to just enjoy this ride as long as you can.

• I think I can speak for everyone when I say I always believed in Sidney Jones and making the biggest defensive play of the season is exactly what I expected.

What, why are you laughing at me?

The Bad

• Running up the middle immediately after the big forced fumble felt like the most predictable play call imaginable. Have to do better than that. And frankly, that was a good snapshot of what the play calls looked like for most of the game, which was especially aggravating after watching the Eagles come out with an aggressive opening script.

Playing not to lose is exactly how you end up in a dogfight with a team that played piss poor on both sides of the ball in the first half. They made good use of a combination of power and speed early, and then rolled out predictable, vanilla offense for long stretches of the game. It was pretty mystifying, especially because the early stuff they ran worked as well as it did.

That mentality bled into their decisionmaking on fourth downs, and with Jake Elliott already having missed a distance try earlier in the game, I was pretty shocked Pederson opted not to go for it on fourth-and-five in Dallas territory with the clock rolling in the fourth. Outside of a costly penalty from Jason Kelce on that drive, Philly's offense was rolling, and I think you have to put the ball in their hands and give them a chance to really put the game away.

So of course, Pederson got aggressive when they had to kill the clock at the end of the game, and it worked to their advantage. A good reminder he definitely knows a lot more about football than I do.

• Absolutely brutal performance from Elliott on Sunday, by the way. The Eagles have been winning, so it has flown under the radar a bit, but Elliott has not been good since inking an extension paying him the third most guaranteed money of any kicker in the NFL.

• The downside of winning this game is that it basically guarantees the Cowboys will make a head coaching change in the offseason, and boy does Jason Garrett stink on ice. 

The Ugly

• Derek Barnett got away with it, but he threw Jason Witten to the ground after a play was dead on Dallas' opening drive, avoiding a bad penalty by sheer luck. The lack of discipline he plays with is absolutely astounding.

• The Eagles didn't help themselves with avoidable mistakes in the first half, but they had to deal with a wave of injuries at the worst possible time against a team that already had a pure talent advantage. I'm not a big believer in the likes of Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills, but the deeper down the depth chart you go, the more at risk the Eagles are to getting exposed.

Losing Mills and Cox in the span of about a minute in the second half was pretty miserable, even if they were able to return. We can point to a lot of other reasons they struggled to put this game away earlier than they did, but there are only so many absences and unplanned substitutions you can overcome before the wheels fall off. It's a testament to the character of the group (and the fraudulence of the Cowboys) that they got a W anyway.

• There isn't a bigger loser in the country than Chris Christie, a Jersey-based Cowboys fan. I love seeing the miserable shots of him in the box with Jerry Jones. Get stuffed, clown.


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