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December 24, 2022

Final observations: Cowboys 40, Eagles 34

The Eagles fell apart late and lost for just the second time this season.

The Eagles battled valiantly with Gardner Minshew at quarterback but ultimately came up just short, falling in a 40-34 loss to the Cowboys on Christmas Eve.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Eagles might not have been overjoyed at halftime, but they had to feel pretty good about the position they were in. Their backup quarterback played relatively poorly in the first half, Dak Prescott carved their secondary up while targeting basically one guy, and they still emerged with a lead after the opening 30 minutes. You find a way to give yourselves a chance and hope you can make enough plays down the stretch to get it done.

And here's what I appreciated the most about Philadelphia's approach to the second half of the game — they did not play like a team just hoping to hold on, or like a team that had a disadvantage because they had a backup quarterback in the game. They went out there and tried to take the game, and that philosophy paid off in the third quarter, when it felt like they took control of the game back.

After a stop on defense to open the second half, the Eagles used a blend of ground-pounding and short-to-intermediate throws to move down the field. Dallas Goedert had one of the highlight-reel plays of the game early in the series, bailing Minshew out on an iffy throw with a spectacular grab over his defender.

Late in the drive, the Eagles stalled out deep in Dallas territory, and conventional wisdom suggests that's a spot to take the points. You're on the road, you don't have your dual-threat QB, and a six-point lead would have been quite alright in that spot. But instead of bringing out Jake Elliott, the Eagles' offense stayed on the field and (rather curiously) sent A.J. Brown to the sideline. The initial thought was, well, what gives? We all saw the vision soon enough:

This is a beautiful play design from Nick Sirianni and Shane Steichen, leaving Minshew nothing to do except to haul in an uncontested touchdown. But you never even have the chance to see that play if they decide they're happy with three points, which many in the media and fanbase would have been happy to accept.

Playing aggressively and playing to win has been a huge part of this team's identity this season, and it was awesome to see that hold up regardless of who started at quarterback. Trust in your guys to execute, and they will reward you.

• One of the keys to this game for Philadelphia was Dallas' total inability to gain yards on the ground on early downs. Up until Ezekiel Elliott had a big fourth-down run midway through the third quarter, the Cowboys had been held to short or nonexistent gains on basically every rushing attempt. Even after that big conversion from Elliott, the stats told the story — with five minutes left in the third quarter and the Eagles up a touchdown, the Cowboys had only gained 66 yards on 23 carries for their running backs, an anemic 2.9 yards per carry. Three yards and a cloud of dust? Not even.

With the Eagles jamming up the Cowboys on first down runs, it left Dallas with a lot of work to do on second and third down. Philadelphia struggled to get them off of the field in the first half, but corrections came as the game wore on, at least at the start of the second half. Philadelphia was able to create a bit of breathing room — temporarily, anyway — with some early third-quarter stops, preventing CeeDee Lamb from running wild as he did in the first half. 

• Minshew was not exactly lights out for most of this game and we can get into that below, but he saved up some big-time plays for the fourth quarter, with the game hanging in the balance and the NFC's No. 1 seed on the line. Philadelphia's drive to open the fourth quarter showcased the area where he excelled throughout the day, throwing slants to Brown, but also required a bit of improvisation to keep the drive going at a critical moment.

Under duress in the pocket, Minshew rolled to his left and kept his eyes trained downfield, searching for somebody to hit. Skinny Batman was the man on the spot, coming back toward Minshew for a giant conversion and four more chances to move toward the end zone.

That pairing would come up large again in the red zone, with Dallas sending the house to pressure Minshew on third down. Against zero coverage, Smith had just one man to beat, and he broke toward the sideline and a throw that was right on time, Smitty turning upfield for those last two yards and the touchdown:

That is a big-time throw and play in that spot, regardless of what you think about the rest of Minshew's day. 

• All year, the pass rush has starred for Philadelphia, and there was never a better time for them to show out than the fourth quarter of this game. Two consecutive sacks from the Haason Reddick/Josh Sweat combo looked like it might be enough for the Eagles to start marching toward victory, up until they somehow had their worst play of the game on the very next play. 

• I don't think anyone is going to be coming out of this game yelling "Minshew Mania," as this was an up-and-down outing. He had a lot of help in front of and around him, standing clean in the pocket on most plays with great protection from the boys in the trenches. Inexplicably, Minshew spent a lot of the day throwing off of his back foot. Every time he did so, you could not predict where the ball was going to go beyond knowing it was probably not reaching an Eagles target.

But when he wasn't throwing off-balance for seemingly no reason, Minshew looked a lot like the guy everyone thought the Eagles were getting. He made some strong throws on slants to Brown over the middle, made decent reads when his guys broke open downfield, and played at least okay for most of the game. The other big point of critique was the danger he put his receivers in, as it felt like 50 percent of his completions were hospital balls.

Saying it's "good" to watch Philadelphia's backup quarterback intermittently struggle might sound goofy, but it reaffirms everything we've thought and believed about Jalen Hurts watching him up close this season. As a fill-in option, Minshew was mostly fine, making a few big plays and blowing opportunities as a backup quarterback tends to do. The system and the supporting talent will only take you so far and you can now rest assured that Hurts is as legitimate as his play suggests he is.

I know that doesn't have anything to do with this specific game, but if Minshew came out slinging in this game, we would have been treated to a week worth of exhausting takes. We may still deal with that, but if you didn't see a clear difference, maybe try a new hobby. Hurts is and has been a difference-maker.

• DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown are absurd. The plays Smith made in crunch time of this game were nothing short of spectacular — immaculate footwork on the sideline, beautiful, high-pointed catches in between multiple defenders, this dude did just about everything you could ask a receiver to do in these circumstances.

With each passing week, Smith looks more and more like the guy he was during a star-making run at Alabama. And that should terrify the rest of the league.

• Wonderful entertainment, regardless of the end result. Working on Christmas Eve is not something I would recommend, but a Christmas Eve NFC East classic ain't too shabby.

The Bad

• This is pretty easily the worst game of Darius Slay's tenure in Philadelphia. Every time he had a chance to make a big play — no scratch that, a relatively easy play — Slay managed to turn that opportunity into an absolute nightmare, tortured by the corpse of T.Y. Hilton on the outside.

His worst crime of the day came in the fourth quarter, multiple errors into a bad performance. Philadelphia had forced Dallas into a third-and-30 situation with back-to-back sacks, one easy stop away from potentially putting the game away. Inexplicably, Slay got roasted down the sideline by Hilton, and Dallas somehow pulled themselves out of what should have been an inescapable hole:

Josiah Scott owns his own share of the blame on this one, certainly. The Eagles defense is effectively structured around the idea of preventing big plays at all costs, sitting back further than most fans would like in order to keep things in front of them. Managing to let a guy run past you for an enormous gain in that spot is simply inexcusable, and one of Slay or Scott absolutely has to be in a position to prevent that from happening.

It is not overstating things to say this play single-handedly lost the game for Philadelphia. You could feel the NFC's No. 1 seed in their grasp after Sweat brought Prescott down on second down, and the moment Hilton came down with the pass, you just had the rotten feeling that this one was over.

One of the other, semi-related stories of the day: Prescott absolutely torched the Eagles when they sat in zone coverage on Saturday night. One particularly ugly Fox graphic reminded viewers that Prescott was 19/19 for 199 yards against zone up to that point in the game, which seems borderline impossible unless you'd watched the game. The Cowboys were happy to kill the Eagles in the soft spots without doing much attacking downfield, and we'll all have remember their struggles in zone in the (fairly likely) event these two meet in the playoffs.

Philadelphia missed opportunity after opportunity to end drives, and it came back to haunt them. Almost inarguably the most disappointing effort of the season for the defense. 

• At the tail end of what was mostly a good day at the office, Miles Sanders put the ball on the turf in the second consecutive game, which is a worrying trend as they get closer to the games that really matter. This one was as costly as it gets, taking a chance to tie or win the game away from the Eagles.

The Ugly

• Nothing in this game really matters except for the health of Philadelphia's guys who left the game due to injuries. All three men who left the game are important pieces, but no absence would loom larger than Lane Johnson's. Micah Parsons gets talked about as if he is Lawrence Taylor, 2022 edition, and until Johnson left the game, he was effectively invisible. The stability Johnson gives them on the right side of the line is otherworldly, and losing him late in the year would change their outlook considerably. It was not a shock to see the Cowboys come through the right side of the line on the biggest play of the game.

• Again, I simply don't understand why Quez Watkins is getting so many targets in big-time situations. They paid for it dearly at the end of this game, as what probably should have been a catch turned into a Dallas interception.

I would go so far as to say I don't really blame Minshew for the interception on the throw to Watkins late in the fourth. Question targeting him at all, sure, but the throw was in the right spot for him to make a play on the ball.

• Smith celebrating a touchdown by pretending to steal money from the Salvation Army pot gets points for originality at the very least.

• The "Gardner Minshew is quirky, he's been in a fighter jet!" segment was, uh, something.

• Prescott running out of bounds at 2:01 with Dallas trying to run the clock out is one of the most braindead things I have ever seen an ostensibly good quarterback do.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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