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December 24, 2022

First half observations: Eagles 20, Cowboys 17

The Eagles cling to a field goal lead after the first 30 minutes.

Eagles NFL
Gardner-Minshew-Pass-Eagles-Cowboys-Week-16-NFL-2022.jpg Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

Eagles QB Gardner Minshew with a throw during the first quarter Saturday down in Dallas.

The Eagles are locked in a dog fight with the Cowboys on Christmas Eve, with a late Jake Elliott field goal pushing them to a 20-17 lead over Dallas.

Here's what I saw in the first 30 minutes.

The Good

• There were plenty of complaints about Philadelphia's willingness (or lack thereof) to run the ball on early downs against Chicago a week prior. They changed things immediately against Dallas, which shouldn't have been a surprise after losing their MVP-caliber quarterback for this game.

Giving Miles Sanders touches immediately paid off for the Eagles, who got a nice gainer from Sanders on their opening play from scrimmage, giving them second-and-short and all the options in the playbook. Before Dallas could get set, the Birds immediately got into their next play, a strike across the middle from Gardner Minshew to A.J. Brown.

The bigger play was coming though, and it featured Brown yet again. Matched up with Trevon Diggs on the outside, Brown absolutely torched Dallas' top corner, and before he was brought down by the turf monster, it looked like Brown might find a way to go all the way to pay dirt, Brown slaloming through the defense all the way down to the 10-yard line.

Disappointment followed from there, but an opening drive field goal is nothing to sneeze at.

• Josh Sweat's name has appeared in this column week after week this season, Philadelphia's 25-year-old lineman putting together the best season of his career so far. With the entire defensive line showing out, it says something about the year he's having that he has so often been able to separate from the pack.

But this has to be the play of his season, due respect to the rest of the work he has done. Dak Prescott did not put enough on a throw to the flat that had potential for a big gain, and Sweat reached up with his big paws and turned the Cowboys over, picking up a defensive touchdown after shrugging off Prescott en route to the end zone.

You couldn't have imagined a better start for the Eagles than this.

• Avonte Maddox might have blown a beautiful sack opportunity on Dallas' first scoring drive, but he made a tremendous play on a gadget play for the Cowboys that (almost) made up for it. The Cowboys tried to run a tossback play, setting Prescott up for a potential deep shot. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, Maddox saw it coming the whole way, and he broke on the football 

• With this offensive line leading the way, you don't need to have an MVP-caliber quarterback to chew up yards on the ground. The Eagles lined up to run, ran right through the teeth of Dallas' defense, and they rarely faced resistance in the first half, winning the power battle pretty decisively.

Sanders was their most dynamic threat by far, bouncing a few runs to the outside and sticking to the decisive style that has led him to his best professional season. You could question the choice to hand the ball to Kenneth Gainwell as the Eagles got closer to the goal line midway through the second quarter, and for a moment, you started to wonder if Philadelphia's sneak-heavy attack at the goalline would fall apart without Jalen Hurts.

Narrator: it did not fall apart. The Eagles did nothing to hide their sneak attempt, piling bodies up in the middle of the field in preparation of a fight for that last yard. They emerged victorious as they so often have this season, Minshew burrowing through the bodies for another six Philadelphia points.

No nonsense from this group.

• Nice assist from the sun on Gallup's touchdown drop late in the first half. I guess Mother Nature or god is an Eagles fan.

• Not sure whether to credit the Eagles or make fun of the Cowboys for allowing Philly to get into field goal range at the end of the first half, but they managed to salvage a drive that Gardner Minshew tried to give away with about a minute left. 

The Bad

• Maddox was active and disruptive in the opening quarter, but he missed an absolutely golden opportunity to end Dallas' second drive of the game. Prescott dropped back to pass on third down and the Cowboys never picked up Maddox, who looked to have the QB wrapped up for a sack. But with Maddox hanging all over him and nobody else stepping in to offer a second hit, Prescott stayed upright long enough to find his man, extending a series that was on the verge of dying a painful death around midfield.

If another guy gets there and lays the wood on Prescott, there's a decent chance they get called for a penalty in today's NFL. But Maddox didn't have an excuse to blow his opportunity, and that missed chance was costly.

That conversion seemed to give Dallas the momentum they needed to calm things down and establish a rhythm. It didn't help that Prescott did a lot of work on that drive by himself — the last two games have been against quarterbacks who can hurt you if you lose containment on the edge, and for the second straight week, the Eagles had issues corralling the quarterback outside of the pocket. Prescott isn't the dynamic threat Justin Fields is on the ground, but he has enough mobility to string together back-breaking runs if you afford him some space on the outside, and he picked up a couple of big gains on their first scoring drive of the day.

• Minshew's reputation is as a guy who isn't going to put the ball in harm's way, and on a team filled with weapons, that's a style that would probably be enough to win a football game. Unfortunately, it took all of a quarter for that idea to fall apart, Minshew throwing a bad interception to gift Dallas possession on Philadelphia's side of the field.

This replay doesn't show it, but there's not much to analyze on this throw. Minshew locked in on one receiver and telegraphed where the ball was going, and the throw he eventually made wasn't especially accurate to boot. That's a recipe for a turnover.

Anyone calling Jalen Hurts a "system quarterback" should go back and watch the missed touchdown pass from Minshew early in the second quarter, with Quez Watkins running toward what looked like a guaranteed tuddy before Minshew sailed one over his head. It's the sort of play Hurts has made all year, and Minshew was fortunate to be able to salvage the opportunity.

• Darius Slay gifted the Cowboys a penalty on fourth-and-long to extend a drive, and he knew it almost immediately when he saw the flag thrown. He knows and is better than that.

Once again, it didn't take long for Dallas to capitalize once the Eagles allowed them to extend the drive. On another third down in Eagles territory, CeeDee Lamb got free in the secondary, leaving Reed Blankenship diving at air as he strutted across the goal line for six points.

Slay was probably the man at fault on this play, too, so this was a howler of a drive for him.

The first half was filled with missed opportunity after missed opportunity for the Eagles on defense. Bad teams will let you get away with mistakes, but the Cowboys were happy to punish the Eagles for not getting them off the field.

The Ugly

• Maddox suffered a toe injury on his sack of Prescott early in the second quarter and based on how often you saw him around the ball in the first half, that's a big loss if they can't get him back on the field for the final 30 minutes.

It didn't look good for Jordan Davis, either, whose return has made a huge difference for Philadelphia in run defense. A helmet-to-helmet shot from teammate Sweat left him woozy on the turf, and I'm pretty skeptical he should be allowed back in this game even if they give him the green light. Head injuries are no joke.

• The passive approach has worked for Philadelphia en route to a 13-1 record, but you get the sense that the Eagles are going to need to put more pressure on Dallas at some point in this game. Cowboys receivers are releasing easily on every play, and Prescott has not struggled to find guys in space so far.

Well, I should correct that, Prescott has not struggled to find Lamb in space. He was basically the only guy killing the Eagles through the air, and since he's the top/only target they have, it's a bit alarming that they look so ill-equipped to stop him. The Maddox injury is critical there, but it can't be as simple as, "We're screwed if Avonte is out."

• This is the second week in a row Watkins has been at the center of the offense for reasons I can't really understand. 

• Terrible Dallas Goedert penalty late in the half. I sort of think the Eagles should have taken the 10-second run off because they basically eliminated their ability to attack the middle of the field by using the timeout instead.

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