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November 19, 2017

First half observations: Cowboys 9, Eagles 7

The Eagles saved one of their worst halves of the season for a national television audience, and those dreams of killing the division race before Thanksgiving are currently on hold. If you're looking for good news, they're only down two points despite the poor performance, simply needing to overcome a 9-7 Cowboys lead to get a victory.

The Good

• Doug Pederson's offensive unit wasted no time getting down to business. They absolutely manhandled Dallas' front seven on their first series, to the point that it didn't really matter which running back was getting the ball.

Contributions came from three members of the running back committee, with Kenjon Barner providing the razzle-dazzle play with some amazing footwork down the sideline. Wentz did a great job to put the ball where only his guy could get it, and after some initial difficulty, Barner hauled it in.

Moments after he hauled in that pass down the sideline, his number was called again, and he staggered over the goal line to restore balance in the Force put the Eagles in front. Doesn't get much better than that for an opening possession. 

•  Dallas wanted to test Ronald Darby early, which the Eagles sort of invited by lining him up in single coverage against Dez Bryant. Despite the long layoff, Darby showed up ready to go and helped end a dangerous Dallas drive deep in Eagles territory.

After marching down the field rather quickly, Dak Prescott threw Bryant the ball near the sideline and asked him to beat Darby in the open field. He couldn't do it, and Darby took him down almost immediately with a strong leg wrap-up. On the pivotal third-down play, Prescott looked Bryant's way yet again, but the softer coverage played by Darby put him in perfect position to break up the throw in the end zone.

Darby came away with an interception later in the half and did a great job at limiting Dallas' wideouts after the catch on other passes they hauled in. Having him producing in his first game back is a big boost at a time where it looks like the team really needs it.  

•  Derek Barnett refused to be denied on this sack.

Prescott is a very difficult quarterback to get to, let alone bring down, so Barnett should feel pretty proud of himself for finding a way to make it happen here. He's popping on tape more and more each week, and his hit on Prescott later in the same series forced the second interception of the night for Dallas' quarterback.

The rookie defensive lineman took a lot of heat early in the season, in part because some fans viewed him as a luxury pick with all the strength the Eagles have in their front seven. He will quiet whatever doubters he has left if he continues progressing every week.

The Bad

•  The Eagles did not exactly come out guns blazing. Before Dallas' offense even got to touch the ball, their special teams unit put them in Eagles territory with a 60+ yard return on the opening kickoff. Not great.

Fortunately for the guys on kickoff coverage, the defense immediately bailed them out, forcing Dallas into a field goal attempt after three plays. Eagles fans were even treated to an early appearance from the Jalen Mills finger wag, which is a lot of fun if it doesn't coincide with a pass interference penalty.

•  Philadelphia's secondary gave them a nice boost late in the first quarter, after a Malcolm Jenkins tip at the line of scrimmage led to an interception by Rodney McLeod. The Eagles were poised to keep building on their early lead, and anytime you start a drive in the red zone, you expect the offense to come away with at least three points.

Bad news: the Eagles did not come away with at least three points. A three-and-out left Jake Elliott with a chip shot to take the lead, and he booted it wide right. 

To make matters worse, Elliott headed to the locker room following the missed field goal, and his status remains in doubt as a result of a head injury.

•  He has been pretty great this season and is a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate, but Doug Pederson's playcalling left a lot to be desired against Dallas. Every time it felt like they should run, they passed, and vice versa. His decision to run a draw play on 3rd and 10 from midfield drew the ire of beat writers and diehard fans alike, and seemed like a pretty nonsensical decision. 

The call I had a bigger problem with was running the ball immediately after McLeod's interception in the first quarter. When you're handed the ball in the red zone, I think you have to go for the jugular immediately, and the conservative approach left the Eagles with nothing to show for the possession.

That said, the offense also has to execute better. Wentz missed several throws that weren't all that difficult to make, and a bad drop from Torrey Smith reminded Eagles fans of all the drops they had to watch during the 2016 season.

The only blessing for the Eagles is their woeful first-half performance came against a Dallas team ill-equipped to take advantage of it. A better offense and a better team would have buried Philadelphia, instead they're still in great position to get a victory over their division rival.

The Ugly

•  Setting aside the offensive inconsistency for a moment, Elliott getting hurt is the last thing the Eagles needed to deal with. Special teams was one of the only areas of the team that remained stable for the majority of the season, and Elliott's long-range kicking was one of the great stories of this Eagles season.

Now they might be forced to make another big change in the middle of the season, at a position that demands near perfection. Great teams have had their seasons ended because their kickers didn't come through in the winter months, and it would be a shame for this team's potential to be wasted because of kicker uncertainty.