Monday, December 15, 2014

The Morning After: Cowboys 38, Eagles 27 (10-4)

Responding to adversity tells us what a competitor is all about.  Either they collapse from within and never recover or they become more determined than ever to not let that defeat beat them more than once and eagerly await a chance to make amends.  As that particular train of thought pertains to the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, the response was clear: they were not going down to the Eagles in the feeble fashion of Thanksgiving a 2nd time.
No chance.
This time, the Cowboys were able to even the score with the Eagles in a most impressive fashion on Sunday Night in Philadelphia.  This franchise has now played 19 games under Jason Garrett in the month of December (now, 9-10), and for a number of reasons (not the least of which was that this might have been for all of the marbles in the NFC East), this one has to be the best result of them all.
Dallas was the beneficiary of some good fortune last night, but, they also made an exceptional number of plays at big moments that punched their ticket for their 10th win of the season in a game where not only did they win the time of possession (41:55 to 18:05), yardage (364-294), and turnovers (4-1) - but they took the game over with huge moments at several different time during the proceedings.  And, not only did they win time of possession by more than double, but they also won time of possession in each of the 4 quarters.  In other words, the up-tempo Philadelphia offense that apparently necessitated the fawning of NBC for most of the night, spent a majority of the game watching the Cowboys offense put together 6 different scoring drives - although, it should be noted that because of the generosity of another Eagles turnover-fest (adding to their league lead in giving the ball to the opponent) the Cowboys did not have to drive the length of the field for many of their scores.
There is no doubt that these two teams are a great matchup up and down the rosters.  The Eagles actually are one of the rare teams that can absolutely stand up to the Cowboys offensive line, and at worst, play them to a draw more often than not.  DeMarco Murray had to work hard for all of his production last night because, unlike the Chicago Bears, the Eagles were competing at a very high level.  Additionally, Tony Romo had to duck and weave quite a bit to be able to make throws under pressure for much of the evening.  The Eagles' offensive line is quite formidable itself and the battle in the trenches would have to be called a draw for most of the evening and they would have the scorecard advantage if you totaled the two battles together.
But, where this game needed to be won was at the Quarterback position.  There is a reason this team is able to compete this year and while the national press is properly discussing the might and power of the Cowboys offensive line and rushing attack, it should be noted clearly that the Cowboys are seeing the best season of Tony Romo's career.  When he is fit and able to do what he does, the Cowboys go from good to bordering on great offensively and he absolutely must be in any conversation where the MVP is discussed.  Again, last night, when you look at the most critical position on the field, the Cowboys had a decided advantage at QB and after a moment early where he flirted with a very dangerous throw on the 2nd drive, he settled in for yet another insanely efficient night at the office.
If the Cowboys would have lost 2 straight to Mark Sanchez in this season series, it would have been one of those footnotes that would be brought up for years.  The Cowboys had to see their advantage at the QB position play out in these two match-ups, and last night, when we expected to see more pressure brought from the Eagles than ever before, Romo and Dez Bryant spanked the Eagles blitz when they dared try to single-team the dynamic play-maker on the edge.  Sure, Romo was hit a few times and left with grass stains, but in the process, Dez Bryant put on maybe the show of his career.  It was a 3-touchdown masterpiece where Romo and Bryant were in full control, waiting for the Eagles to sell out their safe coverage and try to make a play with the aggressiveness.  The Cowboys have not always been capable of passing a test like this, but on this occasion, the composure, precision, and execution was all aligned properly for a clinical dismantling of the Eagles in front of their home faithful.
It all started with the generosity of the Eagles kickoff return unit on the opening kickoff, allowing a rather routine situation to turn into a firedrill and a major break for the Cowboys as CJ Spillman recovered a muffed return at the Eagles 18 yard line.  From there, the Cowboys had to convert mistakes into touchdowns and after converting a 3rd Down to Terrance Williams (he lives), Murray pounded the ball into the end zone to draw first blood off the opening mistake.
Then, as the Eagles confidence was still shaken following the Seattle destruction of last week, you could sense early on that it wouldn't take too much for the crowd to alert the home side of their lack of performance offensively, which is seemingly all being attributed to Mark Sanchez' mere presence.  They now eagerly await the return of Nick Foles - a guy who was leading the NFL in turnovers when he was hurt - to save them, and that could not have helped Sanchez' performance.  It took the Eagles almost about 19 minutes to get their first moving of the chains on a flare pass to Darren Sproles early in the 2nd Quarter, and the inaccuracy of Sanchez allowed the Cowboys to deploy more men to stop the run - something that gave them fits 17 days prior.
But, back to Romo, on the 2nd drive of the game, he nearly threw a disastrous out to Dwayne Harris that missed inside and invited a potential interception on a jumped route by Cary Williams.  Instead, the series contained Romo hooking up with Jason Witten on three separate 3rd Down occasions as the Cowboys marched the ball right down the field in demoralizing and time-consuming fashion for a fantastic 16-play, 88-yard drive that ended with Dez Bryant's easy catch over the out-classed Bradley Fletcher.  Fletcher was continuously asked to man-cover Bryant by his coaching staff in a example of a very poor tactical idea.
The Eagles coaching staff had done this continually throughout the season, asking their secondary to not only stop the opponent, but to stop in while in base coverage against 11-personnel.  On the Cowboys very next drive - again before the Eagles even had a 1st Down, the Cowboys faced a 2nd and 10 and ran out Cole Beasley in the slot with Bryant and Williams out wide.  The Eagles, despite being barbecued with this very tactic at Lambeau Field a month ago and then by Seattle last week, where they put a safety on the slot man and decide to roll with a single-high safety to cover the entire center field, walked right into the furnace yet again by offering Dez Bryant the same silly treatment that they tried with Jordy Nelson.
The results were the same.  The Quarterback cannot believe his eyes, tries to not be too obvious in pre-snap, looks the safety away to create the gap, and then lofts a pass into the path of his man with Fletcher trailing by a healthy margin.  It seriously looks no more laborious than a warm-up drill and given that this has happened repeatedly to the Eagles, you wonder about the stubbornness of their coaching staff to continue to employ a tactic they are incapable of carrying out.  It really makes you wonder what they must think of their 3rd corner, Brandon Boykin to have him on the sideline and ask their safety, Malcolm Jenkins, to run with a slot rather than just play nickel like most teams would if they continuously demonstrated that they can't stop with 4.
Why would the Eagles stay in base coverage?  Because they want to make DeMarco Murray's day difficult by keeping 7 "bigs" in the box and sometimes walking in Jenkins to make it 8.  They figure if they go to nickel, then Murray will have success and they want to make Romo have to beat them.  Well, they did make Romo beat them, and he did without looking too terribly taxed to do so.  Once again, 3rd and 10 with 12:55 in the 4th was the kill shot, and it was a near instant replay of the play in the 2nd Quarter.  Leave Bryant on an island with Fletcher, and Romo calls the "warm-up drill" play again.  Instant Replay touchdown.
The Cowboys defense was asked to slow down the Eagles and make their night difficult.  They generated 3 takeaways of their own, including the finest challenge of Jason Garrett's career when Brent Celek caught a 2nd and 13 pass for a first down, but the ball was stripped by JJ Wilcox and Kyle Wilber and came out before Celek ever hit the ground.  In past years, that challenge might have never been possible, but with the tinkering of the challenge system, the Cowboys in 2014 were rightly awarded the ball at a very crucial point of the 4th Quarter (up 35-27 with 7:28 to go) and then tacked on a clinching Field Goal.
It wasn't a spotless night by any measure.  They were up 21-0, only to surrender 24 consecutive points and to send their fan base into a fit of anxiety.  Brandon Carr inexplicably gambled on a simple pass to Jeremy Maclin (again) and it turned into a real mess as Maclin ran for 72 yards and set up the touchdown that cut the score to 21-17 with 8:48 to go in the 3rd Quarter.  The ensuing drive featured a 3rd and 19 against a 3-man rush where Romo held the ball for an absurd 8.6 seconds before he was blindsided by Vinny Curry and the ball was fumbled and recovered as Ron Leary stood over it before Fletcher Cox seized it.  A few moments later, the unraveling was underway as Darren Sproles ran in to give the Eagles a 24-21 lead with 5:42 to go in the 3rd.
They had come all the way back.  Same ol' Cowboys.  Same ol' December.  If only Romo and the Cowboys could handle situations like this...
What followed was a "big boy" drive like you seldom have seen from this group.  Equal parts: Romo, Bryant, Witten, Murray, offensive line, Linehan, and friends, the Cowboys fell behind and then marched 78 yards in 8 plays with 5 first downs and they never needed a 3rd Down the entire trip.  Murray punched it in, the Cowboys took the lead, and put wind back in the sails of the entire mission.  From there, they followed the defensive recipe of getting the Eagles into 3rd and long where Sanchez would have to make a throw and he did - missing Zach Ertz in the middle who tipped the ball to JJ Wilcox and the young safety came up with a huge takeaway interception on the final snap of the 3rd.
That led to Dez's 3rd Touchdown which led to the Cowboys winning a massive divisional game on the road in December and notching their 10th win of the season.  The effects of this win are numerous, but most importantly, they are now in the driver's seat with 2 to play.  Everything has led to this, where if the Cowboys match the Eagles on the way in, they are division champs.  Better yet, they can even achieve a bye week if they just win their final 2 games and get a small amount of cooperation.  The oddity of being a much better team on the road this season has led them to a spot where they may have earned playoff action at home.
They needed this win badly.  Before fretting about the Colts, enjoy what went into this win. They needed to stand up and show force in front of a hostile crowd and they did it with an exclamation point.  Very impressive and very well done.
March on.  All the goals (and even dreams) are still possible right in front of them.

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