When you analyze a fascinating game with countless twists and turns, it is easy to get caught up in the final outcome, even if that outcome was only achieved by many variables falling just right. But, it is equally easy to take trips down the many side routes that were narrowly avoided on the path to an ugly victory in Arlington for the Cowboys over their most hated rivals these days, Philadelphia.
The Eagles had no intention of conceding the division last night, and in nearly every situation they demonstrated that their defense is up for a 3-hour street fight if that was what it called for. They seem like a very talented bunch and gave this Cowboys offensive front all it could handle and a message that they will see them again in December in cold Philadelphia.
This one was far from easy. In fact, for most of the night, it was an ugly grind that required a fight against frustration, because for the first time in a long time, it didn't come easy to this young team -- and more exactly, this young QB.
Dak Prescott had a really difficult night. For a guy who has made nothing look tough until last night, it was almost important for him to demonstrate at some point that playing QB in the NFL is one of the most difficult things a human being can be asked to do, and he had fooled us into the impression for a few months that it is no big deal. Last night, however, he struggled to find answers to all of the questions the Eagles were asking. And for much of the night it looked like a defeat was in order. Even his facial expressions showed more of a high-stress performance where the opposition was in no mood to get rolled over by this dynamic duo of rookies in Dallas.
He missed some open throws, threw many others "up for grabs" under the duress of all of the blitzes that the Eagles created, and looked visibly rattled for much of the proceedings. Then, Ezekiel Elliott, perhaps the real driving force behind so much of this offensive success, also found the going difficult. Those wide runs where he can get to the corner against anyone were destroyed on this occasion. The inside runs were still fruitful, but the Eagles were not going to give up the flanks and suddenly, the Cowboys offense looked stifled at times.
In fact, by halftime, Prescott had a QB rating of 39 and had thrown the ball over the field like a rookie often will against a very strong defense. The crowd had begun to murmur, and you could see the D-FW QB narrative had taken a 180 back in the other direction again. Dez Bryant had returned and he was hit for a deep pass down the right sideline, but for the most part, it looked like Prescott figured the best idea was to keep going back to him, and the connection was not there to be found.
Meanwhile, with the wind in the defensive sails, the Eagles were enjoying wonderful field position and some shorter fields with their special teams advantage. The other rookie QB in the game, Carson Wentz, looked pretty sure of himself and able to frustrate the Cowboys by finding open receivers. Dallas seemed to be giving him too much time, and despite having almost no weapons that threaten a defense, the Eagles had reached the high-water mark for points allowed by Dallas this season with 23 by the early fourth quarter as they took a 23-13 lead. Tyrone Crawford and Sean Lee were making more plays than the Cowboys defense had received from either of them all year, but the win probability showed the Eagles at over 90% with under a quarter to play.
So, a frustrated offense and a frustrated defense were playing before a frustrated stadium that was pretty sure they were the better team at roughly 10 p.m.
Who would have thought that the solution to all of this frustration was going to be the Cowboys coaching staff scoring a big win over the Eagles counterparts?
I cannot think of any other way to describe the outcome on Sunday.
Jason Garrett has had a weird impression on all of us over the years with the way his track record have many of us thinking his allergic to taking chances. He leaves the tags on his mattress to avoid federal prosecution for their removal and this world view allows us to surmise that doing risky things when coaching is never a help, always a detriment to the cause - even though we see every week how sometimes taking a chance can steal a win here and there.
Well, steal a victory he did, last night. The fake punt will be long remembered as an effort to steal some momentum from the Eagles performance and turn the game back in the other direction. We see fake punts. But, we don't see fake punts from deep in your own territory very often.
Fake punt, they did. And as Chris Jones is sprinting down the sideline, the Cowboys were pulling themselves back into the game. That doesn't mean that the Eagles were going to go quietly into the night, but it did represent a setting where it was clear that the game was back on.
That put some pressure on new Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson, and given some of the late game decisions he made -- a horizontal play that took his own team out of field goal range and not calling any timeouts at the end of regulation to force a punt -- it was clear that the difference in coaching decisions in the second half and overtime made the difference in the game.
Oh yes, overtime. In what might possibly be the least "Jason Garrett decision" of all time, he decided to go for a fourth down within field goal range in a tie game. He has made some risky decisions in the past, but almost everyone I can think of was with his team behind (fourth-and-6 against the Lions in the 2014 playoffs). But, this game was on the foot of Dan Bailey and the trust in his defense to play with the lead. Instead, he knew that the best defense is to never let them on to the field.
"Let's go get this game" was what the cameras appeared to capture after he stared down the situation before that fourth down and a yard. He stood up so fast that he knocked his chair over as he shoved all of his chips in the middle of the table and declared, "All in!" Dak Prescott gives him his best option on short yardage as he barrels ahead to easily move the chains.
By this point, Prescott had turned his game around. His 39.9 first half QB rating was turned into a 99.7 rating in the second half and overtime.
In other words, he had shown he could "find his stuff" as a game went on if you just stay on target. Yes, he still flirted with disaster a time or two, because the Eagles were not respecting anything. They blitzed and blitzed and blitzed. You can argue that they may or may not do that with Tony Romo, but the way Prescott stands tall with the pocket breaking down shows that he is capable. He has tons of determination and after that 4th down was converted in was just a matter of time.
Second and goal, the pocket is collapsing a bit and he has to spin to keep things alive. He spins to his left -- something Romo has done many times and finds Jason Witten in the end zone.
They turned this game around. It wasn't pretty, but that doesn't matter in this league.
They stayed determined. They stayed calm. And they made one more play than the Eagles did.
Winning a game where they didn't play very well is just another sign that this is a good team. And now they have a coaching staff that is trying to find the balance of believing in them with rolling the dice at the appropriate times.
This team is 6-1. They have a QB who has now twice overcome double-digit deficits to get a victory.
He had a chance to relinquish his job last night. And just as he was hanging from the ledge, he pulled himself back up and saved the day.
This team is on a run right now. You ride that wave until it disappears.