Autopsies of close games often reveal that they turn on the accumulation of little victories, seemingly unspectacular plays made by unspectacular players. They don't make the ESPN highlights, but these unsung heroes leave their team meetings on Monday afternoons knowing they helped put their team in the black.
Last night's amazing comeback against the Eagles turned on a number of such plays. Let's look past the obviousness of Roy Williams' interception to peer among the garbage of the game, where some unsung Cowboys did some big things.
-- The beginning of the comeback can be traced to a third and two play on the Eagles' 38. Philadelphia had been winning these short yardage situations all game running the ball. The Eagles had been successful going at OLB Scott Fujita, so much so that he was replaced for an extensive part of the game by rookie Kevin Burnett. With 4:46 left, Andy Reid put TE L.J. Smith across from Fujita, lined his fullback up on the right side of the formation and ran right off tackle. This time, Fujita turned Smith inside, slid off his block and held up RB Brian Dawkins long enough so RE Chris Canty could slide down the line and tackle him one yard short of the first down stripe.
-- Marco Rivera and his mates were having a terrible evening getting an inside push. The Eagles were stacking eight and often nine players in the box all night and always had one man unblocked. Dallas managed to get Marion Barber through the line on a few draws but he could never break free from the last man in the box.
When Dallas took the field with 3:44 to play on its own 28 it quickly moved 26 yards on two passes to Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn. At the Eagles 46, Sean Payton again tried a draw. This time, Rivera managed to lock onto MLB Jeremiah Trotter. Trotter had run himself out of the middle, stunting to the Cowboys right side of the line. When Trotter tried to spin back inside and get Barber Rivera drove him onto his back. For the first time, Barber got past the line and was able to wind his way to the Eagles 20 before he stepped out of bounds.
-- On the following play Jim Johnson put the Eagles into an eight man front, with his linemen, linebackers and strong safety all within one yard of the line of scrimmage. Dallas was in a three one back, one tight end, three receiver set, with Johnson and Peerless Price set left and Terry Glenn on the right side.
This matchup of formations represented the game in a nutshell. Johnson was gambling, hoping his maximum pressure could beat Dallas' maximum protection most of the time. To this point, the strategy had worked. Dallas had burned Johnson badly the first time, when the Cowboys' line gave Bledsoe time to find Peerless Price for a 58 yard bomb. The next three times Johnson brought the maximum eight men his guys had won. Twice Bledsoe had missed Glenn, who had gotten open deep. On the other play, Philadelphia overloaded the Cowboys' right flank, bringing a linebacker, safety and corner at Dallas' tight end and back. The LB, Jeremiah Trotter, had come unblocked. Rather than take a sack, Bledsoe committed what analyst K.C. Joyner terms a level-5 interception, the type "so bad they defy description"; with his back half-turned to the line, Bledsoe tried to dump the ball into the right flat. Lito Sheppard had broken off his blitz when Marion Barber stepped up to engage him and snatched the ball when Bledsoe blindly threw it towards him.
In this fifth and final duel between the max blitz and Dallas' max protection, the Cowboys gained a second and necessary win. The protection flowed right, where T Rob Petitti and TE Jason Witten blocked FS Brian Dawkins and RE Jevon Kearse. The third key block came on the backside. The protection scheme created a seam between the left tackle Torrin Tucker and Larry Allen. Safety Rod Hood burst through and appeared for an instant to have Bledsoe lined up. But Marion Barber stood him up, allowing Bledsoe to loft his TD pass to Terry Glenn, who had frozen Lito Sheppard with a stop and go move.
-- On the play after Williams' interception return, backup QB Tony Romo made a valuable save. Snapper L.P. Ladouceur drilled the ball behind Romo's right shoulder. Romo, who had faced snaps like this from Jon Condo, calmly snagged the wayward ball and placed it in one smooth motion. What could have been a catastrophe passed without notice when Shaun Suisham kicked the extra point.
-- Dallas found its final quiet hero on the Eagles' last drive. On a first and ten play at midfield with 24 seconds left, backup Eagles QB Mike McMahon purposefully underthrew a fade pass to Reggie Brown down the left sideline. Brown found the ball and appeared to make a diving catch inside a spinning Jacques Reeves at the Cowboys' 18. Reeves, who was singled out by coaches during camp as one of the more improved second year players, did three things to make the staff look smart.
First, he did not panic. How often in recent years have we seen corners like Mario Edwards or even the Jacques Reeves of 2004 grab the receiver when they lose track of the pass? The Reeves of last night was able to stay close to Brown without grabbing or tackling him, which would have drawn a flag and stopped the clock.
Next, Reeves was able to get his left hand inside Brown's left arm when the receiver grabbed McMahon's pass, prying it away from the ball. This caused Brown to bobble the football. This in turn allowed Reeves time to swing his right arm around Brown's right shoulder and punch the ball to the ground. Reeves appeared lost at first glance, but replays showed he made a calm, professional stop.
None of these players won the game by themselves. But take any of their contributions away, and it might be the Eagles celebrating their reviving win today.