For only the eighth game of the season, the stakes could not have been any higher for the Dallas Cowboys. A win over the Philadelphia Eagles would keep them very much in the hunt for the NFC East crown, likely their only remaining path to the playoffs. A loss would drop them two games behind both the Eagles and the New York Giants in the loss column, a hole that may be too deep too climb out of even in the chaos of their division this season.
It all came down to overtime after the Cowboys managed to tie the game up with 2 ticks on the clock. The coin toss was won by the Eagles, which was bad news given how the Dallas defense was getting worn down, but the last drive by the offense had gotten them some rest.
But it was not enough, as the Eagles drove 80 yards. All game, the pass rush was just short, and it happened again, as Jordan Matthews pulled in a touchdown pass to end the game, 33-27, and quite likely killed the last hope for the Cowboys to return to the playoffs.
The game itself certainly had some chaotic moments itself. This was certainly one game where the teams seemed much more evenly matched than they have in the previous five losses. The Cowboys would have defensive series where they could not find a way to slow down Chip Kelly's fast paced offense, but they had others where they stopped them. One of the most crucial times was halfway through the fourth quarter when the Eagles had driven into the red zone, but the Cowboys managed to force them into a field goal, thanks to David Irving, who had a very good game, forcing Sam Bradford to throw it away.
The Eagles then returned the favor after Dallas got inside the 30. Dan Bailey tied the game up at 24, with 2:53 remaining. And once again, the Eagles gained yards in chunks, The Cowboys stiffened to force another field goal, this one of 53 yards. It came down to a fourth and five on the first set of downs, but Cassel got the first down completion to Terrance Williams, which made up for some other issues TWill had earlier in the game. It was right on the edge for the Cowboys, with some pass interference calls needed to keep the drive alive. And Bailey just barely banked his field goal to tie the game off the left upright to send it into overtime.
The turnover struggles continued for Dallas. The Cowboys had fought back to a 14-14 tie after giving up two unanswered touchdowns, and were moving the ball, when disaster struck, and it was familiar. Matt Cassel threw a 67 yard pick six to Jordan Hicks. A go ahead drive suddenly turned to a fall behind turnover, in a game where the Cowboys had been unable to take advantage of a couple of chances themselves. It looked for a moment that the season might just as well have ended right there, but Lucky Whitehead finally showed why the Cowboys wanted him as a return man, reeling off a 79 yard kickoff return. Then on third and four from the 18 yard line, Cassel rolled right, reversed field back to his left, then heaved a prayer towards what looked like all the receivers and defensive backs in a scrum in the back of the end zone. And the prayer was answered by Dez Bryant skying over everyone, knotting the game up. Even the NFL officials could not find a way to overturn this catch. The game was tied again at 21.
The Cowboys certainly looked like they came to play early, and to make a statement as well. After stopping the Eagles on their first drive (despite Jeff Heath giving them new life after a three and out with a running into the punter penalty), Dallas took the ball on their own seven yard line as a result of a second special teams miscue when Lucky Whitehead fielded a ball he should have let bounce into the end zone. Then Cassel - yes, Matt Cassel - engineered a strong drive down the field. Darren McFadden had some nice runs, but it was mostly Cassel's arm, especially when he hit Bryant in stride for 51 yards. He then ended the drive with a nice five yard completion to Cole Beasley for the touchdown. Along the way, the Cowboys went for it on fourth and one inside the ten yard line. They didn't play it conservatively, and it got them a touchdown, which has been all too rare the past few weeks.
But that was about all that the offense had in the first half, and things bogged down badly, including a drop of another long pass by Williams that would have gotten Dallas into scoring position. Williams also had offensive pass interference called on him, negating a Tony Romo like spin move by Cassel. However, it looked like the OPI may have kept the ball from being intercepted. The Eagles got their hurry up offense rolling and tied the game in the second quarter and things went into halftime knotted up at 7-7.
There was little question that Cassel had a very good half of football, but Bradford was matching him pretty well. More importantly, the Eagles got DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews both going on that touchdown drive. Again, the Cowboys' pass rush came up empty in the first half.
After halftime, it started to look like things were going south in a hurry. After the Cowboys could not do anything on offense, the Eagles marched 95 yards for a touchdown, and you could feel the air start to leak out of the team. And the following possession for Dallas got off to a really bad start with the second strip of Cassel on the night. Fortunately, the Cowboys managed to fall on both of them. And then the shortest man on the field stood the tallest, as Beasley had three key receptions, including a 17 yard touchdown reception, his second score of the game. After not completing a pass to number 11 in his first two games, Cassel suddenly made him his favorite target, and it paid off.
On the ensuing Philadelphia possession, the most hated and talked about player in the NFL, Greg Hardy, almost cost the team big, getting an offsides call on a third and seven. But on the ensuing snap, he notched Dallas' first sack of the night. Unfortunately, it was their only sack for the game.
Injuries continued to accumulate for the Cowboys, as Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were both lost, and both happened in collisions with Rolando McClain.
Despite his interception, it was by far the best game for Cassel of his three starts, and there were a lot of players who gave their all, including Bryant, McFadden, Byron Jones, Beasley, and Andrew Gachkar, who had to come in with the injuries to Lee and Hitchens. But in the end, it was not enough, and the absence of Romo was felt once again. A season that started with so much hope is now almost certainly lost, with only the most unlikely of miracles still able to save Dallas. And this just does not seem to be the year for miracles to go the Cowboys' way.