Each NFL game is made up of about 125 to 135 plays, usually the ones that get all of the attention are the headline-grabbing touchdowns or game-deciding plays in the last few minutes, but what about all of the crucial plays that led up to those moments? What about the overlooked plays that had a significant bearing on the direction of the game but are usually forgotten in favor of flashy highlights? Here is a look at five plays that may get lost in the wash, but ultimately were critical in shaping the Cowboys 29-23 victory over the Eagles.
Play: Lucky Whitehead 7-Yard Punt Return/Block In The Back Penalty On Rod Smith
Situation: Fourth and 11 from the Eagles 35
Score: Cowboys lead 10-3
Time: 10:33 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: The Cowboys had the lead, the momentum, and were set to get the ball back after sacking Carson Wentz on third down. Instead of letting the ball bounce into the end zone for a touchback, Whitehead inexplicably decided to field the ball at his own three-yard line and again test an excellent Eagles special teams unit. Smith committed a block in the back and instead of starting the drive on the 20, the Cowboys were backed up on their own five-yard line. They would go three and out, punt, and set the Eagles up with excellent field position in Dallas territory; that Eagles drive would eventually result in a touchdown and a tied score. The decision by Whitehead to field the punt inside his own five was horrendous, and it was yet another special teams mistake that helped set up Eagles points on the night.
Play: Darren Sproles 12-Yard Reception
Situation: Second and 16 from the Cowboys 17
Score: Eagles lead 13-10
Time: 6:47 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: The Eagles were basically facing a second and goal from the 17 here as they had to get to the one-yard line for a first down. Despite the fact that Sproles was basically the only Eagles offensive player to do anything all night the Cowboys defense still allowed them to get off a simple screen for 12 yards that set up a manageable third down from the five yard line. On the next play the Eagles pushed the lead to 20-10, and you have to blame the defense here for not holding them to a field goal and keeping it a one score game when you have an offense behind in the down and distance like that. It’s especially egregious when you consider that the Eagles had shown no threat of being able to complete passes down the field for chunk gains and that they were allowed to get off a screen to the one player who was having success.
Play: Darren Sproles -6 Yard Reception
Situation: Third and 8 from the Cowboys 30
Score: Eagles lead 23-16
Time: 7:17 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: With the Eagles facing a third down on the fringe of field goal range Sean Lee made an absolutely fantastic play to push the Eagles out of field goal range, force a punt, and keep it a one score game. The Eagles predictably ran a swing pass to Sproles, although this time Lee snuffed it out immediately, knifing through to bring down Sproles for a six-yard loss. The Eagles would punt and on the very next drive Dez Bryant would tie the game on a contested catch in the end zone on a jump ball that is the type of play that Cowboys fans had grown so accustomed to seeing, but hadn’t seen nearly enough of over the past year. This was one of the biggest defensive plays of the season to this point.
Play: Cole Beasley 10-Yard Reception
Situation: Third and five from the Cowboys 27
Score: Eagles lead 23-16
Time: 4:59 left in the fourth quarter
Impact: With the clock melting away the Cowboys were running out of opportunities to tie the game. Just a few plays earlier Travis Frederick was called for a holding penalty on what would have been a 60-yard Ezekiel Elliott run that would’ve set the Cowboys up at about the Eagles 10. Instead it was 1st and 20 from the Dallas 12 and things were not looking good. The Cowboys had to get a first down to jump start a drive and get some momentum, and that’s exactly what happened here. The Eagles brought five and got pressure on Prescott, forcing him to move out to his right where he found Beasley tight along the sideline for a diving catch. Beasley hadn’t made much of an impact up until this point but he came through here with one of the biggest plays of the game. Following this play the Cowboys went no huddle, Prescott got into a rhythm and seven plays later the game was tied on the touchdown to Bryant. The Cowboys would not face another third down on this drive after this conversion.
Play: Dak Prescott 2-Yard Rush
Situation: Fourth and one from the Eagles 28
Score: Tied 23-23
Time: 10:59 remaining in Overtime
Impact: Usually I prefer to write about plays that aren’t as obvious as this one, but there is no way I could leave this out. I’m not even going to explain what happened here, you know what happened. Five plays later Dak Prescott channeled the spirit of Tony Romo circa the 2015 season opener against the Giants, Jason Witten stood in the end zone with the ball and the game was over. This was perhaps Jason Garrett’s gutsiest call yet as head coach of the Cowboys.