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Grading the Cowboys 29-23 win over the Eagles

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It’s the end result that matters and the Cowboys got the one they wanted.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Whew.

So, your Dallas Cowboys beat the hated Philadelphia Eagles in an NFC East division showdown, virtually assuring the Cowboys of their third division title in five years. The game was slow-going until it turned into an electric affair the saw the Cowboys reaching rarefied air in both team and individual performances. It wasn’t for the weak of heart as it featured big plays, multiple turnovers, four different ties, horrible officiating (again) and a game-clinching, eight-minute overtime touchdown drive.

And yet, many Cowboys fans seem unhappy if Twitter comments are any indication. Count me among the happy. It was only 28 days ago that the NFL watching public tuned in on a Sunday night to watch the Eagles supposedly put a stake in the Cowboys’ 2018 season.

Five weeks later the Cowboys have not only (virtually) clinched a division title, they’ve twice left the defending Super Bowl champions to walk off as losers in gut-punch losses that have left the Eagles with seven losses and little hope of reaching the post-season.

What’s not to be happy about? Let’s go to the grades.

Overall: B

Normally such a win would yield an A grade under virtually any circumstance. But this was such a bizarre game with so many errors and missteps and failures that an A isn’t warranted. On the “good” ledger:

  • The Cowboys’ victory now gives them a >99% chance of winning the NFC East only 13 games into the season. In fact, the Cowboys are basically locked into a #3 (33% likelihood) or #4 seed (64% likelihood). There’s a 1% chance they could jump to the #2 seed and a <1% chance they miss the playoffs altogether.
  • The Cowboys were an offensive juggernaut in terms of plays and yardage. Dallas ran 93 plays Sunday, which is the second most in franchise history; somehow the 1978 team ran 94 plays in a 34-21 thumping of the Green Bay Packers. More importantly, Dallas racked up 576 total yards. That’s the fourth-highest number in the 59 year history of the vaunted franchise (and highest total in 33 years):
  • The Cowboys defense continued it’s dominant play - for the first three quarters. The Eagles’ first six drives yielded zero points and 90 yards and five first downs on only 25 plays. Unfortunately, things kind of fell apart after that, as we’ll see.
  • The Cowboys owned the ball, running 93 plays to the Eagles 48 and holding the ball for 45:33, compared to the Eagles 22:32. In fact, the 45 minutes of ball control is the highest in team history. Admittedly, eight of those minutes came in overtime, but still.
  • The Cowboys new “triplets” all enjoyed monster statistical days. Dak Prescott threw for 455 yards and three touchdowns; Ezekiel Elliott generated 192 total yards and Amari Cooper had 217 yards receiving along with three touchdowns. It’s the first time in club history the team had a 400-yard passer, 200-yard receiver and 100-yard rusher.

But then there was the not-so-good.

  • The Cowboys should have put this game away midway through the third quarter. After three quarters they enjoyed a 304-to-92 advantage in yards (along with that dominant time of possession) yet the score was only 9-7. Horrid red zone performance, Prescott turnovers, numerous untimely penalties and a missed field goal from Brett Maher undermined the otherwise impressive offensive outing.
  • Penalties, mostly offensive, plagued the team throughout the day. The 111 penalty yards is the team’s most since September of 2015 against the same Eagles (that was the game Tony Romo went down with a broken collar bone and effectively ended the Cowboys 2015 season).
  • The defense declined yet again late in the game. After failing throughout the first three quarters here’s what the Eagles offense did to the Cowboys’ defense the remainder of the game:

Not included in the above numbers is a dubiously disallowed 75-yard touchdown catch and run where Xavier Woods failed to wrap up, allowing Dallas Goedert to ramble for the apparent score. The Dallas defense was twice given a seven-point, fourth-quarter lead with less than six minutes remaining and each time allowed the Eagles to march for a touchdown.

After the Redskins game I wrote about how the Cowboys’ defense hasn’t been as good in the fourth quarter as it has in the prior three quarters:

It’s disturbing to see a defense that seems to suffocate and stifle teams for three quarters suddenly become vulnerable in the fourth.

  • Red zone woes: four times in regulation the Cowboys advanced as far as the Eagles 27-yard line. The results of those drives:
  1. Field goal
  2. Interception
  3. Missed field goal
  4. Field goal

Six points on four penetrations deep into enemy territory is a recipe for failure. The last few weeks the Cowboys’ offense seems to have no real problem moving up and down the field but when they get to the scoring area they suddenly morph into the bumbling, inept unit we saw on display the first half of the season. It’s hard to understand why when you consider the team has an elite running back, a QB who is one of the league’s best at running the ball inside the five-yard line and two receivers who can beat 1-on-1 coverage in tight spaces.

So, a lot of good and quite a bit of bad. Luckily for us the good outweighed the bad just enough. It’s actually a good sign that the Cowboys haven’t come close to playing their best the last two weeks and just took down the Saints and Eagles.

Coaching: B

Head coach Jason Garrett again had his team ready to play. And they again were flying to the ball on defense while chewing up yardage and clock on offense. However, there were a boatload of errors. Dak Prescott’s numerous turnovers combined with a bevy of penalties to nearly derail what should have been a fairly easy victory.

Those of us who have complained about Garrett’s conservative play-calling late in games have no complaints (again). Facing a 4th-and-1 at the Eagles 19 in overtime Garrett eschewed the field goal to go for the first down. Ezekiel Elliot just reached for the first down, extending the drive that eventually resulted in the game-winning touchdown.

Garrett also had Dak Prescott throwing the ball at the end of regulation even though the Cowboys were in (very long) field goal range. It was the right call even though back-to-back sacks resulted in the Cowboys playing their way out of field goal range.

Quarterback: B

Just as the defense played very well for three quarters then morphed into the 2013 Cowboys, Dak Prescott played very badly for three quarters, then morphed into 2016 peak Dak.

The numbers are stark:

In addition to the two interceptions, Dak fumbled yet again (his tenth fumble in his last eight games). The three turnovers were all killers:

  • His first interception came when he under-threw an open Amari Cooper for what should have been a fairly easy touchdown.
  • His second interception came with the team up 9-0 on a badly overthrown ball that was returned and set the Eagles up at the Cowboys two-yard line. In a situation where anything other than a turnover was acceptable Prescott’s error single-handedly allowed the Eagles back in the game.
  • His fumble came near mid-field in a 9-6 game and provided the Eagles with a short field, which they converted into a game-tying field goal.

At that point it was fair to say Prescott was having a horrible game, with many on Twitter suggesting it was his worst game as a professional. In addition to his glaring screw-ups there were three, count ‘em, three instances of Dak missing deep shots to receivers who had cleanly beaten coverage.

So the fact he ended up with his biggest statistical day ever, and concluded the game with three long touchdown drives on the team’s last four possessions is astounding. In fact, Dak’s day ranks among the very best in Cowboys’ history; here are Cowboys’ quarterbacks with 400+ yards and three touchdowns:

You’ll note Dak is the first Cowboy to actually win the game when putting up such numbers, which is bizarre. You’ll also note Tony Romo achieved the feat three times in less than 12 months and lost each one.

Dak’s penchant for upping is play late in close games isn’t anything new. In fact, we wrote about this past week. If the Cowboys’ could somehow get fourth-quarter Prescott to be all-game Prescott Dallas fans would be overjoyed.

Running back: A+

I seem to say this every week: I just don’t know what else Ezekiel Elliott can do for this team. Sunday was just another ho-hum 192-yard day for Zeke. As always, he ran hard. He was also targeted 13 times in the passing game, nabbing 12 catches for 79 yards. The only thing missing was a trip to the end zone.

I have to admit it’s disquieting to see Zeke looking beat up as he has the last few weeks. Several times recently he’s asked out of games; Sunday he had to go into the tent for an apparent concussion evaluation and missed several snaps.

But he was out there doing Zeke things when it counted. On the team’s game-winning, overtime drive Elliott handled the ball eight times, covering 32 yards.

Offensive line: B-

Okay, when Dak Prescott and the Cowboys were doing all that late-game damage they were doing it with:

  • A clearly less-than-best Tyron Smith
  • Xavier Sua-Filo
  • Joe Looney
  • Connor Williams
  • La’el Collins

When two of your very best players are missing and a third is playing at about 75% the unit is going to struggle. And the Eagles are a formidable front four, led by Fletcher Cox. And the Cowboys ran for 142 yards, passed for 455 and held the ball for 45 minutes.

Yet the offensive line really struggled at times. There were (by my count) four holding penalties. Those are at least better than sacks, of which “only” three were surrendered. There was also that end-of-regulation debacle. With the team in already (very long) field position and looking to get closer for a potential game-winner, Joe Looney had a bad snap that resulted in a sack. Then everyone seemed to get beat for a second sack leaving the Cowboys no shot at points.

It just seemed like every time something bad happened on offense it involved either Prescott or an offensive lineman.

Wide receivers: A+

Honestly, what more can you say about Amari Cooper? His 217-yard, three-touchdown performance is one of only three 200-yard, three TD performances in team history:

Not only did Cooper score three touchdowns, they all came in the fourth quarter or overtime and each gave the Cowboys a lead after the Eagles had tied the game.

Cooper’s numbers since joining the Cowboys’ are astronomical:

Cooper production over his first six games with the Cowboys, pro-rated across an entire season, would be the biggest receiving season in Cowboys’ history.

Sunday Cooper won with late separation:

Cooper won with speed and concentration:

And Cooper won with eye-hand coordination and concentration:

Michael Gallup looks more and more like a legit deep threat alternative, but Dak keeps missing him - though on one of the deep shots Gallup prematurely quit on his route. Gallup and Beasley combined for six catches on 13 targets but for only 42 yards. Again, if Dak can start connecting on some of these deep shots when Gallup is getting open this offense will be really hard to defend.

Tight ends: A

Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz were targeted ten times Sunday. They caught all ten passes for 93 yards. It’s easily the biggest contribution the tight ends not named Geoff Swaim have made the entire season. Outside of that, there didn’t seem to be any egregious blocking issues, but as always, the tape is needed to prove or disprove those thoughts.

Nevertheless, on a weekend when ridiculous rumors of Jason Witten returning to the team swirled, it was nice to see the Cowboys finally get some offensive production from this group.

Defensive line: B

Eagles’ quarterback Carson Wentz was sacked only twice and threw zero interceptions. However, for most of the game he was under intense pressure and wasn’t able to get comfortable in the pocket.

Tyrone Crawford continued his best season as a Cowboys with a strip sack that led to the Cowboys’ lone turnover on the day.

In addition, the defensive line played a key role limiting the Philly ground game to only 34 yards on 14 attempts, making them a one-dimensional offense.

The disappointing play came in the fourth quarter when Wentz was finally able to get time and make throws. Considering the line only had to play 40 or so snaps, fatigue should not have been a factor.

Linebacker: B+

We didn’t see a lot of eye-popping plays like we’ve come to expect from the the dynamic duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. However, Smith ended up with nine tackles (remember, Philly only ran 45 plays) and LVE contributed another six so combined, they were in on one of every three tackles.

Smith also had a nice tackle for loss. More importantly, perhaps, Zack Ertz had only 38 yards on eight targets; a far cry from his two-touchdown, 145 yard performance in the team’s first meeting. While Byron Jones played a role in that, the LBers helped out.

Secondary: B

Through the first three quarters this group was downright dominant. Every time Wentz tried to throw the ball it seemed his receivers were blanketed. Everyone was pitching in: Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods. Byron Jones was assigned the task of covering Ertz on third downs and did an outstanding job.

But in the fourth quarter suddenly Eagles receivers were getting open. Byron Jones was beaten on a key fourth quarter completion to set up an Eagles’ touchdown:

The team’s worst performance came on a play that didn’t count:

First, Jeff Heath gets beaten pretty cleanly. Worse, Xavier Woods grossly fails to wrap up the receiver, allowing him to race for the touchdown. This absolutely should have counted as a touchdown. Woods is a good player but, going back to college, he’s never been much interested in tackling; he prefers hitting. But in the NFL hitting big guys often doesn’t result in the player going down and you get plays like this. He needs a lesson in fundamentals.

Special teams: B-

In addition to Brett Maher missing a field goal, the Cowboys kick-off coverage unit surrendered a long kick return. However, Maher also nailed the longest field goal try in Cowboys’ history (62 yards) at the end of the first half. Those points would prove extremely important.

Chris Jones added a 63-yard, first-quarter punt (one of only two punts from The Puntisher).

Football gods: A+

It’s hard to count how many ways the Cowboys were fortunate Sunday. But we can try, with the three biggest:

  • Jourdan Lewis fumbled the opening kickoff and the Eagles recovered. This was pretty clear in real time and blatantly obvious on replay. But the replay wasn’t unequivocally clear and the Cowboys kept the ball.
  • Eagles kicker Jake Elliott was 23-for-23 on extra points in 2018. After scoring a touchdown late in the third quarter Elliott would miss the extra point, keeping a 9-9 game tied, rather than giving the Eagles a one-point lead. Needless to say, that one point proved huge in the final outcome.
  • The egregious offensive pass interference call on Dallas Goedert. Now, some would argue this call was negated by the fact the Eagles eventually drove down the field for a game-tying touchdown anyway. And I’m not going to argue the point; all I know is a dumb call by the officials wiped a legitimate 75-yard touchdown off the board in the Cowboys’ favor.

So, bless the football gods for smiling on the Cowboys Sunday; we all know they’ve cursed us many times in the past so I’m just going to smile and say hallelujah.

Referees: D

NFL officiating has been bad for a good long time. But games like this, and last week’s against New Orleans, leave you shaking your head. The blatantly wrong offensive pass interference call on Dallas Goedert negated a 75-yard TD pass to tie a game between division rivals in week 13 with the division up for grabs.

It’s hard to get worse than that. It was a play we see a half dozen times a game without a flag.

Then there was this:

Gregory had another good Randy/bad Randy game. He notched another sack (fourth in five games). But also had an earlier, legit personal foul for roughing the passer. On this one, however, I have no idea what he’s supposed to do outside of simply leaving the QB alone.

This was an embarrassing sequence of plays where three flags were flown and the collective judgment of the Fox analysts, Mike Pereira and the entirety of the internet agreed none of the three were legit.

There was also the opening kickoff when they ruled the ball down or in the Cowboys’ possession when it clearly wasn’t.

One of these days these incompetent officials might ruin a team’s season.

Summary:

The Cowboys just knocked off the defending Super Bowl champions. In doing so they basically clinched the 2018 NFC East Championship and earned a #3 or #4 seed in the playoffs. They nearly ended their bitter rival’s season. It wasn’t perfect and there was much to nitpick or complain about.

But I honestly don’t understand the anger and hostility many fans seem to have for this version of the team and I’m apparently not alone:

The team now has three three games to rehearse for an eventual home playoff game in January. Again, what’s not to like?