You know, I could get used to this. For the third week in a row, the Dallas Cowboys were victorious on the field, this time against the beloved and highly-respected division rival Philadelphia Eagles. If you understand the humor in that description, then you realize just how sweet this one was.
While the Cowboys had a rough first quarter, they quickly turned this one around and absolutely outplayed the Eagles. In honor of that, this week’s look at the stats and numbers from the game will focus on the positive. After all, the game certainly was exactly that for Dallas.
There may be no bigger stat than turnover differential in affecting the outcome of games, and for the third week in a row, the Cowboys were on the plus side. It was the first time in that stretch they gave the ball up, but they took it away three times, for the plus two margin that almost always leads to a win.
It is hard to say what has changed. Maybe it is mostly luck. The fumble was certainly that, with the replay showing it was very, very close, and likely standing just because that was how it was originally called on the field. Maybe it is things just clicking for the team. There were even adjustments made in the game that may have played a role.
It is hard to say that Dallas can continue this trend. It is a bit surprising they have kept this little streak of stealing the ball alive this long. But if they somehow can, they will be hoping for the Eagles to beat the Washington Football Team on Sunday night. That will punch their ticket to the playoffs. It would become one of the more remarkable stretch runs in franchise history.
Some games, flags are a much bigger factor than others. This was certainly one. For several years, the Cowboys have come out on the short end of this particular stat. But in this game, it strongly favored them. Philadelphia was flagged 12 times for 115 yards as opposed to Dallas drawing five penalties for 73. That is not exactly great, but many times the Eagles put themselves in bad down and distance situations. Several of those were drive killers. The Cowboys just did not hurt themselves in the same way.
Even more than turnovers, infractions by the opponent are something the Cowboys cannot actually control. They were a major reason the Cowboys won so dominantly.
Redhead on fire
Andy Dalton was signed to give the team a viable alternative at quarterback if he was needed. He was more than that, finishing the game completing 22 of 30 passes for 377 yards, three TDs, one pick, and a 134.7 passer rating. That was the fifth-most yards passing in his career. Well into the third quarter he had a perfect rating, before that interception drew it down a bit.
There were reasons to think he had that kind of performance still in the tank. Less expected was how he scrambled for some key conversions during the game. He is almost certain to be somewhere else, probably starting, next season. But we should appreciate what he has done in keeping those faint playoff hopes alive this far.
Ezekiel Elliott had 105 yards rushing and added 34 catching the ball four times. Most of his yardage was the grind it out kind over 18 carries, but the 19th was his long of 31. We have seen precious little of that, and it helped seal the outcome late in the game. Last week, some (sheepishly raises hand) were wondering if the team would be better with Tony Pollard starting. Well, Pollard mustered just 12 yards on nine carries, and one catch for eight. Perhaps the week of rest helped Elliott. For whatever reason, he showed us just why he is the big dog in the backfield.
There is absolutely no question that the one consistently bright spot for the Cowboys has been the wide receiver trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb, with tight end Dalton Schultz also part of the potent mix. Cooper and Gallup both finished with 121 yards receiving, including two touchdowns for the latter. Lamb added 65, including his 52-yard score, plus ran one in on a beautifully designed and executed jet sweep. The longest catch of the game for Dallas was Cooper getting 69 yards and absolutely embarrassing Michael Jaquet in the process.
One other WR deserves a special mention. Noah Brown has had his best season as a receiver after being largely used as a blocker in previous years. But on the final score, Lamb’s run, he reminded us of why the team loves his blocking as he cleared two defenders for Lamb at the same time.
Back-to-back touchdowns at the half
NFL teams defer the coin toss in order to have the ball coming out of halftime. When they manage things well, they do so after getting the last score in the first half. That is exactly what the Cowboys did. They scored a touchdown to take the lead right after the two minute warning before half, then came out and marched right down the field to take a two score lead with another TD. That was not only great on the scoreboard, it had to be demoralizing for the Eagles defense.
For a long time under Jason Garrett, Dallas bucked this trend. It is good to have put that in the past.
Defense finds its footing
On their first two possessions of the game, the Eagles put up 156 yards and two touchdowns, with 81 yards coming on the somewhat humiliating DeSean Jackson score. They had a 14-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. Most of us figured it was all over and another nail was being driven into the coffin of Mike Nolan’s tenure as defensive coordinator.
But through some key adjustments, they shut down the Philadelphia offense the rest of the way, only yielding a lone field goal over the last three quarters. One of the most important adjustments was using C.J. Goodwin to spy on Jalen Hurts, forcing him to try and throw from the pocket by eliminating his ability to do damage with his legs.
Penny package paid off here as Goodwin's speed dissuaded Hurts from scrambling to the perimeter, leading to an ill-advised throw that led to an Anthony Brown TD.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 28, 2020
Goodwin's athleticism made him the perfect spy on Hurts. pic.twitter.com/EF2wF1dyrL
That was a big adjustment from Nolan, and was as instrumental in winning the game as anything. Nolan may still be leaving after this season, but he has gotten something out of the defense over the past three games that was sorely lacking earlier in the season. Give credit where it is due.
Randy Gregory’s big day
It may have been the best game of his career. He had six tackles, 1.5 sacks, a pass defended, and three forced fumbles, while only playing 48% of the defensive snaps. The way he has fought and worked to come back from suspensions that threatened to end his time in the NFL is remarkable. He is making the best of his new lease on football life, and the Cowboys are reaping the benefits of keeping their faith in him.
We probably will see Dalton depart for greener pastures. Sean Lee may have played his last game at AT&T Stadium, although there are hopes he will return as a coach. And Kellen Moore may be responding to the siren song of becoming the new head coach at Boise State, where he is a living legend.
Those may seem like negatives, but I look at them as celebrations of success. Dalton and Moore have both earned a chance at something bigger, and Lee has had a very good career and may have a long one in the coaching ranks ahead of him. While it may be painful to see them move to the next stage, particularly Moore, we should be grateful for their contributions and wish them all the best.
And it would not be a bad thing at all to see Lee become the defensive coordinator for Dallas at some (hopefully not too distant) point in the future.