Breathe a sigh of relief. There were a lot of things that could have gone very wrong for the Dallas Cowboys against the Philadelphia Eagles. After they secured a blowout 51-26 win, set a few records, and apparently came out with no significant injuries, the potential setbacks were avoided. The Cowboys went into the game hoping to fix some things and clarify others. It looks like most of those were also accomplished.
There is, of course, a bit of a caveat on all that. The two teams in the game took very different approaches. For Dallas, this was a game to get things humming for the playoffs after a losing effort last week against the Arizona Cardinals. That meant, as it turned out, playing the starters into the fourth quarter. Dak Prescott and the rest of the first string would not take the bench until they established a big lead two plays into the final period, 37-20. Had they not done so, there would have been some real concerns about just how ready this team was for the playoffs. Now they seem fired up and firing on all cylinders. Conversely, Philadelphia went the rest route, holding out a bunch of starters, including quarterback Jalen Hurts, along with a similarly long list of players in the COVID protocol. Oddly, it may have also been intended to not erode their own confidence. Had Hurts and other starters been in the game, and they still lost at home, they would have faced some serious questions about their own wildcard game. That was avoided, and they can put this big loss on that disparity in the approaches of the teams.
But there is another aspect of things worth adding to the equation. The Cowboys offense just ran over the Eagles backups, as should be expected. Bryan Anger only had to punt one time. Dallas was scoring almost at will, especially in the final two minutes of the first half. Prescott looked as crisp and effective as he has at any point prior this season, setting a new franchise record for touchdown passes along the way. One of the biggest things to emerge was that the loss of Michael Gallup to injured reserve may not be as limiting as we feared. Cedrick Wilson went off, finishing the game with 119 yards on five receptions, two of them for touchdowns. He is WR3 for the playoffs, and looks ready to carry the load. Amari Cooper was also big for the team, adding 79 yards. With only 27 passes from Prescott while the starters were out there, that left CeeDee Lamb with the fewest targets at WR, but he did catch both the passes thrown his way, including one in traffic that was a bit impressive. Dalton Schultz also saw few targets, three in his case, but continues to assert himself as a red zone weapon with two touchdowns.
We had an idea that the passing attack was getting back to form with the similar crushing of the Washington Football Team two weeks ago. What was a much bigger question was the running game. That may be where the best news emerged for the Cowboys as they amassed a very satisfactory 171 yards running. Don’t overlook the fact they did so while missing their most effective runner in yards per carry, Tony Pollard. Ezekiel Elliott had his best game since Week 5 of the season. His 87 yards in three quarters of work was much more like the Zeke of old. It also got him just over the 1,000 yard mark, of which the coaching staff seemed quite cognizant. He also had his longest run of the year with a 26-yard power burst. It helped him average 4.8 yards per carry, but he was also seeing more five- and six-yard gains than we have come to expect. Meanwhile, Corey Clement gave us a lot of confidence in the depth of the running back room with his 58 yards, most of it on a 38-yard explosion for the longest play of the game for either team. Just for good measure, he added the touchdown reception that had Prescott breaking the franchise record for TD passes in a season. Even reserves JaQuon Hardy and Ito Smith got into the action with touchdown runs of their own. Hardy was the most impressive of the two with his three carries after Leighton Vander Esch intercepted Gardner Minshew. His 22-yard TD was a nice display of power and determination to get to the always tasty 50-burger.
The biggest fear going into this game was that Prescott could get hurt against the Eagles’ backups. The offensive line rose to the challenge as he was only sacked once and just two QB hits were tabulated. Add that to the running totals, and that Tyron Smith was back in Dallas, and we can have some hope they are sorting things out for the playoffs.
While so much was made of starters versus backups in this game, things were much more even when the Cowboys were on defense. They were missing Defensive Player of the Year candidate Micah Parsons, their two best cornerbacks in Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown, plus safety Jayron Kearse. Starting DEs DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory saw limited action, with Lawrence only seeing 39% of the plays on defense and Gregory just 14%. The latter may have been due to him getting a bit nicked up, something to watch for this week when injury reports start coming out. With Dallas having to rely on a lot of their own backups when Philadelphia had the ball, this was a much more even part of the game, and the Cowboys handled it well.
A couple of the biggest beneficiaries of this were rookie corners Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright, who both were on the field for every defensive snap. Joseph in particular had a good game, with one exception early. He let a Minshew pass go off his hands. The ricochet went to DeVonta Smith. It kept the Cowboys from getting off the field on the first drive of the game, and led to a touchdown and a momentary burst of confidence for the Eagles. Had Joseph picked off the pass, or just knocked it out of the air, the domination may have been even more pronounced. But Joseph went on to have one of the best games of the Dallas defenders. It was valuable experience after missing most of the season on IR. While Minshew had his moments in the game, a depleted secondary did well overall against him and the Eagles’ receivers. The only thing that was not as comforting about the defense was that they gave up 149 yards rushing. Having Parsons and Kearse back, as expected, should help with that.
There was one other concern that has been around all season for the Cowboys that reared its head. Greg Zuerlein missed yet another extra point. It has become a running joke that we just expect him to miss kicks he should make. But it is no longer funny. There is a real worry that he is going to cost us a game in the playoffs, which of course would be the end of the postseason. John Fassel has done so much right, but his man crush on Zuerlein is the glaring exception. We need to hope the offense and defense keep the Cowboys from having to depend on the Leg to get a dub.
Overall, however, the calculated risk in playing the available starters paid off quite handsomely. Now Dallas goes into the playoffs with almost everything working well. And the results of Sunday’s games now means they hold the third seed and will host the San Francisco 49ers in the wildcard round. It is likely to be a tough game given the gutsy way the Niners came back to beat the Los Angeles Rams. It is good Dallas displayed a good bit of toughness against Philadelphia.