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The McCarthy Chronicles: Cowboys show promise despite the loss

This loss stung for the Cowboys, but it’s not the end of the world.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

You had to figure the Cooper Rush magic was going to run out sooner or later, and a road game against the undefeated Eagles seemed like the time for it to happen. Rush had a terrible start to the game, and the Cowboys dug themselves a hole early on. It proved to be too steep to climb out of, and Dallas dropped the game 26-17, ending their winning streak.

Now, losing sucks, and losing to the Eagles sucks twice as much. But the Cowboys showed legitimate signs of promise in this loss that should have fans even more excited about the rest of the season, especially with Dak Prescott expected to make his return next week.

As was noted by Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth during the game, the Eagles have been a dominant second quarter team. And wouldn’t you know it, they scored 20 of their 26 points in the second quarter. But Dallas outscored them 14-6 the other three quarters. In fact, the Eagles have been outscored 78-49 in quarters 1, 3, and 4 this season. They’re living (and eventually will be dying) by the second quarter.

So let’s look at that second quarter. The Eagles scored four times in the quarter to go up 20-0 before Dallas hit a field goal right before halftime. The breakdown of those scoring drives is eye-opening:

  • Miles Sanders runs in for a touchdown, capping off a 15-play drive that featured two fourth-down conversions, one of which came by way of a neutral zone infraction penalty on Dante Fowler
  • A.J. Brown caught a 15-yard pass to score after the Eagles started their drive on the Dallas 44 after Cooper Rush’s first interception
  • Jake Elliott hit a 51-yard field goal; the Eagles went three-and-out, but they started on the Dallas 34 after a turnover on downs
  • Jake Elliott hits a 34-yard field goal, once again aided by the Eagles offense getting the ball on the Dallas 46

Right there, you can see how the Eagles were spotted 13 free points between Rush’s two interceptions and that turnover on downs. It explains why the Cowboys were able to outgain the Eagles - they had 315 yards to Philadelphia’s 268, and they also averaged 4.9 yards per play while the Eagles averaged 3.9 - but that 13 point swing was the difference-maker in a game that was ultimately determined by nine points.

And yes, since this is the McCarthy Chronicles, we have to criticize Mike McCarthy for not challenging that CeeDee Lamb catch that very clearly went for a first down. I’m a firm believer in the notion that coaches shouldn’t have to make up for officials’ shortcomings, and it was a terrible spot on the play, but McCarthy also gets two challenges for a reason.

Had McCarthy thrown the red flag, he almost certainly would’ve won the challenge and given Dallas a first down. But the Cowboys rushed to the line in an attempt to get the Eagles defense off guard, and that apparently didn’t leave time to consider a challenge. For the record, going for it on fourth down there was absolutely the correct call, and its an endorsement of the Cowboys’ process that they already knew that when the ball was ruled to be short on first down, but this was also a failure of the Cowboys’ process in the area of knowing when to challenge the play and it cost them.

That said, this game was by and large another endorsement of McCarthy and the effect he’s had on this team. Recent installments of the McCarthy Chronicles have praised him for his ability to win so many games with a backup quarterback, even when Rush was playing poor football. The caveat was always that there’s only so much you can do in this situation, and we were all waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So when all hell broke loose in that second quarter, it offered a very real test of the McCarthy culture this season. This game marked the Cowboys’ first time facing a halftime deficit since Week 1; that was also the last time this team trailed by more than one score. With Rush looking the worst he had all year, it felt like an insurmountable lead.

While it ultimately was insurmountable, the Cowboys in no way folded. They thoroughly outplayed the Eagles in the second half and Rush was a half second of pocket time away from making it a one score game with five minutes remaining on what should’ve been a 60-yard bomb to Lamb. But that’s the kind of incredibly low margin for error you sign up for when you spot the opponent 13 points in the first half with a backup quarterback.

By far the biggest negative to come out of this loss, aside from the extra sting of losing to the Eagles, is that the Cowboys no longer control their destiny. They’ll have ground to make up both in the division race and within the larger context of the NFC. But with Prescott returning, the Cowboys are in good position to make up for it.

For instance, they’ve already notched wins against the Giants and Commanders, with that win over New York coming on the road. Dallas also gets a home game against the Eagles on Christmas Eve that could come with even higher stakes than their first matchup. And of their remaining eight non-divisional games on the year, only three of them (Vikings, Colts, and Titans) are against teams with a winning record right now.

Meanwhile, the Eagles are bound to lose eventually. They’ve shown legitimate cracks each of the last three weeks - they nearly just blew a three-score lead to a backup quarterback - and have yet to face the Giants, who keep piling up wins. Furthermore, the Cowboys can apply pressure on the Eagles the more they win, since Philadelphia has only a narrow lead in the division at the moment.

It’s not ideal that the Cowboys lost, of course, but it’s a long season. Their four-game winning streak showed the kind of resiliency this team has under McCarthy, and that was reinforced with the way they clawed back against the Eagles after a first half where nothing went right. Now, they return home for a two game stretch before the bye, and they get their franchise quarterback back in the fold. The loss stung, but the Cowboys have to be feeling that the future is still very bright.

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