They had a backup at right tackle, and two at cornerback. They had two practice squadders and a rookie at wide receiver. At one point, they had so many players limping off the field you expected to see an equipment manager slip into the medical tent with a stack of Good Housekeeping magazines.
But the Eagles also had one distinct advantage that the Cowboys could only hope to enjoy at some point in a future season. They had Jason Garrett on the opposing sidelines. And in a 17-9 victory that placed them on the verge of securing an improbable home playoff game, that proved to be enough.
The first draft of history will say that this was a Carson Wentz game, an assessment that seems likely to withstand the test of time. The Eagles had the better quarterback on the field, and the margin between their guy and the other one was not particularly close. For four quarters, Wentz was as confident, as decisive, and as accurate as we have seen him all season.
Behind an offensive line that granted him more time to throw than he’d enjoyed in all but a couple of the schedule’s first 15 weeks, the franchise quarterback lived up to his designation, completing 31-of-40 passes for 319 yards with no turnovers and a touchdown pass to Dallas Goedert that proved to be the difference in the game.
In terms of completion percentage, it was the second most efficient outing of his four-year career, one that virtually guaranteed he will finish the season with the sort of numbers that will cause future generations to wonder what the fuss was ever about. Only six quarterbacks in NFL history have ever thrown for at least 3,991 yards and 28 touchdowns with a 64.3 completion percentage and fewer than nine interceptions. After Sunday’s win, Wentz was on pace to become the seventh (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan are the others).
What shouldn’t get lost amidst the Wentz hosannas is the other decisive advantage the Eagles enjoyed. Yes, they were the better quarterbacked team, and that counts for a lot, but they were also the better coached, and that counts for nearly as much. Doug Pederson wasn’t perfect. The chorus of anguished yelps that echoed throughout the Delaware Valley in the second quarter was a testament to that. Twice, the Eagles threw the ball on third and fourth-and-1 with the ball on the Cowboys 33-yard-line, and twice they failed. Later, with 1:19 left in the quarter, they had a first-and-10 on the Cowboys 39-yard line with a 10-3 lead and somehow entered halftime with the score 10-6.
Yet these were barely hiccups when compared with the case of mental indigestion that plagued the Dallas sideline. It wasn’t until late in the second half that the Cowboys apparently realized that the Eagles secondary might be their path of least resistance, an epiphany that quarterbacking luminaries from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Dwayne Haskins had previously exploited.
Consider a moment in the second quarter when Jalen Mills limped off the field with an ankle injury, leaving the Eagles with the long-forgotten Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas as their two outside corners. Instead of recognizing that the opportunity to stretch the field might finally have been at hand, the Cowboys next six plays were a couple of underneath throws followed by four straight runs, two of them by backup Tony Pollard, the second of which he fumbled.
After the game, Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said he had an idea of what was coming on the play he stripped Pollard. When Dak Prescott made a call at the line of scrimmage based on the alignment of the Eagles front, Cox countered by attacking the logical gap.
“I’ve been in the NFL for a while, so I heard the center give the point and I just took a chance and went the way I thought he was going,” Cox said
No NFL offense is rocket science. The problem with the Cowboys’ scheme under Garrett is that it looks like third-grade math.
“We knew we had to stop 21," defensive end Brandon Graham said of the heavy doses of Ezekiel Elliott upon which the Cowboys predictably rely. “You know that was number one.”
Of course they know it. Everybody does. That the Eagles entered the game with one of the stingier run defenses in the league did not seem to matter to Garrett or his offensive coordinator. Of the Cowboys’ 31 offensive touches, 20 went to Elliott.
“We got what we wanted,” Graham said.
On the flip side, Pederson unfurled a game plan that maximized the patchwork set of skills that was at his disposal. Running backs Miles Sanders and Boston Scott combined for 11 catches, with Sanders’ five going for 77 yards. With Zach Ertz battling a rib injury, Pederson did not hesitate to feature Goedert, who led the team with 12 targets, nine catches, and 91 yards.
After the game, the coach was quick to credit his players’ resilience for keeping the season alive.
“This is the team that when their back is against the wall, they come out swinging and fighting,” he said.
But Pederson deserves plenty of credit. Over the last three seasons, his teams are 11-2 from Week 15 on. Nine of those wins have come in situations in which a loss would have meant the end of their season, effectively or otherwise (four in the playoffs, five while needing to win out to qualify for the postseason).
“Whatever it takes,” Pederson said. “Sometimes it’s not pretty, and it doesn’t have to be.”