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Eagles know visit to Cowboys ‘really is one of those must-win games' with Rams, Texans to come

The Eagles not only need to complete the NFC East trifecta with a win over the Cowboys on Sunday, but also follow it with more difficult wins in the weeks after.

The Eagles not only need to complete the NFC East trifecta with a win over the Cowboys on Sunday, but also follow it with more difficult wins in the weeks after.
The Eagles not only need to complete the NFC East trifecta with a win over the Cowboys on Sunday, but also follow it with more difficult wins in the weeks after.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

It was minutes after the Eagles evened their record and remained one game behind the Dallas Cowboys for first place in the NFC East, and about 137 hours before kickoff against the Cowboys for a chance to take the division lead, when Chris Long stood in the middle of last Monday’s locker room celebration to offer his postgame speech.

“We get in that stadium, 80,000, it’s going to be just us, man,” Long said, already turning his attention to the Cowboys game, as captured by the Eagles website. “You want to go to do something great? That opportunity is going to come one time this week. Empty the tank, one-game [expletive] season. That’s how we win. That’s who we are.”

This was not groundbreaking material. Find an NFL locker room, and you’ll find the “one-game season” trope about how a team must go 1-0 that week. And the Eagles need to win more than one game to make the playoffs. Sunday’s game is the biggest one of the season for the Eagles, but what about next week against the Los Angeles Rams, who have the best record in the NFL? What about the week after against the Houston Texans, who are on a nine-game winning streak? Or the season finale against Washington, in what could potentially be a win-and-in scenario?

It’s impossible to look at the Eagles’ playoff chances and disregard the challenging road ahead, how they not only need to complete the NFC East trifecta with a win over the Cowboys on Sunday, but also follow it with more difficult wins in the weeks after. But the likelihood is that road doesn’t matter if the Eagles cannot win on Sunday.

“That’s why it’s so important to think about it 1-0,” Long said this week. “Because if it’s not 1-0, we’re in a real bind. Everything has to revolve around one football game.”

Big-game experience

The Eagles-Cowboys rivalry often lends itself to big games, and that only intensifies this week given the stakes. However, the Eagles have a roster loaded with championship experience. That’s what happens when a team wins the Super Bowl. Thirty-two players on the Eagles’ 53-man roster have played in a Super Bowl. Seven others were either on injured reserve, the practice squad, or inactive on the Eagles’ Super Bowl roster in February. This is a big game on Sunday, yes, but it’s not a stage that will be too burdensome.

“I think anybody knows we’ve played in a lot of big games around here lately, and that’s the goal,” Long said. “That’s part of winning, is then a lot of people are going to be paying attention and there’s more pressure on us. That helps in situations like this. It’s going to be a big-time atmosphere. There’s a lot riding on it.”

Coach Doug Pederson thinks that big-game experience can help the Eagles. They know what to expect. Experienced players can share it with the younger players. As Pederson explained, “if something negative happens or positive, they don't go loose on us, and they can keep those guys sort of in and focused on the game and one-play-at-a-time mentality.”

Defensive end Brandon Graham, whose strip sack of Tom Brady in the Super Bowl was one of the biggest plays in the biggest moments, said that the experienced players understand “you can’t go out searching for plays because of the moment.” There’s an understanding and adherence to the Belichick-ian mantra of “do your job” and not change that approach even though the division is on the line.

“The moment is not too big,” Graham said.

When the Eagles reassembled their roster during the offseason, Howie Roseman focused on adding veteran players who’ve played in big games before. Michael Bennett, Haloti Ngata fit that description. And unlike previous Eagles teams, they’re not outliers.

“A lot of guys who’ve been in a lot of wars in here,” Lane Johnson said. “You pick their brain, they’ve been through a lot of seasons, seen a lot of stuff.”

It’s also why the Eagles didn’t crack at 4-6.

Rebounding from New Orleans

The Eagles arrived home from New Orleans three weeks ago after a humiliating loss dropped them to 4-6. They had back-to-back losses, and their season appeared in peril. Pederson could have seen a team just play out string while daydreaming of January vacations. That’s not what he witnessed. He saw signs of a team that still believed they had a run in them.

I physically saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears,” Pederson said. “The guys knew coming out of that game [they] just flat-out didn’t play well. … That was a disappointing loss, but I saw the guys rally and we rebounded the last couple weeks.”

Pederson credited the leadership and veteran players for keeping the team together. It wasn’t as if there was a Kumbaya moment inside the locker room, nor was there disillusion. Malcolm Jenkins was critical of the team’s fight and demeanor. The urgency was noticeable. They knew not to enlarge the loss, however ugly it was. Jenkins emphasized that “no wins carry into the next week; neither do losses.” It’s a long season. And they knew there was still time – even if time was running out. So they’re not surprised that the Eagles won two in a row and have a chance to first place this weekend.

“We’ve been within reach all year,” Jenkins said. “While it’s frustrating that things haven’t been as we drew them up to be, at no point did we ever feel we were ever out of it. So it’s not a shock we’re in this spot.”

There’s been improvements – the running game has picked up on offense, the pass rush has picked up on defense – and the Eagles were also getting healthier in certain spots. Johnson and Graham had a conversation earlier this week about how their bodies are beginning to feel better. Johnson missed time with a knee injury – he was absent for the last Cowboys game – and Graham missed the summer while recovering from ankle surgery. Darren Sproles is back on the field after missing almost three months.

And other players with early-season injuries continue to improve. Don’t forget Carson Wentz didn’t play a game until Week 3. Although the Eagles have been decimated by injuries in the secondary and at wide receiver, other players are healing at the right time. Plus, Graham noted that reserves who were forced into action now have more time and experience in the scheme. They’ll still miss key players Sunday, but improved health in certain areas was on Pederson’s mind when he discussed the team’s turnaround after Monday’s win over Washington.

“I think what you’ve seen now these last couple weeks, we’ve started getting some guys back healthy a little bit,” Pederson said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting close. I think things are kind of clicking a little bit, especially the offense is kind of working through some things and some rhythm and timing and getting more guys involved. I think that’s starting to take shape just a little bit, and the defense is gaining confidence. The young guys are maturing and playing well, and we need that. … It’s a great time to start winning.”

Pederson said it as if the Eagles had a choice. They don’t. The hole they dug through the first 10 games, punctuated by back-to-back November losses to Dallas and New Orleans, forced them to need this late-season surge. They didn’t have the luxury of a cushion if they lose.

All that mattered when they played the Giants two weeks ago was winning that game. All that mattered when they played Washington last week was winning that game. And all that matters on Sunday is beating Dallas. Because the Eagles are running out of time, and their playoff possibilities all but require a win in Dallas. They can’t afford to even consider beating the Rams next week. As Long said colorfully in his postgame speech, it’s a one-game season.

“I feel at this point, the simpler we keep things, the more we focus on one week and don’t worry about what’s ahead of it or behind it, the better,” Long said. “It really is one of those must-win games. It’s pretty simple.”