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What we learned from Eagles-Cowboys: Doug Pederson playing underdog card to perfection yet again

Plus: No matter how the season plays out, Carson Wentz has answered his critics.

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson celebrates the Eagles win on Sunday.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson celebrates the Eagles win on Sunday.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The Eagles stifled the Cowboys, 17-9, and took one step closer to claiming the NFC East crown Sunday at the Linc. Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:

1. Repeat: No matter how the season plays out, Carson Wentz has answered his critics. Two weeks ago, following the Eagles’ win over the New York Giants, I wrote the following in this space: “The last three games have to be about restoring [Wentz’s] confidence … so that the offseason won’t be all about his 2019 regression or his uncertain future.” I still believe that. Wentz already has taken dramatic steps in that direction. But he has to finish. I see little reason to believe that he won’t, and even if the Eagles were to fall in North Jersey, I could list several other reasons ahead of Wentz as to why that might happen.

The quarterback is playing his best football of the season in December and, considering that he couldn’t get through the previous two Decembers, that is significant. Wentz needed to feel the pressure of do-or-die games. And, quite frankly, he needed to deliver in those moments. And he has. In the Eagles’ last three games, he’s completed 94 of 133 passes (70.1 percent) for 910 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions for a 104.5 passer rating. His statistics in the fourth quarter and overtime in those games — 34 of 42 (81.0 pct.) for 352 yards and four touchdowns for a 133.3 rating — have been elite. But the numbers don’t tell the full story. In the first two games against the Giants and Washington, Wentz led the Eagles to last-second, comeback victories. On Sunday, he delivered maybe his most consistent 60 minutes of football this season, and he did so in arguably the most important game of his career.

Wentz was disciplined, he was accurate, he made several plus throws when he had to, and he didn’t turn the ball over. He was strip-sacked late, but he pounced on the ball and averted potential disaster. The fumble wasn’t egregious, but ball security remains an area in which he needs to be especially conscious. I thought that one of underrated elements of Wentz’s performance Sunday was his running. Doug Pederson dialed up a few zone read plays in which the quarterback kept and gained positive yardage. But Wentz also scrambled effectively and kept the Cowboys defense on its toes. He doesn’t have the burst or elusiveness he had pre-knee injury, but he’s gotten much better at protecting himself and restraining his Superman impulses.

Too much has been made of Wentz’s small but vocal group of critics. He plays quarterback in a football-crazy town, so he’s bound to face criticism. But most see Wentz for who he has been and for what he may become. Big picture, he hasn’t been great this season. But he’s been good, and if you take into context the skill-position injuries and underlying turmoil on offense, he’s been better than good. And his excellence over the last three weeks — and, really, even in the Dolphins loss — has elevated his season overall.

There still is work to be done. A playoff appearance, no matter how it is achieved, would allow Wentz to check off another item on his franchise-quarterback to-do list. And to build for the future, even if the year ends with a loss.

2. Pederson might have his faults, but no one should question the loyalty he engenders from his players. The Eagles’ coach has long considered himself an underdog. Pederson bounced in and out of the NFL early in his playing career and nearly gave it all up before finding a home with the Packers. He wasn’t wanted in Philly when Andy Reid brought him from Green Bay to be the Eagles’ stand-in quarterback for a season. He wasn’t Jeffrey Lurie’s first choice to be head coach. Pederson knows that many underestimate him, for whatever reason.

But he has channeled that underdog mentality and used it as a coach. It worked in 2016 as the Eagles rallied to win their final two games after a five-game slide. In worked in 2017 when the Eagles rode their backup quarterback all the way to a Super Bowl title. In worked in 2018 when another late-season injury to Wentz forced Nick Foles back into the lineup and rejuvenated a moribund squad. And it’s working this season with yet another December surge after a rash of injuries.

Pederson is at his best when he’s the underdog, and it’s a message that still seems to resonate with the players.

“No one on the outside gives us a chance, but you guys in this room believe, coaches believe, everybody believes, and that’s what it takes, man,” Pederson said to his player after Sunday’s victory in a video released by the team. “A little bit of faith can move mountains.”

Pederson hasn’t always known when to play the underdog card, however. He did so during last year’s midseason decline, and it rang hollow for a team coming off a championship, a team that he said would experience a “new norm” of success. He wasn’t exactly wrong, because the Eagles did reach the postseason in consecutive years and are one win from getting back there again. But there’s still one more hurdle to clear. Most assume the favorite Eagles will top the Giants Sunday, which could suggest Pederson needs to come up with a new slogan this week. But effort shouldn’t be an issue. It never has been during his four-year tenure.

» READ MORE: The Eagles haven’t won anything yet, and they know it | Bob Ford

3. Sunday was a bad day for Jim Schwartz haters. The Eagles’ defensive coordinator is often his best when he just gets out of the way. He’s had intricate game plans that have led to victories before, but Schwartz doesn’t have the horses to overcomplicate a scheme. Yeah, sure, blitz here and there, mix up the coverages, and switch up the personnel a little, but don’t ask a dog to learn new tricks before the biggest game of the year.

The Eagles mostly relied on their four-man rush Sunday. There wasn’t great pressure, but there was enough to force quarterback Dak Prescott into some throws he clearly wasn’t comfortable making (probably because of a shoulder injury). Schwartz didn’t make a lot of coverage calls. There was single-high man, but enough Cover 2, 3, and 4 zones to keep Prescott and his receivers honest. Dallas couldn’t capitalize when there were breakdowns. Prescott missed an open Amari Cooper on one key third down, he overthrew a wide-open Tavon Austin after he toasted cornerback Rasul Douglas, and there were several receiver drops.

But Dallas’ miscues don’t offset the performance of Schwartz’s defense. He had his unit line up and play disciplined defense, and that was the difference. The front clogged the gaps and kept running back Ezekiel Elliott in check. The linebackers, safeties, and corners tackled in the secondary and on the edges. And the corners hung tight even though there were multiple injuries — to Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, and Douglas.

4. For Miles Sanders, the future is now. In the six games since Jordan Howard’s injury, Sanders has seen his touches steadily increase. He’s gone from 13 to 15 to 22 to 19 to 25 and 25 over that span. In the three games in which he had more than 20 touches, Sanders has eclipsed 100 total yards from scrimmage. He had more than 150 total yards each of the last two weeks. Overall, he’s 11th in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,276 yards) among running backs. If Sanders had more touches, he probably would be the leading candidate for NFC offensive rookie of the year.

Making Sanders a focal point on offense, while a little late, couldn’t have come at a better time. With the Eagles’ lack of explosive playmakers, he gives the offense a giddy-up whenever he touches the ball. The rookie has been more decisive in his runs and can be as physical as they come. Sanders had a 3-yard rush against the Cowboys that I don’t think he would have gained earlier in the season. He was dead on arrival, but kept his legs churning and muscled forward.

The Eagles haven’t had a dual threat back with Sanders’ skill since LeSean McCoy. Dallas was intent on containing him, but in their efforts created space downfield for others. Pederson needs to keep feeding his back. As Sanders showed again Sunday, he’s always one touch from breaking out.

» READ MORE: Miles Sanders, Dallas Goedert lead Eagles youth movement that’s injecting energy into Carson Wentz | Jeff McLane

5. The Eagles’ late season run shouldn’t fool anyone about their future. I could be wrong, but the Eagles aren’t winning a Super Bowl this season. Anything is possible, especially when you qualify for the tournament, but I still see too many flaws on the roster. Even with Wentz playing at an elite level, the Eagles have had to scrape by 4-11, 3-12, and 7-8 teams the last three weeks.

This probably isn’t the time to talk about the future, but I’m nearly 1,500 words in, and if you’re still with me, you’re probably willing to play along. There could be as many as 19 of what I would call “key contributors” who won’t or shouldn’t be on the roster next year. The obvious ones are: Agholor, Darby, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Jason Peters, and Darren Sproles. There are arguments to be made against the following, partly because of their contract situations: Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nigel Bradham, Vinny Curry, Howard, Malcolm Jenkins, Tim Jernigan, Rodney McLeod, Mills, Nate Sudfeld, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. There are possible retirements to consider for Josh McCown and Jason Kelce. And I’m not sure what the Eagles might have planned for cornerback Sidney Jones, in spite of his crucial pass breakup Sunday.

The Eagles are going on a nice little run here with several players who have been thrust into prominent roles. But they can’t be fooled into thinking that Greg Ward, Boston Scott, and Anthony Rush are part of the long-term answer. They can’t be fooled into thinking that some of their core players who have been around for recent success still might have the magic for another year. They made that costly mistake last offseason. The Eagles still have valuable pieces at important positions, but the roster needs to get younger, faster, and healthier.