In the locker room after the biggest victory of the Eagles’ season, someone asked rookie running back Miles Sanders if the team has discovered something, in standing tall with huge late-game plays, and winning the past three weeks.
“Yeah. Man, we a tough-ass team,” Sanders said. “We grinding it out. We coming together and we just balling out.”
Sanders’ statement withstood booth review, as had Sidney Jones’ deflection of Dak Prescott’s fourth-and-8 pass to Michael Gallup in the end zone with a minute and 15 seconds remaining, from the Eagles’ 19.
Before the review of Jones’ play was complete, Fox’s cameras cut to another Jones, Cowboys owner Jerry, leaving his box, shoulders hunched, head down. It was the posture of a man who knew the robustly-shaped operatic person had sung.
Somehow, the 8-7 Eagles now lead the NFC East, after their gritty 17-9 victory Sunday over the 7-8 Dallas Cowboys. They can clinch the division title and a home playoff game with a victory next Sunday at the 4-11 New York Giants. The game has been shifted from 1 p.m. to 4:25.
Sidney Jones? Of course. This season, this day, how could it have been anyone else? Ronald Darby was out with a hip flexor problem and Rasul Douglas was beaten on a long bomb that the Eagles were lucky Dak Prescott overthrew, so defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz finally (reluctantly?) reached for Jones, the 2017 second-round draft pick whose career has been a massive disappointment.
Jones probably wouldn’t have been active if a few more key Eagles had been healthy enough to play; as recently as the Miami game, the team dressed six cornerbacks without managing to include the guy who was drafted to be their shutdown corner. He played one snap against the Giants, and made a huge deflection for a late stop, which earned Jones three snaps against Washington.
Sunday, Jones estimated he’d been on the field for maybe 10 snaps when Prescott lofted the ball for Gallup.
“I was still cold,” he said, but he hand-fought with Gallup into the left side of the end zone, then knocked the ball away.
“I was pretty much prepared for that deep ball,” Jones said.
Jones, who works mostly with the scout team in practice, basked in the roar of the standing, stomping, hooting crowd and the congratulations of his teammates.
“They know it’s been a little disappointing,” he said of his teammates. “Disappointing for myself, and everybody else, to be honest. It’s just life; it’s adversity. It’s going to come at different times for everybody … just battling. You get hit by adversity in the beginning, you can’t fold. You’ve just got to keep bouncing back.”
Jones might be the quintessential 2019 Eagle -- humiliated more than once, injured a bunch of times, written off, but still kicking.
“He’s HUNGRY,” defensive end Brandon Graham said of Jones. “I know the feeling.”
Graham, the 2010 first-round pick who wasn’t Earl Thomas, does indeed know a bit about expectations and injury and being written off before you’ve gotten an extended chance.
Graham said before the last Dallas series, he told Jones that “all will be forgiven” if he could come up with a pick-six. A fourth-down deflection was almost as good.
“We don’t quit, man,” said left tackle Jason Peters, part of an offensive effort that chugged along at a 6.1-yard-per-snap clip and survived some odd play calling from Doug Pederson. “People don’t believe in us. They write us off, just like they wrote us off in the Super Bowl year, when [so many key players] went down.
“Guys stepped up. That’s what’s happening now. We’ve got young guys stepping up, practice-squad guys stepping up.”
Graham and the Eagles defenders played their best game of the season, aided by the injury to Prescott’s shoulder that kept him out of practice all week. Prescott said the shoulder affected him “not at all,” but that wasn’t what the eye test said. Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said he knew from Prescott’s first pass that he wasn’t at his best.
It’s hard to say that Prescott lacking touch (he completed 25 of 44 passes for 265 yards, but the Cowboys never managed a touchdown) was a bigger deal than the Eagles missing their entire starting wide receiver corps, plus Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson, plus running back Jordan Howard.
The Cowboys still had Ezekiel Elliott, who entered the day 5-0 against the Eagles. In the Cowboys’ 37-10 home domination of the Eagles back on Oct. 20, Elliott ran 22 times for 111 yards and a touchdown. Sunday, he carried 13 times for 47 yards and never got more than 10 on a carry.
The Eagles often seemed to know where Elliott was going.
“We studied. We know our opponent,” Bradham said.
“They took this game, I think, personal, from the standpoint of what happened to us the first time,” Pederson said of the defense.
Dallas had a sore-shouldered QB; the Eagles were playing a bunch of guys from the practice squad.
“The moment’s not too big for any of these guys,” Carson Wentz marveled, after completing 31 of 40 passes for 319 yards and a touchdown, on a day when his favorite target, tight end Zach Ertz, took a shot to the ribs early and had to leave the game. Ertz returned but didn’t manage his first reception until about 4 minutes remained in the third quarter. He finished with four catches for 28 yards.
Instead, fellow tight end Dallas Goedert caught a career-high nine passes for 91 yards and a touchdown, Sanders caught five for 77, and Greg Ward helped set up a TD with a 38-yard reception down the Eagles’ sideline. Sanders also ran 20 times for 79 yards and a TD, including a 38-yard burst in the final seconds that put the exclamation point on the upset.
“I’m so proud of these guys, I’m so proud of them,” Wentz said after the first late-December, playoff-atmosphere victory of his career.
Wentz, who stuck his skinny frame into the fray on six carries for 22 yards, hasn’t been healthy this late since his rookie year, when the Eagles went 7-9.
“Obviously," Wentz said, "we’ve had our backs against the wall for a while now. You can see the sense of belief these guys have, and you can see it each week with them getting better and better and believing in themselves and believing in this team.”
“Carson’s been balling all season … I’m happy that everyone is seeing the type of player he is … the type of player he will continue to be,” right guard Brandon Brooks said.
“We was hearing people talking stuff all week about how they was gonna run over us and all that stuff,” Graham said. “I’m excited for what’s to come.”
So is Pederson.
“These guys in the locker room, they’re focused on next week already,” Pederson said. “I want them to enjoy this and their families this week. That’s what this time of year is for. But at the same time, we still have some unfinished business, and that’s what they’re talking about.”