ARLINGTON, Texas – The Eagles eked out a back-and-forth affair with a dramatic 33-27 overtime win against the Cowboys on Sunday night. They still haven't delivered what could be called a "clean" effort, but there is legitimate reason to be optimistic as the 4-4 Birds enter the second half of the season. Here's what we learned:
1. Despite a disappointing start to the season, the Eagles have momentum. The Eagles have won three of their last four games and their lone loss in that span – to the undefeated Panthers before the bye – doesn't look nearly as bad after Carolina toppled the Packers on Sunday. And the Eagles could have walked away with a victory if it weren't for a collection of dropped passes. Does that mean they deserve to be mentioned along with the Panthers, Packers or even the equally 4-4 Seahawks? Hardly. The Eagles' three wins still came against teams with a collective record of 11-15: the 4-5 Saints, 5-4 Giants and 2-6 Cowboys. They still need to beat a top-tier team to be considered a contender for prizes beyond an NFC East crown. But Chip Kelly certainly has his troops marching in the right direction after a 1-3 start. And the Eagles have an opportunity over the next three games to move ahead of the division-leading Giants, who will face the undefeated Patriots next week. The Eagles will host the 3-5 Dolphins on Sunday and the 3-5 Buccaneers the following week, and travel on Thanksgiving to meet the 1-7 Lions. Would it be a disaster if the Eagles lost one of those three games? No. But taken individually, they should win each game. A 7-4 mark sounds a lot better than 6-5 heading into a Week 12 road game at New England. The Eagles have mostly handled teams with losing records since Kelly came aboard. They can't afford more than one slip-up over the next three weeks.
2. Sam Bradford has the potential to get the job done – and then some. The Eagles quarterback clearly had his best game of the season. Bradford's numbers were impressive. Overall, he completed 25 of 36 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown and finished with a 103.4 passer rating. In the second half alone, he was 15 for 19 for 214 yards and a score. Most important, he had no turnovers. But what really made this a special game for Bradford was his steady hand in late-game situations. He was clutch. There's no other way to put it. He guided the Eagles to two go-ahead fourth-quarter field goals and, in the overtime, drove 80 yards on nine plays before hitting Jordan Matthews for a game-winning, 41-yard touchdown. He called his target before the play, telling his receiver to be ready. And when Matthews ran a crossing route against man coverage and had beaten slot corner Byron Jones, Bradford tossed a strike in stride. Matthews took care of the rest. It wasn't a defining performance, however. Bradford continues to check the ball down too often, or throw short of the sticks on third down. But he isn't exactly getting much help from his outside receivers. Bradford found a way to exploit the mismatches Matthews and tight end Zach Ertz (five catches for 44 yards) presented, particularly in the middle of the field, and even if it took a half, it was worth the wait. Taken as a whole, Bradford has shown improvement as the season has progressed. Factor in the new offense and the layoff from his knee injuries, and his start doesn't seem as woeful.
3. Jordan Matthews had the type of performance many expected out of the receiver in Year 2. Matthews had a rough first seven games. He dropped at least six passes – I'd argue he had nine – had a few clang off his hands for interceptions, and fumbled once. It felt as if he wasn't prepared to assume the role of No. 1 receiver in the Eagles' offense. But he still led the Eagles in receptions and receiving yards and remained the best option for Bradford through the air. That's why, even when things were at their lowest, I thought he'd rebound. The drops were mostly concentration things. He was pressing. They had little to do with talent. The same can't be said of some of the Eagles' other receivers – cough, Josh Huff, cough – but as long as Matthews didn't lose his confidence, I thought he'd eventually come around. And, boy, did he against the Cowboys. Matthews finished with nine catches for 133 yards and the game-winning TD. He caught the ball with authority, if there's such a thing. You could see it about halfway through the third quarter when he caught a 28-yard pass and motored upfield. I wrote about Matthews last week, how he came back off the bye as committed to working as hard as he had previously. In the context of his performance in Texas. I think it deserves another read.
4. But Matthews and Ertz can't do it all, and the outside receivers remain limited. Miles Austin played 88 percent of the snaps on offense – more than any other skill-position player – and finished with just one catch for 27 yards. Huff played 68 percent of the time and had just two catches for 10 yards. He dropped another pass when a Bradford dart went through his hands and hit him in the facemask. I'm not trying to pick on Huff, but I think I write about his lack of ball-catching skills weekly. Maybe he'll eventually develop into the downfield threat the Eagles envisioned when they expended a third-round draft pick on him, but I've yet to see anything more than a possible scatback role player. The Eagles were, of course, shorthanded on Sunday. Nelson Agholor missed his third straight game with a high ankle sprain. He said he would be back last week, so his absence was a bit puzzling. But the Eagles need him. That's a bit scary considering he has only eight catches in his rookie season. But he probably is more of a downfield threat than any other Eagles receiver. Riley Cooper has that ability, as well. But he's battling various injuries. He played only nine snaps. The Eagles can survive with a pass offense that utilizes the middle of the field with Matthews and Ertz. Just look at the Patriots, who have receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski as their top targets. But the top defenses in the league are equipped to force Bradford elsewhere. And he can't compensate as Tom Brady can.
5. It's time to give the Eagles offensive line its due. Lane Johnson and Dennis Kelly delivered Herculean performances. With Jason Peters (back) sidelined, Johnson moved to left tackle for the first time and Kelly jumped outside to right tackle. The shuffle was primarily to accommodate for Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, who primarily rushes from the right. And it worked. Johnson hardly ever let Hardy get around him. I think there was one time when Hardy hurried Bradford from his blindside. But Kelly saw the controversial end, too, and when he had to opportunity to key on the matchup, he fared well. Hardy's lone impact play came when he recorded a sack on an inside rush. Johnson had some choice words for Hardy's effort. He earned the right to gloat. As for the rest of the unit, it was a combined effort. Bradford wasn't sacked another time, and the ground game keeps on chugging. When the Eagles can get four yards or more on first down, it makes the offense that much more lethal. I still see the holes. Allen Barbre and Matt Tobin aren't consistent enough. But considering how putrid the line looked against the Cowboys in September, the line deserves all the accolades it can receive.
6. The more evenly distributed carries between DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews could be a sign of things to come. Or not. Murray (56 percent) still played most of the snaps among the three running backs. Mathews and Darren Sproles were at 30 percent. But Murray finished with 18 rushes for 83 yards (4.6 average), and Mathews rushed 11 times for 67 yards (6.1 avg.). Both had rushing TDs. Sproles ran five times for 23 yards. Mathews had key carries early in the fourth quarter as the Eagles took another lead. But Murray was in there more often down the stretch. He had some positive totes, but he also lost yards on two carries. I still contend that Mathews should at least get as many snaps. It was difficult to hammer the argument after Sunday night's game, though. Murray did far more good than bad. His 20-yard burst in overtime came after an Eagles false start and advanced them to midfield. He caught six passes for 78 yards, including a perfectly placed 44-yard pass from Bradford on a wheel route. And he earned some bragging rights against his former team after a disappointing performance in the first meeting. He declined to say that there was extra meaning in the victory, but his teammates said otherwise.
7. Jordan Hicks is a stud. There's no other way to put it. The rookie linebacker keeps coming up with clutch plays. His interception and 64-yard return for a touchdown were a game-changer. The Cowboys struck back on their ensuing possession with a long kickoff return and an equalizing touchdown, but they were driving down the field to go ahead before Hicks stepped in front of a Matt Cassel sideline pass and went to the house. He said it was the first pick-six of his life. Hard to believe. Hicks injured his pectoral muscle late in the game. He appeared OK after the game, but said he wouldn't know the extent of the injury until after an MRI on Monday. The Eagles have withstood injuries to Kiko Alonso, Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans because Hicks has been so good. But they might not be able to cover his loss if he's out for an extended period. Kendricks had an up-and-down night in his second game back. But he's a playmaker and had a sack and another tackle for loss. Alonso understandably looked rusty. He played 29 snaps in base and nickel spot duty. Ryans (hamstring) still wasn't sure he would be back next week. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis can ill afford to lose Hicks moving forward.
8. The Eagles might have to switch up the slot cornerback when facing shiftier inside receivers. Malcolm Jenkins had done a splendid job in the slot through seven games. The loss of Brandon Boykin was hardly felt. But Jenkins, a safety, isn't ideally suited to cover a guy such as 5-foot-8 Cole Beasley (nine catches for 112 yards and two scores). Not all those catches came against Jenkins. E.J. Biggers was victimized, too, which could suggest that he isn't the answer against smallish slot receivers, either. Maybe the answer would be to drop Walter Thurmond inside. But it appeared as if Davis was willing to take his lumps inside to slow Dez Bryant on the outside. He did for stretches, but Bryant (five catches for 104 yards and a TD) still delivered his blows. Nolan Carroll was beaten a few times early in man situations. Byron Maxwell had, I thought, a strong game despite the two late pass-interference penalties. And those sure looked like phantom penalties. Moving forward, the Eagles will face a solid slot receiver in the Dolphins' Jarvis Landry on Sunday. He isn't comparable to Beasley in style, but he poses a threat.
9. The run defense has been leaky. For the second straight game, the Eagles allowed a rusher to eclipse 115 yards rushing. Darren McFadden finished with 117 yards on 27 carries. I don't think it's a major cause for concern, but it bears watching. McFadden ran hard and deserves credit. But the Eagles were also facing one of the league's best offensive lines. Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan were still forces inside. And Hicks and Jenkins cleaned up a few times. But Davis' unit can't thrive without a run defense that forces opponents into second and third down and longs.
10. And a few leftovers … Caleb Sturgis, despite a rocky introduction and some blips along the way, has made a remarkable turnaround. He swished a 31-yard field goal to put the Eagles ahead early in the fourth quarter and then connected on a 53-yard try to put them up again with less than two minutes to play. … Donnie Jones was excellent. He punted five times for a net average of 47.2 yards and dropped four of those boots inside the 20. … The Eagles had zilch for a return game. Huff had no kick-return opportunities with seven touchbacks, and Sproles fair-caught three of four punts. … Brandon Graham is starting to collect sacks. He had two Cassel takedowns. He has four sacks this season. Connor Barwin collected his third this year. … Marcus Smith didn't get a snap on defense again.