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Playing up-tempo against Cowboys, Eagles show how good they can be

Eagles set a fast pace against Dallas, and often caught the Cowboys gasping for breath.

Ryan Mathews scores a touchdown against the Cowboys.
Ryan Mathews scores a touchdown against the Cowboys.Read more(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

CHIP KELLY delivered a message to his players this week. It came in the form of a video clip from the Eagles' 13-play touchdown drive in the second quarter of their 33-27 win over the Cowboys on Sunday night. Featured on the screen was a shot of Dallas defenders struggling to catch their breath as a ferocious rushing attack backed them toward their goal line.

As Lane Johnson talked about that clip, his voice flickered with excitement.

"That was the best our tempo has been all season," said Johnson, whose ability to fill the void left by Jason Peters at left tackle was a critical factor in both the drive and the win. "You could see it."

For Kelly, the clip served as a visceral reminder to his players of the benefits of playing fast, hard and clean. Despite a shorthanded offensive line that featured three players who entered the season as backups and a fourth lining up at a position where he had not started since college, the Eagles pounded the Cowboys' vaunted front seven 80 yards down the field in four minutes, 17 seconds of game clock. Seven of their first nine plays were handoffs to DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, the last of them a 12-yard run by Mathews that forced Jason Garrett to call the kind of timeout more often seen on a basketball court. The Cowboys simply needed to catch their breath.

It was a moment worth filing away for future reference as the Eagles begin a stretch in which they have an opportunity to re-establish themselves as a team that the rest of a muddled NFC should take seriously as the weeks tick toward January. Only two of their next seven games come against teams that entered Week 10 with winning records. Three of those opponents have spent much of the season in turmoil, including the Dolphins, who won two straight games after firing head coach Joe Philbin, but come to Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday riding a pair of losses to the Patriots and Bills in which they were outscored, 69-24. The 3-5 Bucs are up next, also at home, followed by the 1-7 Lions.

Along with future dates against the Bills (4-4 heading into Thursday night's game) and 3-5 Redskins, the Eagles could easily be sitting at nine wins heading into that regular-season finale against the Giants in the Meadowlands (they also benefit from getting 6-2 Arizona at home, although the Cardinals will have three extra days to prepare, coming off a Thursday night home game against the Vikings).

If the Eagles end up building that kind of momentum, the foundation will be drives like the one Kelly chose to feature on the video screen this week.

No doubt, the quarterback will continue to be a critical X-factor. Sam Bradford offered plenty of evidence in support of that conventional wisdom with his play against the Cowboys, which featured several perfect throws with defenders in his face and at his feet (the two most impressive being his 44-yarder to Murray in the third quarter and his 27-yarder to Zach Ertz in the fourth).

The head coach, too, is a wild card. For all of the scrutiny we heap upon Kelly, plays such as Bradford's walkoff touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews should reinforce any wavering belief in his game-calling acumen. The 41-yard touchdown pass began with a fake handoff out of the shotgun that forced Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy to hold his gap on the line of scrimmage, enabling Brett Celek to come from the opposite side of the formation to block him as the offensive line focused its attention elsewhere.

But both Bradford and his head coach found themselves in a position to look brilliant, thanks in large part to the machine-like way in which the Eagles ran the ball throughout the game.

"When we're balanced and playing fast like that," Bradford said, "that's what we want to do."

The ability to play at their desired tempo and balance is heavily contingent on the offensive line, which remains one of the biggest questions for the offense, in both the short and long terms.

Johnson said Thursday that he expects to start at left tackle for a second straight week, although the Eagles will continue to hold out hope that Peters recovers from the back pain that has sidelined him since early in their loss to the Panthers in Week 7. Johnson, who had spent his entire Eagles career at right tackle until Peters went down, said he felt as if he was playing "street ball" against the Cowboys as he tried to make the best of his unfamiliar footwork and assignments while facing off against Hardy.

"Getting a week of practice in, getting more comfortable, I think it's only going to get better and better," he said. "I know I can play left tackle in this league. It's not 'if,' it's, 'when.' "

The Eagles would love to postpone that transition until after next year, when Peters has a $9.3 million cap number, with $3 million in dead money if he is released. But a lot depends on his body.

They'd free up $6.3 million by releasing him, so there is a plausible scenario in which they decide that they can get better value out of those dollars on the free-agent market.

Johnson views himself as a future fixture at left tackle, although he realizes that the Eagles would benefit tremendously from a healthy Peters back in the fold.

"I'm just waiting my turn," he said. "It's hard to follow one of the greatest who's ever played. That guy's helped me ever since I came into the league, so I'm going to continue to learn and grow from him and hopefully become a better player."

In the meantime, Johnson and the Eagles seem confident that they can spend the rest of the season leaving defenses gasping in their wake.

On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy