This was an ugly win, but against the Cowboys, even the ugliness feels good.
Dallas needed a 79-yard kick return, two horrible defensive pass interference calls on Byron Maxwell at the end of regulation, a field goal that banked in off the post, and an insanely lucky TD pass from Matt Cassel to Dez Bryant to even stay close.
Cassel narrowly evaded a sack, then basically shut his eyes and threw a Hail Mary to the end zone with 11 minutes left in the game. The fact that Dez Bryant grabbed it before any of the nearby Eagles, and scored a lucky/brilliant touchdown, doesn’t change the fact that it was a terrible throw.
That pass was so crazy that it made #4 on SportsCenter’s wacky play highlight reel.
The Eagles, on the other hand, didn’t do anything fancy. They just kept plugging away until they wore Dallas down. Several Cowboys went down with injuries, a marker of the hard-fought game, and only one (to Byron Jones, who returned after missing one play) was probably faked to help them catch their breath.
Here are my six favorite bits of grit from this win:
1. Pounding DeMarco Murray right back at Dallas
DeMarco Murray was not brilliant, flashy or fast. He was relentless, pummeling away until the Cowboys were gassed and, in several cases, injured. Ryan Mathews again earned more yards per carry, and Murray was still slow going around the corner, but he is the guy you want on fourth and goal at the one. (He scored in exactly that situation tonight.)
Dallas continues to talk a big game about not missing Murray, despite losing Lance Dunbar to injury and waiving underwear thief Joseph Randle. But it was psychologically wounding to pound them with their former star, and by the end of the game he was getting around the corner on his exhausted former teammates.
The Birds also flaunted Miles Austin, who is chewing up more of Dallas’ salary cap this year ($5.1 million) than Philadelphia’s ($2.25M). He caught a 27-yard pass and drew a defensive holding call for another first down.
The turnaround in the running game this year is phenomenal, and not talked about enough. Carolina leads the NFL with 144.0 rushing yards per game so far this year. In games one through four, the Eagles managed only 70. Since then, they’ve averaged a dominant 173.25 per game.
While the offensive line is much better, the biggest improvement has come from Murray himself. He averaged a mere 12 yards in the first four games, missing one entirely due to injury. In games five through eight, he has piled up more than 85 per tiff — and the Eagles have won three of those four contests.
Tonight, the three backs totaled racked up 172 yards. Murray added 78 receiving yards to his 83 on the ground.
This is the first time since 1992 the Eagles have rushed for 150 or more yards in four straight games.
— Reuben Frank (@RoobNBCS) November 9, 2015
A lot of people think Chip’s Oregon offense was pass-based, and that’s just wrong. It was always pounding run after run at tempo, with an occasional pass to break it open and keep the defense honest. In fact, a lot of the “passes” in the system, like the bubble screens and swing passes, are really more like runs than passes. The ball getting to the receiver/runner should be automatic, and the result depends on the defense’s ability to tackle in space.
2. Forced Fumbles
The Eagles practice strip sacks relentlessly, drilling defenders again and again to punch the ball out. It’s not just the football dummies in the hallways that got so much attention this week. The Eagles run multiple forced fumble drills in practice every day during training camp every August. And it pays off.
Nothing flashy, no secret. Just focus, technique and practice.
The Birds came into the game leading the NFL in takeaways with 19 (11 INTs, 10 forced fumbles and 8 fumble recoveries). They added three more tonight, two FFs by Brandon Graham and Jordan Hicks’ pick six. While Dallas recovered the two strip-sacks, each disrupted a key drive, and one moved the Cowboys out of field goal territory, forcing a punt.
3. Bodying Up on Greg Hardy
Lane Johnson did a great job walling off Greg Hardy, who is a almost as dangerous to quarterbacks as he is to his girlfriends. So Dallas moved the convicted abuser of women over to the offense’s right side, where even third stringer Dennis Kelly filled in admirably. Hardy got a sack and a couple of pressures, but the Eagles also got two penalties out of him– unnecessary roughness and an offsides that turned a third and seven into a third and two.
Hardy demanded (and got) attention. But he was not a big factor in this game and got beaten up a little. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
4. Stiff arming
On the second touchdown drive, Murray caught a beautiful pass on a wheel route and turned it into 44 yards by means of reckless one-handed ball handling that freed up his other arm to shove off Anthony Hitchens. Jordan Matthews pushed off two Dallas DBs on one play to get down to the five, setting up the one-T Mathews’ running TD. And in overtime, Matthews caught an intermediate length pass and armed off J.J. Wilcox without much actual contact for the winning touchdown.
5. Big Balls Chip is back
He trusted Caleb Sturgis, the guy who missed extra points earlier in the season, with a 53-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter. He went for it on fourth and goal at the one yard line. And then he risked the whole game, if not the whole season, with a run on fourth and one at Dallas’ 43 in overtime. It’s about time.
How about the guts by Chip Kelly to go for it on 4th and 1 in OT on the road?
— Dave Spadaro (@EaglesInsider) November 9, 2015
You know why he’s getting gutsier again? Because Philadelphia’s defense kicks so much ass that he trusts them to bail the team out if his gamble fails. There’s no other way that you risk a 53-yard field goal by your mid-season pickup kicker from your opponent’s 35-yard line, when your opponent has the NFL’s most accurate kicker and 1:46 to gain the 30 yards they need to win.
The Eagles shrugged off all those setbacks (like those penalty calls and the lucky plays) and got the job done.
Sam Bradford made a number of beautiful throws — in tight windows, in stride, over linebackers. Receivers actually caught the ball, aside from two early drops (Josh Huff’s volleyball setup and Ryan Mathews’ inexplicable muff).
Gift penalties from the refs allowed Dallas to tie with a nearly-blocked FG that bounced off the post and in. In overtime, facing all the pressure in the world, the Eagles were called for two five-yard penalties. And still, the Birds kept focused on blocking, running hard, and catching passes.
This is something like what Chip Kelly was hoping for when he traded for Bradford, and picked up two tough north-south runners to replace shifty LeSean McCoy.
The Eagles are a long way from perfect. For one thing, if they didn’t spot opponents a touchdown every first drive, they’d find it a lot easier to win games.
But this win made it very likely that the Eagles will win the NFC East. Now they have seven games to improve enough to actually win a playoff game.