ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Eagles and Cowboys went to overtime at AT&T Stadium for the second year in a row, but this time, there was no Sam Bradford-Jordan Matthews magic.
Instead, an Eagles defense that deserved better watched Dallas rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, at the end of an erratic night, dance around and find Jason Witten from 5 yards out for the touchdown that gave the home team a 29-23 victory and a 6-1 record, Dallas alone atop the NFC East.
This was a game the now 4-3 Eagles should have won in regulation, their rookie quarterback, Carson Wentz, decidedly outplaying Prescott for about 55 minutes. But the bad karma they engendered in blowing a 10-point fourth quarter lead carried over into the extra period, in which they never got the ball.
“To be in control in the fourth quarter (and lose), it (stinks),” Wentz said. “We just didn’t execute down the stretch there. They made some plays, they made more plays than us. It’s frustrating, but we’ll learn from it.”
The Eagles’ playcallers bungled a drive that had them in position to kick a field goal that would have restored that late 10-point lead, then they allowed the host Cowboys to drive 90 yards in 11 plays for the tying touchdown, the Birds’ secondary in disarray.
They got the ball back, and as was the case all night, Wentz’s receiving corps showed why fans are so eager to see de facto general manager Howie Roseman make a deal for a wideout before Tuesday’s trade deadline. Third tight end Trey Burton had two chances to catch a third-and-4 pass that would have moved the chains, he seized neither, and the ball bounced away.
After the defense played the desperate series it should have played one set of downs earlier, the Cowboys had to punt, but this series was even worse, Dorial Green-Beckham taking offensive pass interference on the first snap and Wentz’s protection crumbling.
To overtime we went.
Wentz ended regulation, and the game, 32 for 43 for 202 yards and a touchdown. Prescott went to OT 14 for 34 for 231, a TD and a pick. Ezekiel Elliott did not trample the Birds, as some observers thought seemed likely; he entered overtime with 82 yards on 18 carries.
But in overtime, Prescott was 5-for-5 for 56 yards, Elliott ran four times for 14, and that was that.
Wentz’s lack of weapons was a huge issue, often limiting him to a horizonatal passing game that was painful to watch.
“We just gotta go out there and finish,” said wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who had one of several Eagles drops. “There were a couple of times we did have shots dialed up, but then they were just playing deep safeties; they went Cover 2 one time when we had a play we were trying to get downfield. It’s just one of those things where if that’s the look, then you’re going to check it down.”
“We definitely just gotta play smarter,” said Matthews, who caught 11 passes on 14 targets for just 65 yards.
“It was kind of the nature of the game,” Wentz said, after averaging a feeble 4.1 yards per pass. “They were the kind of defense that kind of gives you some underneath stuff. That’s just how it played out. We had some shots called and then I just had to check it down because that’s what they gave us.”
The Eagles didn’t make a big deal of it, but as they prepared to visit the Cowboys, sitting on that glittery five-game win streak, the Birds wondered how shiny Dallas would look if it had to play from behind.
It didn’t seem likely they would find out, given Dallas’ No. 1 NFL rushing attack, all the weapons at Prescott’s disposal, and the recent downward trend of the Birds’ offense.
But the Eagles’ defense played a courageous game, Wentz stayed disciplined, Darren Sproles (15 carries for 86 yards, 5 catches for 17) came up huge, and the game was right there for them, until with the ball on the Dalllas 32, 23-16 lead, a little more than eight minutes left, first and 10.
Doug Pederson dialed up an option pass to the end zone for Josh Huff, a throw more than twice as long as any Wentz completed all night. Surprisingly enough, this did not work. A Kenjon Barner run got two yards, to the 30, plenty close for Caleb Sturgis, who’d earlier hit from 55. But a mixed-up screen to Sproles lost 6 yards and the Eagles punted, rather than trying a 53 or 54-yarder. This series of mistakes cost them their lead.
Pederson said afterward the throw to Sproles was the play he wanted against the defense the Cowboys were playing. He said the option pass from Huff nearly worked.
“Give them credit, knocked us out of field goal range at that time,” Pederson said. “I also felt, too, that defensively we were gaining a little momentum” and he felt comfortable, with the Cowboys backed up to their 10.
He might have been the only one. It’s tough to rely on the other team not finishing something you could and should have finished yourself.
“You can’t let those teams linger and hang on,” said middle linebacker Jordan Hicks. “You know coming in here they’re going to fight to the end.”
Pederson talked a lot about the loss as a “learning experience,” and the Eagles’ youth was a problem, from Jalen Mills giving up three points by being caught flatfooted on a fake punt, to Wendell Smallwood fumbling the ball away on his only carry of the game. Both times, the Eagles’ defense scrapped and swarmed and held the Cowboys to a subesquent field goal, but those were six points the Cowboys should not have had.
Sturgis hit a 55-yard field goal on the final play of the first half to give the Eagles a 13-10 lead. Actually, he hit it twice, the first negated by a Dallas timeout.
Wentz was 17 for 21 for 107 at halftime, unable to push the ball down the field but much less mistake-prone than last week against Minnesota. Prescott was just 5 for 13 for 118 yards and a Hicks pick at halftime.
The Eagles came out stuffing the run, and their own first drive was given second life by a Dallas penalty for too many men on the field during Donnie Jones’ punt. Wentz got them down to the Dallas 12 and made a nice third-down throw that might have gotten them first and goal had Nelson Agholor not played volleyball with it.
Sturgis’ 30-yard field goal gave the Birds a 3-0 lead.
Then Dallas got serious. Second play after the kickoff was a 53-yard pass down the right sideline to Dez Bryant, back from a three-game injury absence with fresh legs – much fresher than the legs of Leodis McKelvin. Three plays later, it was 7-3.
The Eagles’ offense got stuck in a mode of ridiculously short passes against a strong-tackling opponent. Dallas got a 25-yard reception from Elliott, mismatched against Hicks, and after a 13-yard Elliott run, the Cowboys were in position for a 35-yard field goal that made it 10-3, on the first play of the second quarter.
The Eagles played the field position game and only had to drive 45 yards for the tying score, Ryan Mathews carrying it in from the 1. Sproles gained 44 yards on 7 carries in the first half, Mathews 10 on 4.
The Birds lost starting left guard Allen Barbre to a hamstring injury early. He was replaced by Stefen Wisniewski, finally getting the chnace to play he missed when the coaching staff named Halapoulivaati Vaitai the starter for Lane Johnson at right tackle during Johnson’s 10-game NFL suspension.
Wentz was surgical in a 69-yard third-quarter drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Matthews, and a 20-10 lead.
Dallas got back three after faking a punt, suckering Mills and getting a big first down that seemed to give the home team momentum, but not only could the Cowboys not find the end zone, Prescott needed offensive pass interference to avoid throwing his second interception.
Josh Huff’s 63-yard kickoff return more or less made up for Mills’ gaffe – the Eagles ended up getting a 34-yarder from Sturgis to restore the 10-point lead at 23-13.
Smallwood’s fumble gave back three, but again, the Eagles were in position to erase that error, until they weren’t.
“This is the type of game we have to win big,” Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said, after the Birds dropped to 0-2 in the division, with a trip to the Giants on tap.