ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s a funny thing about Philadelphia sports, the culture we have, the way we think about things.
Most of the time, when it comes to the pro teams and their fortunes, people lament what has been (a lot of losing) and what is likely to be (more losing), and if they’re not already walking under dark clouds because of the time of year, they conjure those clouds in their minds. But there are occasions, when a team rolling through a midseason winning streak and all things seem possible, that a perceptible haughtiness comes over the fan base. A team, usually the Eagles, is good, better than most teams in its league, and all the insecurity and doom-and-gloom thinking vanishes. Chests are puffed. Boasts are made to buddies who root for rival teams. Meatballs are rolled and frozen in anticipation of Super Bowl parties.
These last two weeks, before the Eagles’ 37-9 victory Sunday night here over the Cowboys, were such an occasion. The Eagles had won eight of their first nine games this season and had entered their bye week having dismantled the Denver Broncos by 28 points. Quarterback Carson Wentz was the leading candidate to be the NFL’s most valuable player. Doug Pederson was proving himself not merely a competent head coach, but a smart play-caller with a genial personality that inspired loyalty from his players.
Most delicious of all, over that same 14-day stretch, the Cowboys’ season appeared to be crashing down around them. Their most important offensive player, running back Ezekiel Elliott, had been suspended for six games. Their starting left tackle, Tyron Smith, the best in the NFL at his position, and middle linebacker Sean Lee, their most important defensive player, were injured. They lost last Sunday to the Atlanta Falcons and were inept in doing so. They were 5-4 and fading fast, and the question wasn’t whether the Eagles would beat them Sunday but by how much and whether Jerry Jones’ face would melt like hot wax in the process. Yes, so delicious.
Then Sunday night’s game began, and for its first 30 minutes, the Eagles were rusty and sloppy, dropping passes, forcing two interceptions by Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and scoring exactly zero points after either of them. It wasn’t just that kicker Jake Elliott missed a 34-yard field goal. It was that he had suffered a concussion on the opening kickoff and, after pushing his field-goal attempt to the right, did not return to the game. It wasn’t just that Wentz didn’t complete 10 of his final 12 passes of the first half. It was that he had sustained a crushing hit early in the game and was examined on the sideline for concussion symptoms. It wasn’t just that Pederson, after finding a nice balance between the run and the pass over the Eagles’ previous seven games, was going throw-heavy again: 19 called passes vs. nine called runs. It was that the Eagles’ 2016 season had turned for the worse here at AT&T Stadium, when Pederson made a succession of suspect coaching decisions that contributed to an overtime loss, and it was natural to wonder whether something similar were happening Sunday. At the break, the Eagles were losing, 9-7.
Then the second half of Sunday night’s game began.
So much for dark clouds.
The Eagles did what a team capable of winning a championship is supposed to do. They adjusted, and they improved. Pederson called more running plays — nothing wide, nothing slow and drawn-out, just direct between-the-tackles attacks on the Dallas defense — and those plays worked. Corey Clement rumbled 11 yards for a touchdown to give the Eagles the lead, and newcomer Jay Ajayi dashed 71 yards to set up another score. Wentz looked sharper, and wide receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery made tough, over-the-middle touchdown catches. The defense held the Cowboys scoreless. Without Elliott, the Eagles couldn’t try an extra point, so they converted two two-point attempts, and backup linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill kicked off three times — once, for a touchback. Even after so much had gone wrong for the Eagles, everything turned out all right.
“Things happen for a reason, and you learn from them, especially in this business, and, really, in life in general,” Pederson had told reporters Friday. “Things happen, and you learn from them. You make the necessary corrections, and you move on. You don’t dwell in the past, but you remember, and you reflect from time to time. So I think it’s a direct correlation to where the team is today, learning how to finish games and learning how to play together and understanding that they are a good football team.”
They are a good football team — by record, the best in the NFL. They are 9-1. A division title is a formality. Home-field advantage throughout the NFC postseason is more than a reasonable goal; it would be a disappointment if the Eagles didn’t attain it. It’s OK, Philadelphia. If you want to start rolling meatballs, no one can blame you.