With their season on the line, Dallas got 3 TD's from defense and special teams to key a 38-23 victory over the Philly, renewing optimism, at least for a week, that this team could sneak back into the playoff race.
It's funny how much easier it is to win games when you're the team getting points from special teams and defense, isn't it? For the first time all season, the Cowboys got points from the other two phases of the game -- a punt-return TD from Dwayne Harris, an INT return from Brandon Carr and a fumble recovery in the end zone from Jason Hatcher in the final few moments -- and that, more than anything else, was the biggest reason they came out of Philadelphia with a win.
After they blew three 10+ point leads in the fourth quarter last season, the Cowboys spent the off-season building a defense capable of protecting them. They invested huge sums of money in their top two CB's and have the greatness that is DeMarcus Ware coming off the edge, but this is the first time all season that they've been in a position to protect a lead and play from ahead. In Week 10! Dallas came into the game with a -11 turnover differential (31rst in the NFL, ahead of only the Chiefs), and for the most part, has spent the entire season playing from behind and trying to overcome their own mistakes, rather than taking advantage of the other team's.
As many have been pointing out, the Cowboys schedule gets a lot easier going forward. Their 4-5 start to the year hasn't been pretty, but the Panthers and the Eagles are the only teams with a losing record they've faced all season. Everyone else -- the Giants (6-4), Seahawks (6-4), Bucs (5-4), Bears (7-2), Ravens (7-2) and Falcons (8-1) -- is right in the thick of the playoff race. All of a sudden, Dallas has a chance to make up a lot of ground with three consecutive home games against the Browns, Redskins and Eagles. Obviously, with this team, you can't take anything for granted, but you take care of business and you're going into Cincinnati on Dec. 9 with a 7-5 record.
DeMarco Murray's return would be a godsend, as he can take a lot of pressure off of Tony Romo, the offensive line and really, the entire team. Felix Jones has been workmanlike, at best, averaging 3.8 yards per carry this season. Murray, who averaged 5.1 a rookie and was still at 4.4 before getting hurt, is just a remarkably better RB than Felix in every facet of the game -- big-play ability, short-yardage and in the passing game.
The reason Murray slipped into the draft was because of an inability to stay healthy at OU, and maybe that's just something the Cowboys are going to have to live with going forward. They've been hitting pay dirt in the draft by going after guys with injury flags: Murray, Sean Lee and now Bruce Carter, who is emerging as a star in his second season. At 6'2 240, he has the speed to absolutely fly around the field and the instincts to always be around the ball. He had 10 tackles on Sunday; the Cowboys second-leading tackler had 5. Going forward, Carter and Lee should form one the best ILB tandems in the NFL.
The Cowboys defense has its flaws, particularly mediocre safety play, but if they can play from ahead against offenses who have abandoned the run, they're going to be a tough unit. It's a cliche, but it's still true: if a team can avoid turnovers and making big mistakes, they have a good chance of winning in the NFL. Playing from ahead isn't just good for the defense, it takes a lot of pressure off the Dallas passing game, which features both a very iffy offensive line and a QB with, let's be honest, questionable decision-making ability.
On Sunday, Philadelphia was the team who self-destructed. Their offensive line, with four starters out, couldn't keep Michael Vick in the game and committed some egregious penalties, particularly King Dunlap, who did a masterful Doug Free impression for most of the game. The Eagles, despite falling to 3-6, are easily as talented as the Cowboys and the Giants, but the margin between wins and losses in the NFL isn't great and they have no one to blame but themselves for the predicament they find themselves in now.
It may be the end of the line for the Michael Vick Experience in Philly. With the season essentially over, they might be better off seeing what they have in rookie Nick Foles, who showed flashes on Sunday. He's a big guy (6'6 240) with a strong arm and a decent amount of mobility, although like most QB's, he's better when he's not running for his life in the back-field. Playing Foles might also be a blessing in disguise for the Eagles if it forces Andy Reid to simplify his game-plan and lean on LeSean McCoy.
And after a very successful 14-year run in Philly, it might also be the end of the road for Reid. NFL coaches are hired to be fired, and that's an awfully long time for anyone to hold a job without having at least one Super Bowl ring. He never appears to have recovered from the tragic death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, the blitz-happy mastermind who frustrated Cowboys teams for years. As time goes on, I think Philly will one day appreciate all the success that they had under Reid, but it's still probably time for a change.
Tony Romo's passing line was a model of efficiency: 19/26 for 206 yards, 1 TD and ZERO (!!) INT's. He kept plays alive and made a series of huge passes in the third quarter, but the team didn't ask him (or his offensive line) to win the game for them, which is probably best for everyone. If Romo can win games by avoiding the big mistake, moving the chains and hitting Dez Bryant for the occasional big play, the Cowboys are going to be a much more successful operation. That's why this team desperately needs DeMarco to return at 100% as soon as possible.
The Big Picture:
While there's reason for optimism in Valley Ranch, Dallas can't afford to look past anyone, even the lowly 2-7 Browns, who come into Jerry World next Sunday. They're coming off a bye week, so they should be as healthy as they've been all season, while also benefiting from the chance to game-plan exclusively for the Cowboys and add a few wrinkles the Dallas coaches won't have seen on tape. But with a shaky rookie QB in 29-year old Oklahoma State product Brandon Weeden, the Cowboys should be OK as long as they don't fall back into their old habits of giving away games with turnovers and mental mistakes.