Dallas kept their season alive in a dramatic 38-33 nail-biter on Sunday night that was even closer than the final score indicates.
That was how far the ball was moved forward on a challenge by Jason Garrett at the very end of the third quarter. On a fourth and one play at the Philadelphia 39, DeMarco Murray was originally ruled short, turning the ball over. But Garrett threw the red flag, the chains came out and the measurement gave Dallas a first down that may have eventually won the game for them.
Dallas was trailing 24-17 at the time, and it was clear that they would have to keep at least matching Philadelphia score for score. The Cowboys trailed from the Eagles' first score in the opening quarter until they tied the game at 17 on their first possession of the second half. After tying the game again after the challenge, the defense, which had been unable to stop the Eagles on four consecutive series, including a ridiculously easy looking drive to get a field goal with only 41 seconds left in the first half, finally managed to force Philadelphia to kick a field goal.
Then the Cowboys, who the Eagles were having just about as much trouble slowing down, marched down for the second Tony Romo to Dez Bryant touchdown of the night, and took their first lead of the game at 31-27.
They would not relinquish the lead, thanks to the one really big defensive play of the game. On the ensuing drive, Bryce Brown, who was having his second phenomenal rushing game in a row, coughed the ball up. Brown is showing stunning talent, rushing for 347 yards in the two games. He is also showing horrible ball security. This was his third fumble over the two games, and Dallas rookie Morris Claiborne, who was badly abused by the Eagles in the first meeting of the season, got his revenge by scooping the loose ball and scampering 50 yards to the end zone.
Philadelphia showed no signs of being a team that has given up on anything. In addition to Brown consistently getting loose for big runs, as well as two touchdowns that looked all too easy, rookie quarterback Nick Foles consistently found wide open receivers and was seldom pressured much. Dallas only got one sack and three hits on him, despite the Eagles having an offensive line that is likely in worse shape than the Cowboys'.
Although the defense provided the points that turned out to be the winning margin, this was clearly a game that the offense won. Romo had a superb 150.5 rating, and was 10 for 10 passing in the second half. He completed three touchdown passes, adding one to Miles Austin to the two Bryant scores. Dez Bryant continues to emerge as the most dangerous passing target, getting 98 yards to go with his two scores. And Jason Witten is still the go-to guy when things are rough, adding 108 yards and twice setting the Cowboys up inside the five yard line.
But the biggest story offensively was the return of DeMarco Murray. The nearly comatose Dallas running game was suddenly alive and kicking again with him. Although he only got 83 yards, including his last carry of the night where he gave up 11 in an attempt to burn as much time as he could, he sparked the team early, getting some good runs, and the first Dallas touchdown.
Suddenly the play action was again viable. This was no more evident than on the scoring play after the successful challenge to get the first down. Romo, with some great ball handling, faked the handoff, and the Eagles bit hard. This let Romo get the ball to a crossing Austin, and he simply shrugged off the defenders getting into the end zone. Had Murray and company not managed to run for 123 yards, including several first downs, this would likely not have been a successful play. But with the way Murray, and to a lesser extent Felix Jones, were carrying the ball, the Eagles had to respect the run. And it put the Cowboys in position to win.
The win gets the Cowboys back to .500, but it was a tough game against a team that is as beat up as Dallas is. The offense played very well. They still started a bit slow, but after going down 14-3 in the first half, they began answering score for score.
Most importantly, they never made a mistake. I do not recall one pass thrown by Romo that even looked remotely like a pick, with the possible exception of one of Bryant's receptions that was more a display of his excellent hands than it was the ball being placed in jeopardy. Dallas gave up no turnovers, which makes the one "takeover" for the eventual winning touchdown even more significant.
But defensively, Dallas was mostly unable to stop a pair of rookies at quarterback and running back. Time and time again, Foles found wide open receivers, and was able to move around at will behind his line. Dallas had very little pass rush, and when they brought extra men, it left huge open spaces Jeremy Maclin and others were able to exploit when the rush did not get to Foles.
And the team almost let the Eagles back in the game late with a horrendous breakdown on special teams. With only about 40 seconds left on the clock and an 11 point lead, Dallas punted. Damarius Johnson made what is normally a big mistake, fielding the ball at the 2 instead of letting it go into the end zone. But the Cowboys' coverage broke down, and he streaked 98 yards down the right side of the field for a touchdown.
Only a missed two point conversion, when Foles finally looked like a rookie in missing a wide open Brown and throwing incomplete to Jason Avant, plus the always sure-handed Witten securing the onsides kick, kept the Eagles from having a real shot at tying or even winning the game in the end.
Dallas kept its playoff hopes alive with the win. There are definitely some positive signs, particularly on offense, but the defense is showing the toll of the long, long list of injuries. After a flagless first quarter, the team had seven penalties for 60 yards. Doug Free continued to have issues.
It is hard to see this team winning out the last four games, which it would have to do just to have a chance at the playoffs. And that is a shame for players like Tony Romo (who became the all time touchdown pass leader in team history) who continue to play their hearts out. But the season is not over. The team still has hope, and there were at least as many positives as negatives coming out of the game.
The biggest plus, of course, was getting the win