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Season's Pivot Point? Loss At Dallas

Posted Dec 28, 2016

First-and-10, Eagles football on their 41-yard line with 13:05 remaining in a Sunday night tussle at the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles were a 4-2 football team at the time, and they held a 10-point lead over the red-hot Cowboys ...

First-and-10, Eagles football on their 41-yard line with 13:05 remaining in a Sunday night tussle at the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles were a 4-2 football team at the time, and they held a 10-point lead over the red-hot Cowboys on their turf and, well, it sure seemed like this would be a defining game for the Eagles in 2016.

And that’s exactly what it became, although not the way the Eagles thought as the lined up for that first-down play, one that started the unraveling of a promising start that has landed the team at 6-9 with the season finale on Sunday.

"That one was tough," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "That one in Dallas, NFC East rival, the point of the year we were in there, it was kind of a turning point, roughly, that one was tough. Being down there, having a chance to win on the road and that's hard to do in this league, yeah, that one was tough."

"I think that game right there kind of defined our season," defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. 

The call the Eagles made on first-and-10 from the 41-yard line was simple enough, a handoff to rookie running back Wendell Smallwood, on the field offensively for the first time all night. But the Dallas front four surged, blowing up the line of scrimmage, and Smallwood was hit as soon as he took the football from Wentz. The ball squirted loose and Dallas recovered at the Philadelphia 36-yard line.

The crowd at AT&T Stadium, quiet for most of a third quarter controlled by the Eagles, came to life a bit with the turnover, created when defensive tackle Terrell McClain beat center Jason Kelce and then the right side of the offensive line to reach Smallwood 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

“Fourth-quarter fumbling woes continue for the Philadelphia Eagles,” NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said on the broadcast.

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Philadelphia’s defense held after the turnover, limiting Dallas to a 49-yard Dan Bailey field goal to make the score 23-16. The Eagles needed something to get regain the momentum. The offense returned to the field and drove the ball from the Philadelphia 25-yard line to the Dallas 32 as Darren Sproles exploded up the middle for a first-down gain. First-and-10 once again. The clock was down to 8:06.

On first down, Wentz pitched the football to wide receiver Josh Huff, who ran in motion from the left side of the formation to the right side, and Huff set himself and threw down the field for wide receiver Jordan Matthews, working in one-on-one coverage down the sideline against J.J. Wilcox, the safety coming over the top. The connection failed. Second down.

Working out the shotgun, Wentz handed off to running back Kenjon Barner who gained 2 yards to the 30-yard line. Third down. Eight yards to go. In field goal range for Caleb Sturgis, who nailed a 55-yarder to close out the first half.

The snap from Kelce was low, but Wentz scooped it up and tossed behind the line of scrimmage to Sproles. Dallas sniffed out the play and linebacker Sean Lee knifed through some traffic, beating a gimpy Kelce (foot injury) to tackle Sproles for a 6-yard loss. It proved to be a critical loss of yardage. Head coach Doug Pederson sent the punt team onto the field and Donnie Jones got off a kick that Cole Beasley fair caught at the 10-yard line.

Instead of a two-possession game, Dallas remained within 23-16. And the Cowboys promptly drove 90 yards for the tying touchdown and then, after the game went into overtime, won the toss and took the first possession down the field for a touchdown and the victory.

Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks remembers the feeling he had leaving the stadium late that night.

"Disappointed," he said, "knowing that we lost a game we felt we should have won. Being up 10 (points) with six minutes left to go ... those last six minutes we kind of derailed. It was definitely disappointing."

The Eagles lost the next week at the New York Giants to reach the midway point of the season, rebounded to defeat Atlanta one week later, and then lost five consecutive games before last Thursday’s win over the Giants. Dallas, meanwhile, has cruised all season and enters Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday 13-2 and a very legitimate Super Bowl contender.

What would have happened had the Eagles won that Sunday night game in Arlington, Texas? What if they had played those final 13 minutes better and held onto the double-digit lead? It’s impossible to know, but that loss in Dallas turned into a pivot point for the Eagles. No doubt the Week 5 loss at Detroit was a difficult one to swallow – made possible by a Ryan Mathews fumble late in the fourth quarter as the Eagles looked to run down the game clock – but losing at Dallas, on national television, in an NFC East game, was significant.

"I'm not sure how it necessarily carried over for the rest of the season," safety Malcolm Jenkins said, "but it was a game where we had a 10-point lead and let it slip. We went into overtime and didn't come out with the win. It was one of those games where we had to learn how to finish. It's just small plays here and there. Some of the plays they earned, as we go back and watch the tape. But there are a couple of plays here and there where we could have helped ourselves. That's one of those lessons that you learn.

"Tough team, on the road, in the division. It's one of those battles you want to get back."

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