Heading into a Week 10 matchup in Philadelphia, Dallas appeared to be done.
The 3-5 Cowboys were coming off an embarrassing 28-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans at home and had their backs against the wall. On a short week, they traveled to take on a 4-4 Eagles team coming off a bye with an added weapon at wide receiver.
But with an impressive 27-20 victory in Philadelphia, the Cowboys saved their season and kick-started a four-game winning streak. They looked like a different team during that stretch which included a dominant 13-10 win over the New Orleans Saints, the team with the highest-scoring offense in the NFL. Since that turning point, the Cowboys have propelled themselves to a 7-5 record and sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
“We have a young football team that’s getting better and better every week,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett told Philadelphia reporters Wednesday during a conference call. "We’ve done some good things here in the last two ballgames but we’re a work in progress like everybody else.
“We’ve played some close games,” he added. “We’ve played against some good teams we’ve had to battle for 60 minutes of the game. I just think probably in general, we’ve done a good job handling the success and adversity of the game.”
A spark for the Cowboys’ offense has been the addition of wide receiver Amari Cooper. The former top-five pick was added at the deadline for what was perceived to be the steep price of a first-round pick. But so far, he’s been as good as advertised.
Cooper has totaled 30 receptions for 425 yards and three touchdowns in his first five games in Dallas. Against Washington on Thanksgiving, Cooper had eight catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns including a 90-yard scoring reception.
“Amari’s just a good football player,” Garrett said. “I just think it helps everybody when you add another weapon to your arsenal. It gives the defense that much more to have to deal with. Anytime you have a good group of players, they benefit from each other.”
During their win streak, the Cowboys have also been without star tight end Sean Lee, who could potentially return to face the Eagles this week. In his place, rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys’ first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, has stepped up. Against the Eagles in Week 10, he had 13 tackles and a 28-yard interception return.
“He’s a great kid who prepares really well,” Garrett said of the rookie. “I think the biggest thing for him is to continue to play and gain more and more experience as he goes. … I think we’ve seen that growth with him over the course of the year.”
Sunday’s game will have first-place in the NFC East on the line because of the Eagles’ recent recovery. After the Cowboys loss and a blowout defeat in New Orleans, the Eagles knocked off the Giants and Washington in back-to-back weeks. They now have momentum going into a huge game.
Garrett credited a few factors on offense for the Eagles’ turnaround. One was the play of the wide receiver the Eagles added at the trade deadline, Golden Tate, who the Cowboys will face for the third time this season on Sunday. Another was undrafted running back Josh Adams for his contributions to an already dangerous unit.
“He’s just a good player,” Garrett said. “He’s a talented guy. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s physical. He just makes a lot of plays when the ball is in his hands. It’s easy to see why they’ve given him those opportunities.
“And obviously (Darren) Sproles being back now, he’s another weapon they have in their arsenal around Carson (Wentz) and all those receivers and tight ends, so they’ve got a lot of different guys we have to contend with every time the ball is snapped.”
The Eagles’ defense has also ignited in the last two games despite a short-handed secondary. Garrett noted the challenge the Eagles’ defense consistently presents, especially with the playmakers up front.
“Obviously, they’re a really good defense. They have some excellent players on their front,” Garrett said. “They’re all really, really good in all three levels of their defense and I think they play a scheme that they believe in. You always have to be ready for pressure every time the ball is snapped.”
Sunday’s game will be a dogfight. It will feature another toe-to-toe matchup between two young star quarterbacks in Wentz and Dak Prescott. More importantly, the winner will take control of a hotly contested division at a crucial part of the season.
In short, it will be a typical NFC East game in December.
“It seems like it’s been that way for a long time in the NFC East,” Garrett said. “Everybody’s battling, everybody’s competing. And one of the things you find out really in any division is that it’s a long year and you’ve just got to keep playing and keep fighting. It’s really no different for any of the teams this year.”