Eagles defense stymies Dak Prescott, Cowboys when it matters the most

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PHILADELPHIA — Everything was set up for Dak Prescott to be the hero. He was lighting up the Philadelphia Eagles defense in the fourth quarter. And the Eagles were crumbling under the weight of uncharacteristic late-game mistakes.

The Dallas Cowboys had two huge chances to win it in the final few minutes, two chances to make it a race in the NFC East, and two chances to prove they were potentially the best team in the entire NFC.

But this is what the Eagles do to their opponents. They bend just enough to make them think they really have a chance to beat them.

Then someone steps up to pull that chance away.

This time it was the Eagles defense, which survived a remarkable second half by Prescott to hold off the Cowboys just enough to give Philadelphia a 28-23 win. Prescott threw for 374 yards and three touchdowns. He threw for 173 yards in the fourth quarter alone.

But …

“I know what the stats say,” said Eagles coach Nick Sirianni. “Dallas did play a really good game, especially in the passing game. But our guys made plays in crunch situations.”

They did, and they had to, because for a few moments there it looked like they were trying to hold the door open for the Cowboys to get right back in the chance for the division title. But just as the Cowboys got close, the Eagles (8-1) got huge sacks down the stretch from Brandon Graham and Josh Sweat that derailed Dallas drives, and a big pass defensed from cornerback James Bradberry on a fourth-down play with 1:17 remaining.

‘How about that defense?’ – Jalen Hurts following Eagles’ late-game win

'How about that defense?' – Jalen Hurts following Eagles' late-game win

And that was just the setup for perhaps the biggest play of all from cornerback Darius Slay, who tackled Cowboys receive CeeDee Lamb at the Eagles’ 3-yard line on the final play of the game.

Never mind that the Cowboys gained 78 yards on two possessions in the final 4:43, or that the Eagles defense committed four penalties on those drives, including three in the final 46 seconds of the game.

All that mattered to them is that when it mattered most, somebody, somehow, was there.

“We’ve got guys in here that make a lot of plays,” Slay said. “We’ve got All-Pros all over this room — future Hall of Famers, too. Guys in here are dogs. And we understand that we ain’t always perfect.”

They certainly were not. The Cowboys shred them for 406 yards. Lamb, clearly the focus of the Eagles’ defensive game plan, was clearly unstoppable, catching 11 passes for 191 yards. He caught six of those passes for 93 yards in the fourth quarter alone.

But each time the Cowboys seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, the Eagles defense just kept making big play after big play. Early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had fourth-and-goal at the 1 when Prescott hit rookie tight end Luke Schoonmaker with a short pass over the middle right along the goal line. It looked like a touchdown that would’ve pulled them within a touchdown with plenty of time to go. Except that somehow Eagles linebacker Nick Morrow jumped on Schoonmaker and got him down just before the ball crossed the goal line.

The Cowboys did score on their next drive to make it 28-23 with 6:23 remaining. All they needed was the two-point conversion to make it a field goal game. And it looked like Prescott was going to get it as he took off running toward the pylon on the right side of the field. But somehow, the 35-year-old Graham ran him down and forced him out of bounds before he could get the ball into the end zone.

And Graham wasn’t done. He short-circuited the next drive with his first solo sack of the season once Dallas reached the Philadelphia 31, and combined with rookie Jalen Carter for another sack on the next play, too. The Eagles sideline erupted when Graham suddenly came alive.

“When he makes a play like that, I promise you everybody feeds off that,” Sirianni said. “Everybody feels that.”

Jalen Hurts dominates in Eagles’ 28-23 win over Cowboys

Jalen Hurts dominates in Eagles' 28-23 win over Cowboys

Maybe they did, because the Cowboys turned the ball over on downs again. But after the Eagles offense had an ill-timed three-and-out, the Cowboys still got the ball back with 46 seconds remaining. They even quickly moved the ball downfield thanks to a pass interference penalty on cornerback James Bradberry and a roughing the passer call on Haason Reddick. Before they knew it, a game the Eagles thought they had won was in peril with the Cowboys at their 6-yard line with 27 seconds to go.

“We aged in dog years (on that drive),” said Eagles tackle Lane Johnson. “I entered the game 33, but I’m probably 42 right now.”

He could only laugh about it because of the sack by Sweat that pushed the Cowboys back out of the red zone, forcing Dallas into a desperation mode with less than 20 seconds to go.

“That’s what really good players do in crunch moments,” Sirianni said. “Make plays like that.”

They got one more from Slay on the final play of the game to send the Cowboys away like they send most of their opponents away — wondering how they weren’t able to pull the win off.

“We got close,” Prescott said. “We got close. We were doing things the right way. We’ve just got to … an inch here or an inch there.”

Again, this is what the Eagles do, especially on defense. They give their opponents a lot of room, a lot of reason to believe, but they rarely yield the inches the matter. It’s as if they sense the big moments, know when they need to show up, and somehow always do.

“In big, big moments our guys really stepped up when they needed to,” Sirianni said. “(The Cowboys) had a big first half with 17 points and then six points in the second half. Our defense really rose to the occasion.”

They did. And sure, the Eagles probably got a little lucky. Their defense had plenty of bad moments too. But as the Eagles know, those big moments are the moments that always matter the most.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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