When the Cowboys needed them most, the defense saw key players step up in critical moments to steal the ball away from the Eagles — leading to a gutsy, resilient win over the Eagles.
ARLINGTON, TX — It was clear the Philadelphia Eagles entered the matchup against the Dallas Cowboys on Christmas Eve having been on the "Nice" side of Santa's list, or at least that's what it felt like when they jumped out to a 10-0 lead at AT&T Stadium.
But, as it turned out, Mr. Claus had other plans, and they largely involved Jayron Kearse, DaRon Bland and Anthony Barr delivering packages full of holiday heartbreak to their bitter NFC East rivals.
The three combined for four takeaways on the afternoon, powering through a tough defensive day that saw Gardner Minshew end with 355 passing yards and two touchdowns to grab two interceptions and two fumble recoveries from the Eagles offense.
"He was making it difficult out there for us, so we had to stay sticky with our coverage," said Bland, the rookie fifth-round pick having extended his team lead in INTs on Saturday to a total of five, and in only six starts this season.
"Anytime the ball is in the air, I think it's mine," he said.
It's impossible to argue that mindset at this point, with Bland having stepped in following the loss of impact cornerback Jourdan Lewis to a season-ending Lisfranc injury and instantly becoming an impact player himself beside First-Team All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs.
And then there's Kearse, who was responsible for not one, but two of the takeaways against the Eagles — an interception on Minshew in the second quarter and a fumble recovery in the third quarter of the back-alley brawl.
"We knew we were gonna have opportunities on balls going against Minshew," said Kearse after the harrowing victory that took the Cowboys to 11-4 on the season with a shot at stealing away the division throne and top seat in the NFC still alive.
" We just had to take advantage of our opportunities when they came. In those two particular situations where we had a chance to get to the ball at the same time as the receiver, we just out-physicaled them. We had a hunger to get that ball. They thought it was theirs.
"But we live like, 'If that ball is in the air, it's ours.'"
Sensing a theme yet?
And, yes, Kearse readily admits the Cowboys were waiting to avenge the early-season loss to the Eagles that occurred with Cooper Rush at quarterback, in a game they could've won despite the offense being disjointed but, instead saw the rushing attack of the Eagles power past them to victory.
"It was good, especially for this matchup," he said. "We had this matchup circled after the first game."
The Cowboys offense turned Kearse's two takeaways into 14 points, using his nicely wrapped gifts to claw their way back into the game and knot the fight at 27-27 heading into the fourth quarter.
And after Minshew marched the Eagles down the field at the top of the fourth session to retake a 34-27 lead, answered by Dak Prescott and T.Y. Hilton powering a touchdown drive of their own to tie the game yet again, this time at 34-34 — the defense was tasked with making more big plays.
So, they did, with four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr deleting an earlier dropped interception by recovering a fumble by running back Miles Sanders, but not before Bland grabbed his aforementioned interception, all in the span of two football minutes with less than four and a half minutes left to play in regulation.
Two field goals were tacked on as a result of those takeaways, the Cowboys offense and special teams, in all, combining to score 20 of their 40 points off of defensive takeaways.
"Each time we got on the field in the fourth quarter, we were looking for one more play — just one more play," said Bland. "One stop. Get the ball back. Get [our] offense the ball. That was our mindset."
That kind of effort deserves some milk and cookies.