FRISCO, Texas – I present to you two contrasting end-zone images from the last two Eagles games at AT&T Stadium:
There's the team-wide swarm around venerable 14-year veteran Jason Witten this past Sunday following his winning 5-yard touchdown in overtime – visual confirmation of the team chemistry built since the offseason and buoyed by six straight victories.
And there's last year's snapshot of cornerback Brandon Carr in the opposite corner of the same end zone, helmet off, head down, as the Eagles players celebrated Jordan Matthews' 41-yard touchdown in overtime – one of many crunch-time losses in a miserable 4-12 season.
There's a misconception about that 2015 Cowboys defense – a belief that the group didn't play well. Let's take a look: they ranked 15th in total defense, allowing 347.9 yards per game, and 17th in scoring defense, allowing 23.4 points per game. Middle of the pack, statistically speaking. But in nine of 16 games, the defense allowed fewer than 20 points – including a 27-20 loss to the Giants and a 33-14 loss to the Panthers, where the Cowboys threw three interceptions for touchdowns and yielded a kickoff return for a touchdown.
No bad. But the 2016 defense has raised their game in one key area: finishing games.
This year's group is actually allowing slightly more yards per game than last year (348.7) but they're seventh in scoring defense (18.7). That's roughly one less touchdown per game – like the Matthews TD in overtime last year.
How many games did the 2015 defense keep the game competitive despite inconsistent backup quarterback play, bending but finally breaking in the final moments? Losses to the Saints, Seahawks, Eagles, Buccaneers, Packers, Jets and Bills, to name a few.
"I thought last year it was more about fourth quarter and turnovers," linebacker Sean Lee said. "If you look at the tape, I think there were things we did well. We didn't make big plays down the stretch last year. We lost nine games really within the fourth quarter where teams drove on us when we had a lead."
This year, and most recently last Sunday, has been a different story. The Cowboys allowed three points on five Eagles possessions in the fourth quarter. They had four straight stops: a forced fumble for their 10th takeaway of the season (nearly matching last year's league-low 11) and three punts.
With that assistance, the Cowboys' offense outscored the Eagles 16-0 in the fourth quarter and overtime to win, 29-23.
The Cowboys have found a way to play better defense despite starting cornerback Orlando Scandrick's previous four-game injury absence, a previous four-game suspension for starting defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and ongoing suspensions for defensive end Randy Gregory and last year's starting middle linebacker Rolando McClain.
They're also cutting down on big plays. Last year they allowed 66 pass plays over 20 yards (by comparison, the offense had 40). This year they've allowed 20 – on a season pace for 46 – and none against the Eagles. Carson Wentz's longest completion was 14 yards.
The reason for improvement is "a combination of things," head coach Jason Garrett says: "It's the discipline to the coverages, making sure we're all playing together, making sure we're playing with the right leverage. When they do catch the ball, it's tackling as a team, individual guys making tackles, everybody pursuing the football, making sure the guy doesn't get out. And then obviously your gap discipline, setting the edges, winning in the gaps and then tackling in the running game."
The stats show only 14 sacks, tied for fifth-fewest in the league. They stats also show they're the only team in the league that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher or receiver through seven games. They're also one of three teams not to allow more than 23 points in a game.
They've been the ideal complement to the Cowboys' ultra-efficient offense driven by Ezekiel Elliott's league-best rushing yards and Dak Prescott's composed leadership.
Injuries to starting cornerback Mo Claiborne and safety Barry Church are a new challenge. But as Garrett says, "It's the next man up."
They've been in this situation before. More importantly, they're making plays when it really counts.