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Spagnola: Just When You Least Expect It


PHILADELPHIA –The Cowboys had not won any of their previous four road games going into Sunday night.

Not scored more than 17 points in any road game this year.

Not gained more than 324 total yards in any of those games either.

In this one, they were not playing with the likes of Sean Lee, David Irving or Connor Williams, and then for a like 13 plays no Zack Martin or Maliek Collins around a quarter, too.

On top of all that, the 3-5 Cowboys were playing those "defending world champion" Philadelphia Eagles, what with their bogus No. 2 ranking against the run, and worse, here at The Linc, where the only folks more brutal than the Eagles' defense are their fans.

And, after losing two consecutive games and falling two games below .500 for the first time since 2015, everyone and their cousin were burying the Cowboys and their coaching staff, along with the owner, president and GM, even if there still were eight more games to play. Why, the outside noise coming from all corners had become deafening.

No matter.

Cowboys 27, Eagles 20.

Go figure, the Cowboys are alive, but not totally well just yet.

So what the what?

"Mental toughness," the head coach, Jason Garrett said. "Played 60 minutes, did a better job of that and dealing with adversity."

"Our backs were against the wall," the quarterback, Dak Prescott said, following up with "we were throwing punches," and nearly some before the National Anthem during warmups.

"This was a big game for us," said the elder statesman on the offensive line, Tyron Smith.

All that, defying these analytical trends, but now for some good ol' solid logic.

Darn it, for a change from those three losses in the past four games the Cowboys reclaimed their bread and butter, the running game. Why, they had averaged but 81 yards rushing in those three losses. This one, try 171overall, and Ezekiel busting out for an efficient if not at times spectacular 151 yards rushing on just 19 carries, one short of his season high – proving the Eagles' No. 2-ranking against the run had more to do with facing the fewest attempts in the league by far, since now three of the past four teams they've face have rushed for at least 121 yards, with the Cowboys grinding out the most.

They also figured out how to get some chunk plays throwing the ball, even if Dak was sacked another four times, making it 18 in the past five games. And those chunks were never more well-timed than immediately after the Eagles tied the game at 20 with 7:27 left when the Cowboys drove 75 yards in eight plays for what turned out to be the winning touchdown on Zeke's one yard run:

·     Dak to Dalton Schultz for 17 yards.

·     Dak to Amari Cooper for 24 yards.

·     Dak to Allen Hurns for 23.

Prescott completed three of four passes on an injury-depleted Eagles secondary during that drive for 64 yards, then Zeke did the rest once reaching the nine-yard line, running for seven, for one and with the jumbo package in on third-and-goal for the final yard, with Zack Martin kicking out Brandon Graham and fullback Jamize Olawale finishing off linebacker LaRoy Reynolds.

Oh, yeah, Zack. He aggravated his left knee again, leaving the game with 8:34 left in the first quarter, meaning the Cowboys were being forced to play with Xavier Su'a-Filo making his Cowboys starting debut in place of Williams at left guard, Joe Looney still playing center in place of Travis Frederick and then Adam Redmond, having played just six offensive snaps this season, and those in mop-up duty against Jacksonville, coming in at right guard for Martin those 13 plays.

"He's a warrior," Dak said of Zack. "Told him that right there in the huddle (when he returned). 'You're a warrior.'"

Yep, he returned with 11:50 left in the second quarter, basically going into the locker, having his knee brace tightened and re-tapped.

So, Tyron, getting a little lonely out there?

"Basically, everybody was on the same page," the big guy said.

Oh, anyone have any problems with the play-calling in this one? Did a pretty good job neutralizing the Eagles' aggressive front with those screen passes and dump offs to Zeke, six catches for 36 yards, including the seven-yarder for the touchdown giving the Cowboys a brief 20-13 lead.

And the defense, even though the Eagles totaled 421 yards, 360 of those Carson Wentz passing, those guys who were blistered this past Monday night by Tennessee for 28 points, came up with some of the timeliest plays you ever could have imagined. Let's see, there was Leighton Vander Esch's interception on the Eagles' first play of the possession starting at the Cowboys 44. That led to the first Brett Maher field goal.

Then the stop on third-and-one at their own 20 thanks to a jarring hit by Xavier Woods on Philly tight end Zach Ertz followed by Jourdan Lewis, Jaylon Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence stuffing Josh Adams on the ensuing fourth-and-1 play, impetus for the Cowboys' ensuing drive the other way 64 yards for Maher's second field goal of the game (31 yards) and a 6-0 Cowboys lead.

Then Jeff Heath's hit on Ertz, forcing an incompletion on third-and-10 at the Cowboys 38, forcing Philly to settle for Jake Elliott's season-long 56-yard field goal. Then Woods' hit at the goal line on third-and-seven at the eight, knocking the ball out of Alshon Jeffrey's grasp forcing another Elliott field goal.

And lastly but certainly not the least, Vander Esch, credited with a team-high 13 tackles, all solo at that, on third-and-2 at the Cowboys 30, snuffing out a Wentz screen, tackling running back Corey Clement for a five-yard loss. And the play grew much larger because when the Eagles gambled on fourth-and-7, Heath held Ertz to just a six-yard reception with 1:09 left and the Cowboys maintaining the 27-20 lead.

"I just had a feeling they were coming with either a run or a screen, and I was banking on the screen," the rookie linebacker said, once again starting for the injured Lee.

Just huge.

So said Garrett of LVE's play, repeating himself, "It was huge, it was huge, and there were people out there trying to block him."

And when Garrett said his team played for "60 minutes," he meant it, like down to the last second, having to stop Ertz at the Cowboys' 9 and then Golden Tate for no gain on the lateral as the final seconds slipped away.


But just one game. A reprieve or a springboard?

The Cowboys now 4-5 are tied with the Eagles for second in the NFC East, having won for the seventh time in the last nine here at The Linc, and as importantly are 2-1 in the division, still trailing the Redskins (6-3), though, by two games.

But at least they remain in shouting distance, and knowing they get to play the Redskins again, Thanksgiving Day, also knowing that the Eagles and Redskins still have to play each other twice, and get this, of the Eagles' remaining seven games, they have five of those against teams currently in first place, including at New Orleans this Sunday, followed by those two games with Washington, L.A. Rams and Houston, not to mention the second game with the Cowboys on the road.

As for Washington, it's Houston at home on Sunday, followed by Thanksgiving at AT&T, along with Giants, Jacksonville and suddenly resurgent Tennessee.

A long way still to go.

But as COO Stephen Jones said Monday morning, "Big win for a young football team," emphasis on the "young" part that continually is overlooked.

The Cowboys, they can't worry themselves over any of them others. Just take care of yourself. Starting with returning to last year's scene of the crime on Sunday, Atlanta, where that second-half, three-game slide began. That will be this week's hot button, the Falcons an identical 4-5, their three-game winning streak ending in of all places Cleveland on Sunday.

Maybe at least creating a narrative detour for at least six days, giving the head coach, the quarterback, the offensive coordinator, owner, the COO, and anyone else within the sites of such scatter-shooting blame for the erstwhile two-game losing streak a break.

Then again, maybe not since the Cowboys haven't won consecutive games all year long, having to go back to Games 12-14 last year when they last strung together victories. That's 11 games ago.

"The most important part of playing NFL football is mental toughness," Garrett said.

"Got to keep playing."

Be that in the game or in the season.