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Spagnola: This football truly a game of inches


PHILADELPHIA – Get it. The Cowboys lost.

Eagles 28, Cowboys 23.

But, oh, my goodness. Have seen a lot of crazy stuff take place in these Cowboys-Eagles games. Buddy Ryan needling Tom Landry with a fake kneel-down, as if to continue running out the clock in the Eagles' victory in 1987, yet having Randall Cunningham throw a pile-on touchdown pass. Saw Game 2 of the Bounty Bowl series at The Vet when them Iggles fans threw snow-covered batteries at the downtrodden Cowboys running off the field in 1989 and some yellowish-colored snowballs at Jimmy Johnson heading into the tunnel.

Saw Kelvin Martin return a punt against the Eagles to secure a Cowboys win in 1991 and their first playoff berth in six years. Saw Load Left inspiring a back page tabloid running a picture of Jerry Jones aside Barry Switzer with the headline "Dumb And Dumber" in1995. Saw Darren Woodson's fourth quarter, game-clinching 94 interception return for a touchdown in 1994 that also clinched the NFC East title. On and on and on.

But this one might just live in infamy.

Yep, the Cowboys were beaten here at The Linc before 69,879 on a most un-Philadelphia like November Sunday. Why, the sun was out. The skies were clear. Geesh, 64 degrees at kickoff. But they were so close to winning this game, to prevent dropping to 5-3 and now 2.5 games behind the now 8-1, NFL-leading Eagles.

How close?

How about the width of Cowboys' rookie tight end Luke Schoonmaker's knee? What's that, maybe eight inches or so, instant replay reversing a touchdown call on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line and placing the now Eagles ball as close to the goal line as humanly possible.

Or this one after the Cowboys had cut what had been a 28-17 Eagles third quarter lead to 28-23 with 6:28 left in the game and the Cowboys deciding to go for two. Dak Prescott scrambled for what was ruled the two-point conversion to draw the Cowboys to within three until replay showed the length of Dak's toes hit the sideline at the 3-yard line before leaping into the end zone. Maybe the length of six inches.

Or with 59 seconds left in the game, the Cowboys appearing to recover a D'Andre Swift fumble at the Philadelphia 31, Micah Parsons desperately grabbing for the ball only to have it squib away to be recovered by Eagles guard Tyler Steen.

And for the final, most damning, you-got-to-be-kidding-me play, after the Cowboys had driven 81 yards in 19 seconds to a first-and-goal at the Eagles' 6 with still 27 seconds to play. Four plays later, on what turned out to be a fourth-and-goal from the 27-yard line with five seconds remaining, Dak hits CeeDee Lamb on a deep crossing pattern, for a moment looking as if he was going to run into the end zone yet gets pulled down at the 4. Four measly yards from a walk-off victory.

That close. That close to sending these hysterical Eagles fans crying into their beer. That close to pulling a Houdini rabbit out of their helmets.

But as we know, close only counts in horseshoes. Not so much football.

All leaving the Cowboys muttering after the game, head coach Mike McCarthy saying, "It's a game of inches and we came up an inch or two short on a couple of plays."

Or this from Zack Martin, "We were right there, one or two plays away."

Now sure, some will point out at times the Cowboys were their own worst enemies, committing 10 penalties, two of those once reaching the 6-yard line in the final seconds, a false start – barely – on Tyler Smith and then a delay of game penalty that had pushed the Cowboys back from the Eagles 22 after an 11-yard sack to the 27. And who knows if they had run that final play from the 22 instead.

But realize the Cowboys stood toe-to-toe on the road with the defending NFC champs and the NFL's No. 3 ranked offense. And get it too, the Cowboys did give up 28 points, two of the Eagles touchdowns having to travel no more than 60 yards, one because of Brandon Aubrey's first kickoff of his rookie career dribbling out of bounds at the two (15 yards) and the other thanks to a facemask penalty on, of all things, a kickoff touchback on Rashaan Evans.

But take this: The Cowboys actually outgained the Eagles, 406 to 292. Dak threw for a season-high 374 yards after the previous Sunday's 372 in the win over the Rams, a career-high 191 of those passing yards to CeeDee Lamb after he had posted a career-high 158 last week against the Rams. The Cowboys held the NFL's No. 3 ranked offense to less than 300 yards for the first time since the season opener and quarterback Jalen Hurts to just 207 yards passing, his fewest since the first two games of the season.

Why, even tight end Jake Ferguson caught seven passes for a career-high 91 yards and one touchdown, and even second-year wide receiver Jalen Tolbert scored his first NFL touchdown on a 7-yard scramble reception that cut the Eagles lead to five with 6:23 left to play.

And that Cowboys defense stepped up in the fourth quarter, forcing three consecutive three and outs.

"Our defense played their asses off and gave us chances to win," Dak said.

And if allowed to salute the most remarkable sequence in this loss, look no further than, well, how about this: After Dak's fourth-down incomplete pass from the Eagles' 29-yard line, down five with just 1:17 on the clock, I closed my laptop, shutting down the game video I'd been watching. Game over, right? And was reminded of that point in the game when opening my laptop on the plane riding home, that being the freeze frame on my screen.

But these Cowboys didn't close up shop. Nope, the Dallas defense stepped to the plate, and with the use of three timeouts, forced the Eagles to punt on a three-and-out, the ball rolling dead at the Cowboys' 14 with 46 seconds left. Surely this was it, too. Come on, 86 yards, no timeouts, only 46 seconds remaining.

"(Shoot), we're going to win," said Dak, who completed 29 of 44 passes in the game, three touchdowns and a QB rating of 115.2, the ninth time in his career to throw for at least 300 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, but the first time losing. "At no point in my mind during the game did I think anything different."

And what took place in those 46 seconds should silence for good those who insist Dak isn't good enough to put a team on his back.

First play on a deep ball to an open Michael Gallup, Eagles cornerback James Bradberry called for pass interference, 36 yards to the 50. Next play 10-yard pass to Ferguson while the Eagles' Hassan Reddick is called for roughing the passer on a late hit – 15 more yards. First-and-10 at the Eagles 25, 32 seconds left. Then a 14-yarder to Lamb and out of bounds, first-and-10 at the 11, 27 seconds left. Next offsides on defensive tackle Jalen Carter, now first-and-5 at the 6.

Thinks about it: The Cowboys covered 80 yards in 19 seconds.

"We had all the confidence in the world," Martin said. "No surprise we could get down there."

The surprise was suffering those two 5-yard penalties and Dak getting sacked for minus-11, finally creating a mountain too high. Almost, just what, those four remaining yards, probably no more than three strides away.

"We got to be better on that," Dak said, blaming the sack on himself for not throwing the ball away.

This matchup was to be the big test for the Cowboys. Unlike getting wiped out 42-10 by the 49ers, as Micah Parsons said, "We didn't flunk" the test or as Dak points out, "At the end of the day, I judge myself by wins. … We didn't pass, it sucks."

Nope, the Cowboys didn't win. But this should be a confidence builder. So close to winning, inches away, one or two plays away, and on the road, in that wild atmosphere against the team with the best record in the NFL. Regrets, but no shame.

"Feel like we have more confidence now," Parsons said, proving they could play with the NFL's top team and still nine games to play. "We'll see them in four weeks."

Mark it down, Dec. 10, this second round at AT&T.

A second chance to overcome those blasted inches.

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