PHILADELPHIA -- Reality, which the Philadelphia Eagles seemed to defy over the past couple months, finally bit them hard Sunday.
The Eagles were in first place in the NFC East despite leading the NFL in turnovers. On Sunday, four turnovers contributed heavily to their 38-27 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
The Eagles were 9-4 despite a secondary that looked positively flammable at times. Against the Cowboys, Dez Bryant set fire to the Eagles’ defense. Bryant caught three touchdown passes from Tony Romo, all against cornerback Bradley Fletcher.
The Eagles controlled their playoff destiny despite losing starting quarterback Nick Foles to a broken collarbone in Week 9. Mark Sanchez stepped in and won a couple of important games, including a 33-10 decision in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. But Sanchez’s habit of throwing interceptions finally caught up to the Eagles. He threw two picks to help the Cowboys protect their lead.
With losses to Seattle and now Dallas, Chip Kelly’s Eagles surrendered their lead in the NFC East and found themselves in need of help to have a chance at the playoffs.
“I just told them, there are obviously two big games ahead of us,” Kelly said. “The only thing we need to worry about is just the next game ahead of us. You’re going to have to get to 11-5 and see if you get in, but you’re not going to get to 11-5 unless you go 10-5 first. The one thing we can control is the preparation for Washington, and that’s what we’ve got to get ready for.”
The Eagles play at Washington on Saturday afternoon. They should find out early in the short week of preparation whether Foles is cleared to return to action. If he is, Kelly will have to decide whether to stick with Sanchez or to put Foles back into the starting lineup.
“I have no idea [if he’ll start Saturday], but I need to clean up some mistakes and attack this thing like I do every week,” Sanchez said. “That’s with a positive attitude, learning from the previous week, learning from this game and being ready to play.”
An ill wind was blowing from the start in this one. It came from the north, but the Eagles didn’t seem prepared for it. When the opening kickoff came down near the Eagles’ 20-yard line, neither return man Josh Huff nor up back Brad Smith were close to the ball. Dallas safety C.J. Spillman fell on the live ball at the Eagles’ 18-yard line.
Five plays later, Dallas had a 7-0 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by DeMarco Murray.
Whatever happened when these teams met in Dallas 17 days earlier would not apply in this game. Murray, stifled in Dallas, ran for two touchdowns. Bryant, a non-factor in Dallas, caught six passes for 114 yards and the three touchdowns. The Eagles’ up-tempo offense, which flitted up and down the field in Texas, got bogged down early.
The Eagles produced exactly zero yards on offense in the first quarter. Their three-and-outs put their defense back on the field quickly and gave the Cowboys all the momentum. Romo, whose sore back affected his play on Thanksgiving, moved smoothly and found open receivers all over the field.
“They out-executed us,” Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “Tony Romo takes what you give him. We’re changing who we’re doubling and who we’re giving help to on every snap. So he goes to the guy that’s open. He really does spread the ball well. He recognizes coverages early and gets the ball into single coverage.”
Romo built a 21-0 lead before the Eagles found a way to get their offense running at all. After that, though, the Eagles scored 24 unanswered points. They took a 24-21 lead with 5:42 left in the third quarter.
“We got it rolling there for a while,” Sanchez said. “We put up 24 points straight. We got hot and guys were making plays, great catches, tons of time to throw and we got the running game going. Like I said, we turned the ball over and we hurt ourselves more than anything.”
Dallas answered the Eagles’ 24-point comeback with an eight-play, 78-yard touchdown drive. It ended with Murray’s second touchdown run of the game. It also set up a thrilling fourth quarter, as these two NFC East rivals traded punches.
Except the Eagles were out of punches. On their next possession, Sanchez threw off-target for tight end Zach Ertz. The ball was intercepted by Dallas safety J.J. Wilcox. Romo threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Bryant to make it 35-24. Another Sanchez interception and a fumble by tight end Brent Celek undermined the Eagles’ efforts.
These problems have been there all season -- turnovers, a shaky secondary, an inconsistent offense. The Eagles had been able to paper over those problems with their winning record.
On Sunday, against their most bitter rivals, it all came apart.
“You can’t put yourself behind 21-0 against a good football team and then expect that you can come back and win the game,” Kelly said. “We put ourselves in too big of a hole to start with and then got back up. Give us credit for getting back into it.”
They can take credit for that, if they like, but it’s not likely to help them get into the playoffs.
“I think we really just let some opportunities slip,” Sanchez said. “It’s unfortunate that we gave away some great opportunities. That’s the bottom line. We just got too far behind."