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    How did the Eagles hold on to beat Dallas? From wiping off sweat to aging in dog years, inside the defense's critical stands

    Zach Berman Avatar
    November 6, 2023

    Josh Sweat needed to celebrate. Yes, the clock was running. No, the game was technically not finished. But he’s never had a sack like this — a seemingly game-clinching takedown of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the red zone to preserve a narrow lead in the final seconds against a division rival.

    So when Sweat rushed from the defensive left side — usually Haason Reddick’s spot — with 27 seconds remaining, fought off a block and dipped around the edge to pull down Prescott at the 22-yard line, he reacted accordingly. Sweat leaped to his feet, shimmied while he ran and mimicked wiping the sweat off his forehead like he does whenever he records a sack.

    “I knew it wasn’t game! I just had to get the celebration,” Sweat said. “I knew we had to still play. …I was hoping it was over, though!”

    “Good thing his celebration is quick,” coach Nick Sirianni said. “Man, I’m like, ‘get back out there.’”

    The Eagles could finally exhale two plays later when Darius Slay stymied CeeDee Lamb four yards shy of the end zone and the clock expired for their eighth win of the season. 

    “That shit’s crazy!” Slay said of the final drive.

    One minute earlier, it seemed as if it did not need to be that close. Thirty seconds earlier, it appeared the Cowboys might escape with an upset. So when the defense preserved the 28-23 win, it was as much relief as it was exhilaration.

    “We aged in dog years,” Lane Johnson said. “I entered the game 33, but I’m probably 42 right now.”

    Nov 5, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham (55) and Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Josh Sweat (94) sack Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) during the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    Sirianni alluded to the Bill Parcells truism that you are what your record says are, and the Eagles have the best record in the NFL. By beating the Cowboys, they took a commanding lead in the NFC East. They enter their bye week with the chance to get franchise quarterback Jalen Hurts healthier and to allow the coaches time for self-scouting with a grueling stretch of top opponents ahead of them. 

    But they made sure to age Johnson (and the Philadelphia region) before the break.

    After building a 28-17 lead in the third quarter, the Eagles offense went dry in the fourth quarter. They had three three-and-outs, unable to bleed the clock away. Had the Eagles lost, this story might have been about a quarter when the offense possessed the ball for fewer than four minutes and the chain crew didn’t move. 

    “I feel like for us our offense in the end of the game, we were a repeat offender where we had an opportunity in the last game last week to put the game away and we did not, and we put our defense back on the field,” Hurts said. “That’s not what you want to do, and we did that kind of today, too, as well. So, those are opportunities for us to grow and we need to learn from that.”

    Sean Desai’s unit needed to hold the lead. On four drives, the Cowboys reached the red zone three times. They scored one touchdown. The defense did not merely bend; they were contorted to the limit. Yet they would not break. The Cowboys had a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, and a short pass was initially ruled a touchdown before officials overturned the play. Reed Blankenship had kept tight end Luke Schoonmaker from crossing the line. (Blankenship said he was about 85 percent sure that Schoonmaker didn’t score before the video confirmed it.) 

    The Cowboys scored on their next drive, but officials overturned a ruling that Prescott reached the end zone on a two-point conversion. He had stepped out of bounds, and that kept the Eagles’ lead to five points instead of three — points that would have been critical. 

    “We probably wouldn’t be smiling this much,” Graham said if the Cowboys could have relied on field goals.

    Graham followed with 1.5 sacks when the Cowboys next had possessions and the two pivotal pass rushes that pushed the Cowboys to third-and-long. James Bradberry made a critical pass breakup on fourth down. 

    That should have been game. Ardent fans should have felt comfortable rushing to the gates to try to make the subway or beat traffic. Once again, though, the offense went three-and-out. (And they avoided terror when D’Andre Swift fumbled on third down and Tyler Steen recovered.) That meant the Cowboys had one more chance, starting their last effort at their own 14-yard line with 46 seconds remaining and no timeouts.

    The Eagles’ win probability was still around Blankenship’s confidence level that the Cowboys didn’t score at the goal line. This seemed more like a stat-padding chance than the game truly hanging in the balance. Then came a pass interference in which Bradberry exited the game with injury, and the Cowboys were at midfield. The next play, the Cowboys gained 10 yards with 14 yards tacked on because of a personal foul. To make it worse, Slay left with an injury. 

    All of a sudden, the Eagles were down their top two cornerbacks and the Cowboys were at the 25-yard line. Eli Ricks, the Eagles’ undrafted rookie, has practiced almost entirely in the slot since Avonte Maddox’s injury. He was pushed to play the outside in a makeshift secondary. Veteran Kevin Byard tried communicating with younger defensive backs. Blankenship said they had no choice but to play the next snap and not worry about the combination on the field. Lamb caught a pass and Jalen Carter was flagged for encroachment to bring Dallas to the 6-yard line with 27 seconds, and the concern reached a crescendo. 

    That’s why Sweat’s sack saved the day. It pushed the Cowboys out of the red zone and forced them in a hurry-up situation with no timeouts. Slay and Bradberry had returned at that point, and the Cowboys’ last gasp fell short.

    Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    The numbers were ugly for Sean Desai’s defense, which had its second-worst EPA of the season while the Cowboys totaled 406 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per play. But they made the stops when it mattered, allowing the music to play in the locker room and for handshakes and hugs instead of hung heads.

    The celebration comes with the context that the Eagles must be better. But they also have the best record in the NFL, and nobody would complain about 8-1. It will take better football to navigate the five-game stretch, although Sunday was an example of the type of games good teams win. They found a way. It’s more rare to look like the juggernaut they were most weeks last season. Winning in the NFL — especially against top teams — is often outlasting the opponent as much as it is outplaying them.

    In the locker room, the players knew what awaited them in two weeks when they visit the Kansas City Chiefs in a Super Bowl rematch (and maybe a Super Bowl preview). They’re also eager for some time away. Slay wanted to know who was playing the Sunday night game so he could relax and watch football and begin the week away.

    “I’m going to enjoy the hell of this bye,” Slay said. “Week 9 couldn’t get here fast enough.”

    And given that it appeared at one point in the first half as if Marcus Mariota was set to replace Hurts, the Eagles will welcome extra time for Hurts’ injured knee to heal.

    “Selfishly I don’t think the bye week could have come at a better time,” Hurts said.

    The bye week is always sweeter after a win. The Eagles made you sweat while earning it. It’s only appropriate that the celebration included wiping the sweat away.

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