Dez Bryant carries Cowboys past Eagles and closer to the playoffs
Seven times this season, the Cowboys have ventured out onto the road. All seven times, they've won.
Their latest victory away from home was by far their most important: a 38-27 win over the Eagles, a result that hands Dallas first place in the NFC East with two weeks left. To finish the job and win the division, Jerry Jones' team likely will need to figure out how to be as successful back in Big D. Dallas is 3-4 at home and hosts Indianapolis next week.
A win there and another in Week 17 at Washington and the East belongs to the 'Boys.
Just five teams in NFL history have posted perfect 8-0 road marks in the regular season: the 2007 Patriots, '01 Rams and three 49ers squads (1984, '89 and '90). Four of those teams made it to the Super Bowl.
Is a historic finish like that in the cards for the 2014 Cowboys? Time will tell, but they moved closer to the possibility with Sunday's performance.
Three thoughts on Dallas' win:
1. Dez Bryant does it again
All professional athletes, even the most soft-spoken of them, must carry some measure of bravado to succeed at the highest level. So there are few worse feelings for a player than when he simply gets outmatched by an opponent.
That's the reality Philadelphia cornerback Bradley Fletcher had to deal with on Sunday night, as he watched Dez Bryant run circles around him for three touchdown catches. By the time Bryant hauled down that third score, Fletcher wore a glazed, almost emotionless look on his face. There was nothing he could do to slow down Dez.
Fletcher is not the first (nor will he be the last) defender to experience such devastation at Bryant's hands. This was a massive stage Sunday night, though, with the NFC East lead at stake. And Bryant took over early, perhaps sparked by some pregame jawing with Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins.
The Cowboys already led 7-0 when Romo and Bryant connected for their first score, a simple four-yard fade route that saw Bryant leap over a twirling Fletcher. Six minutes later, Bryant ran past Fletcher for a 26-yard touchdown and a 21-0 lead. Finally, after Philadelphia stormed back into the game, Bryant dealt a crushing blow with a 25-yarder, on which he ripped right past Fletcher's meek bump-and-run coverage attempt.
"I don't think it's a secret -- sometimes we just tell him to run as far as he can," said quarterback Tony Romo of Bryant, "and I'll try to hit him in stride."
With free agency potentially looming this offseason, Bryant continues to show the world he is as good as it gets at the wide receiver spot. If Fletcher was not aware of that before Sunday, he certainly knows now.
2. But it wasn't all Dez
Perhaps the main reason Dallas has enjoyed so much success on the road this season is that its ground game keeps producing each week. No matter the weather or field conditions, DeMarco Murray has managed to churn out yardage and help his team with the time-of-possession battle.
Murray turned in another workmanlike showing vs. Philadelphia. With his 31 carries and three receptions, Murray now has a whopping 404 touches in 14 games, by far the most in the NFL this season. He may not reach James Wilder's all-time mark of 492 touches, set in 1984 with Tampa Bay, but a 27-touch average over the final two weeks would move Murray into second place on that list.
As Bryant does through the air, Murray stands atop the league leaders in rushing touchdowns. With two Sunday, Murray has 11 for the year.
Jason Witten has crossed the goal line far less frequently (four times in 2014), but his value to the Cowboys may not be far behind Bryant and Murray. The veteran tight end made just one grab in a Thanksgiving day loss to Philadelphia, and it's probably no coincidence the Dallas offense struggled as a result.
Romo targeted him nine times in Sunday night's rematch, resulting in seven catches for 69 yards. Four of those Witten receptions produced first downs, including three straight on third downs during an early touchdown drive.
Bryant may have starred, but Dallas deserved its win across the board.
3. Too many Eagles mistakes
Dallas led 21-0, Philadelphia answered with 24 straight points and by then it was apparent that an untimely mistake from either side may decide things. The Eagles proceeded to make several.
They turned it over three times in the final 15:04, more than offsetting the Romo fumble that helped the Eagles take their first (and only) lead of the game. The night also started on an ominous note for the hosts: Dan Bailey's kickoff hung up in the wind and landed between Philadelphia returner Josh Huff and up-man Brad Smith. Dallas pounced on the fumble.
Add in a few defensive breakdowns and it all proved too much for the Eagles to overcome.
Now, they face an uphill climb back into the postseason. Because of losses to Arizona, Green Bay and Seattle, the Eagles have to finish 2-0 and hope that either a) the Packers or Lions finish 0-2, or b) the Cowboys stumble in Week 16 or 17. Anything else would leave the once 7-2 Eagles home for the postseason.
The natural reaction will be to circle back on Nick Foles' injury, thereby blaming an inconsistent Mark Sanchez for the slide. Let's be honest, Sanchez does himself no favors in those discussions when he plays as he did at times Sunday. Philadelphia's next-to-last possession ended with Sanchez taking a pair of rather clumsy sacks; the final "drive" lasted all of two plays before Sanchez was picked off by Bruce Carter.
There are issues in Philadelphia beyond the QB spot, though, namely in the secondary. The time to get it all fixed is running quite thin.