This one hurts.
And it may hurt for a long time.
The Eagles let a 10-point lead slip away during the fourth quarter Sunday night as they lost to the host Cowboys in overtime, 29-23.
Instead of being tied for the NFC East Division lead, the Eagles (4-3) trail the Cowboys (6-1) by two games. They are tied with the Giants (4-3) and, sort of, the Redskins (4-3-1). The Eagles must win next Sunday against the Giants to avoid dropping to 0-3 in the division.
The Eagles shouldn’t have to worry about the Giants and Redskins. They were in complete control of Sunday night’s game after Caleb Sturgis kicked a 34-yard field goal, set up by Josh Huff’s 53-yard kickoff return, to increase the Eagles’ lead to 23-13 with 14:09 remaining in regulation.
They forced the Cowboys into a 3-and-out on the ensuing possession, and, after the punt, had excellent field position at their own 41-yard line.
And then what had been a wonderful night for the Eagles started falling apart.
Rookie Wendell Smallwood, on his first carry of the game, fumbled. The Cowboys recovered at the Eagles 38. Head coach Doug Pederson’s decision to give Smallwood his first carry of the game at this crucial juncture is certainly open to question.
The Eagles defense rose to the occasion, as it had for most of the game. The defense forced another 3-and-out, so the Cowboys had to settle for Dan Bailey’s 49-yard field goal with 11:34 remaining.
Powered by veteran running back Darren Sproles (15 carries for 86 yards), who saw extensive action while Ryan Mathews carried just four times, the Eagles appeared on their way to increasing their advantage on their next possession. Sproles broke loose for a 13-yard run to kick-start the drive one play after Carson Wentz (32 of 43, 202 yards) caught a break when cornerback Orlando Scandrick dropped an interception. After a brief break, Sproles returned to the game with a pair of runs that pushed the ball into Cowboys territory.
The Eagles advanced to the Dallas 30, well within Sturgis’ field-goal range. But they went to the Sproles well one too many times. Linebacker Sean Lee dropped Sproles for a 6-yard loss, pushing the Eagles back to the 36.
Instead of sending Sturgis out to kick a field goal, Pederson elected to punt. The field goal attempt would have been 54 yards, one less yard than the career-long 55-yarder Sturgis made as time expired in the first half to give the Eagles a 13-10 lead. The punt netted just 26 yards, giving the Cowboys the ball at their own 10 with 6:22 remaining.
The fourth quarter was about to go from bad to worse.
Prescott finds his rhythm
Rookie Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who had been kept under wraps until this point, found his rhythm on this drive. He completed four passes to three different receivers – shaking off a holding call that wiped out a 60-yard run by rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and pushed the Cowboys back 10 yards – to reach Eagles territory.
And then Prescott (19 of 39, 287 yards) experienced a moment strikingly similar to what happened to Wentz a few minutes earlier. Pressured by safety Malcolm Jenkins, Prescott made an ill-advised throw to avoid a sack. Eagles cornerback Leodis McKelvin attempted to make a diving interception, but the ball slipped through his arms and hit the ground before he gained possession.
One play later after the ball slipped through McKelvin’s arms, the game slipped further from the Eagles’ grasp. Prescott found Dez Bryant (4 receptions, 113 yards) in the left side of the end zone for a 22-yard, game-tying touchdown.
After the Eagles and Cowboys traded 3-and-outs, any hopes of the Eagles mounting a game-winning drive in the final minute were extinguished by an offensive pass interference penalty on Dorial Green-Beckham and a blitz by Lee that dropped Wentz for a 6-yard loss.
The Eagles punted.
They never touched the ball again.
The Cowboys won the coin toss before overtime (the Eagles made the wrong choice) and chose to start on offense. Twelve plays and 75 yards later, the Cowboys won the game on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Prescott to a wide-open Jason Witten. It was the veteran tight end’s second catch of the game and his first touchdown this season.
Overtime ends if the first team on offense scores a touchdown. That rule may have been why Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett elected to go for a first down on 4th-and-inches at the 28 instead of kicking a field goal. On the fourth-down play, Prescott was stopped initially, but the pile was pushed forward enough for a first down.
Elliott (22 carries for 96 yards), who had been kept relatively under wraps for most of the game, gained 12 yards up the middle to reach the 14. He was stopped for no gain on the next play, but caught a flair pass to the left for 10 yards.
The Cowboys had been stymied inside the 10 twice by the Eagles, settling for a field goal on one possession and being turned away completely when linebacker Jordan Hicks intercepted a pass in the end zone on the Cowboys’ final possession of the first half.
This time, though, the Cowboys would not be denied. Safeties Rodney McLeod and Jenkins got tangled up, leaving Witten wide open. Prescott had to scramble to escape the rush, but he had no problem finding Witten once he ran to his left to bide time.
The Eagles wasted a fine performance by Wentz and an excellent effort by Sproles. A fine effort by the defense, which kept Prescott off-balance and contained Elliott for most of the game, was also wasted.
Most importantly, the Eagles wasted an opportunity to move into a first-place tie in the NFC East.
They may not have a similar opportunity again this season.
And that’s why the hurt from Sunday’s overtime loss to the Cowboys may be felt for a long time.