Eagles rout Cowboys to pull away in NFC East; NFC next?

ARLINGTON, Texas -- There comes a point in every season when a championship contender begins to truly separate itself from everyone else. The Philadelphia Eagles just entered that critical phase, with Sunday night's 37-9 win in Dallas providing powerful evidence of what might happen over the next couple months. This wasn't merely a huge rout of an NFC East rival on primetime television. It was one more indication of how far these Eagles have come and how scary they could be when this season winds to a close.

The easy assessment of this blowout is that Philadelphia beat up on a beat-up opponent, a Cowboys team that had lost two stars to injuries (left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Sean Lee) and another to a well-publicized suspension (running back Ezekiel Elliott) The reality is that such an analysis would diminish what the Eagles did on Sunday. This is a rapidly maturing squad that would've beaten the Cowboys on their best day. It only looked worse because there was no effective way for Dallas to stop the bleeding.

The Eagles basically reminded us that there's a reason why they are now 9-1 and riding an eight-game winning streak. They have multiple ways of beating any opponent, with the Cowboys witnessing most of those methods on Sunday night.

"Right now everybody is just doing their job," said center Jason Kelce. "It's not like there is some miraculous recipe for success. The offensive line, the receivers, the quarterback, all phases of the game collectively are doing their jobs."

The beauty of Kelce's statement is that it really is that simple for the Eagles. They aren't winning with an overly flashy style or the benefit of big names. They're doing it with a pragmatic plan, a deep sense of faith and a growing belief that their fate this season could be more glorious than they ever imagined. A team many predicted to be the worst in their own division has quickly realized that it deserves to be viewed as the best team in the league.

There's no question that Philadelphia has built themselves up by cleaving through a first-half schedule that featured just two games against opponents with winning records (one of which came against Kansas City, which handed the Eagles their lone loss). What's also clear is that a soft list of opponents doesn't mean Philadelphia is overrated. The most important aspect of Sunday's win is that it kicks off the most grueling stretch of the Eagles' schedule, a four-week span that also includes road games against the Seahawks (Dec. 3) and Rams (Dec. 10). If Philadelphia vanquishes those other two contenders, they're going to be the NFC's top seed when the postseason begins.

It was laughable two months ago to even think that about this team. Today it seems like plenty of people underestimated the potential in this bunch, particularly when head coach Doug Pederson opened this season talking about how special it could be. When asked if his own players all believed in his optimism, Pederson said, "I do think they believe. I think it's a strength the team has right now. It's a tribute to the leadership of the team, the veteran players on this team. They're not letting things get too out of proportion. You talk about the leadership, the resiliency and the next man up. The coaches do a great job of preparing and the players just have that confident mindset, that when they take the field, they're not going to be denied."

This game really came down to the second half. The Eagles trailed, 9-7, when the second quarter ended and they scored 30 unanswered points after that. Quarterback Carson Wentz said that didn't happen because of some magical speech Pederson gave at halftime or because of some critical adjustments. To hear the second-year standout tell it, the Eagles merely decided they were a better team than what they had shown earlier in the game.

So Philadelphia went on an eight-play, 75-yard drive to start the third quarter, a possession that ended with the Eagles taking the lead on an 11-yard run by running back Corey Clement. After forcing a Dallas punt, Philadelphia needed just five plays to go 90 yards for another touchdown. That series featured a 71-yard run by running back Jay Ajayi and an 11-yard scoring pass from Wentz to wide receiver Torrey Smith.

It was becoming obvious by that point that Philadelphia was pulling away from the Cowboys. When Wentz fired a 17-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery on a fourth-and-5 in the fourth quarter -- and linebacker Nigel Bradham later returned a Dak Prescott fumble 37 yards for the final score -- the full scale of humiliation was startling. As Wentz said, "It shows we're resilient. We knew coming in at halftime that we left a lot out there. We knew we were better than that and we had to execute. It showed that we have a lot of belief in each other."

"That's a good football team," said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. "They've won a lot of games this year. We know that. You have to be on the screws in all phases of your team for 60 minutes. For the first 30 minutes, we did some good things to give us a chance to be in the ball game and lead the ball game. But obviously, we didn't play well enough in the last half of the game."

That's an understatement. The Eagles ran for 215 yards while Wentz threw for another 168 with two touchdowns. They allowed the Cowboys to convert just 21 percent of their third-down attempts (Dallas was 3 for 21 in that department) while also forcing Prescott into four turnovers (three interceptions and a lost fumble). Hell, the Eagles even played the second half without injured kicker Jake Elliott and hit on three of four two-point conversions.

These are the kinds of numbers people need to be paying attention to as the season moves closer to January. The Eagles aren't merely charmed or talented. They're also pretty strong-willed. They've lost their own assortment of key players already -- including running back Darren Sproles, left tackle Jason Peters and cornerback Ronald Darby (who just returned to the field in this contest) -- and they've still managed to build the league's best record.

"I can't recall being on a team with the amount of injuries or the things we've had to overcome," Pederson said. "And yet the next man -- if there's any of the next man is up -- it's the guys in this locker room ... It's a tribute and a credit to the guys. They'll do whatever it takes to win."

The Eagles still have plenty more chances to back up Pederson's assessment of their toughness. The Rams and Seahawks will both offer stiff tests, primarily because those games will include cross-country travel. There also will be more on the line for those opponents, as Seattle already is battling with its own share of key injuries to star players. If anything, those contests will provide yet another litmus test of how prepared the Eagles are to seize conference supremacy.

What can't be denied is that Philadelphia took another huge step in that direction while visiting Dallas. This could've been the kind of game where they let their guard down, as the Cowboys were just wounded enough to make any opponent feel overconfident. The Eagles, however, didn't fall into that trap. They simply did what they've been doing all year: letting us all know that they really are as good as advertised.

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