Sam Bradford's sudden assertiveness fuels Eagles' win in Dallas

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The least popular player in professional football was closing in on Sam Bradford, putting the oft-injured passer and the Philadelphia Eagles' fortunes in immediate jeopardy, and time seemed to stand still for the lone man standing in Greg Hardy's way.

Hardy, the Dallas Cowboys' vilified defensive end, was about to make a game-turning play in overtime Sunday night at AT&T Stadium -- a stomach-turning development for a large segment of the viewing public. Brent Celek, the Philadelphia Eagles tight end charged with keeping Hardy from crushing his quarterback, had a job to do. And somewhere in the back of his mind, Celek understood that letting Hardy be a hero was a painful proposition, on many levels.

"I was trying not to let that happen," Celek told NFL Media shortly after Bradford's 41-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews gave the Eagles a 33-27 victory on the first drive of overtime, completing a miserable week for the franchise formerly known as America's Team. "It was crazy -- he was [expletive] inches from getting Sam. Football is a game of inches, bro. And trust me, we needed every inch."

In keeping Bradford clean, Celek not only helped the Eagles (4-4) prevail in a taut clash with their NFC East rivals, silencing 91,827 fans and dooming the Cowboys (2-6) to a sixth consecutive defeat. He also allowed many otherwise neutral citizens to feel a little less dirty about watching a game involving Hardy, whose role in a 2014 domestic violence incident was thrust back into the spotlight Friday when released photographic evidence of grisly injuries suffered by his ex-girlfriend.

As one Eagles player said, "Yeah, we saw that like everyone else, and it's obviously sickening. We needed this game, as a football team, but put it this way: We sure didn't mind seeing that guy lose."

Though Hardy had his moments Sunday night, including an 8-yard sack of Bradford that ended one Philly drive late in the third quarter, he was unable to inflict any damage on the game-deciding play. Like 1960s TV icon Maxwell Smart, he *missed it by THAT much*

Here's the setup: After Cowboys kicker Dan Baileybanked a game-tying, 44-yard field goal off the left upright with two seconds left in regulation, the Eagles won the toss and started overtime with a touchback. Though Philly's drive began with a false start, Bradford immediately found running back DeMarco Murray -- who shined in his return to AT&T Stadium, where he starred for the Cowboys last season -- for a 14-yard gain.

Then, on fourth-and-1 from the Cowboys' 43, Eagles coach Chip Kelly boldly decided to go for it. Bradford, from the shotgun, handed the ball to running back Ryan Mathews, who bulled ahead for two yards before fumbling it away to Cowboys defensive end Jeremy Mincey.

Or did he?

The fumble was overturned on replay review, giving the Eagles new life. Then, for the Cowboys, sudden death: Bradford took a shotgun snap and faked a handoff while the Eagles' entire offensive line simulated a running play by pulling to the right. Celek, lined up on the right side of the line, slid behind them, right to left, where Hardy was in the midst of an edge rush on Bradford's blind side.

His team's fate in his hands, Celek got both mitts on Hardy's left shoulder, slowing the sack specialist just long enough for Bradford to release a pinpoint pass to Matthews.

"It was one of those things where I saw (Hardy) creeping in," Bradford told me an hour after the game as he walked to the Eagles' team bus. "And I was like, 'Oh boy. Come on Jordan -- get open!' "

Matthews did, catching the ball in stride at the Dallas 25, sweeping past Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox and racing into the end zone, where he punctuated his score by hurling the ball high into the stands.

Now only half a game behind the New York Giants (5-4) in the NFC East -- a.k.a. the NFC Least -- the Eagles spilled onto the field to celebrate the third victory in their past four games, and one they believe can turn around what has been a largely frustrating first half of 2015.

"Man, that was awesome," said Eagles inside linebacker Kiko Alonso, who returned after missing the previous five games with a knee injury, one he suffered in Philly's 20-10 home loss to the Cowboys in Week 2. "This could be huge for us."

Said Celek: "This definitely can be a catalyst for us. Our division is wide open. I know we've got a good team, but just like every team, you've got to prove it to yourself. The way we fought through some obstacles to win this game, it's good for the team."

While there were many standouts for Philly on Sunday night -- including Murray (161 combined rushing and receiving yards), Matthews (nine catches, 133 yards) and rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks (whose 67-yard interception return for a touchdown gave the Eagles a 21-14 lead early in the fourth quarter) -- Bradford was the driving force.

It was a carryover from five days earlier, when the quarterback, acquired in an offseason trade with the St. Louis Rams, returned from the team's bye week having adopted a noticeably more aggressive and assertive demeanor.

"It was obvious all week," Celek said of Bradford's transformation. "He's taking ownership in this offense, and that's exactly what we needed."

Added tight end Zach Ertz: "He had a little more juice this week. Now it's our job to bring that juice next week and beyond."

As he walked to the team bus, Bradford, who completed 25 of his 36 passes for 295 yards and did not throw an interception, acknowledged that becoming more vocal was a conscious decision.

"I don't know -- we kinda needed a pick-me-up," Bradford said. "So I tried to bring a little more energy. Hopefully, it worked."

The defending NFC East champion Cowboys, meanwhile, will have a hard time summoning the fight required to pull out of a massive hole. Star quarterback Tony Romo -- injured in that Week 2 victory in Philly -- won't return for another two weeks, at which point Dallas might be staring at mathematical elimination.

The Cowboys are now 0-6 without Romo, with Matt Cassel (who threw for 299 yards and three TDs on Sunday) and Brandon Weeden each having started three games.

Even a stirring performance by All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant in his second game back after breaking his foot in the season opener -- he had five catches for 104 yards, including a spectacular 18-yard touchdown catch pulled out of an end-zone crowd with 10:52 left in the fourth quarter -- wasn't enough to allow a valiant but fading Dallas team to break the losing streak.

So concluded a tumultuous week in the Metroplex that included: a report last Monday that PETA had asked local authorities to seize Bryant's pet monkey; the release of trouble-prone former starting running back Joseph Randleon Tuesday; and the fallout stemming from Deadspin's release of the photos three days later, with many media members and fans calling for the Cowboys to release their increasingly unpopular pass rusher.

Hardy, who was not available for interviews when reporters entered the Cowboys' locker room Sunday night, clearly had no desire to share his thoughts in the wake of his team's defeat. A team official retrieved Hardy's white Ferrari and backed it up through the tunnel leading out of the stadium, all the way to the locker-room entrance, so that he would have as little exposure to the media as possible.

Long after the room had been closed to reporters, Hardy emerged, walked gingerly to the passenger seat and entered the vehicle, before being driven off into the North Texas night.

The Eagles, at that very moment, were headed toward the airport feeling a whole lot better about the second half of the season.

"I'm looking forward to this flight," Celek said. "This was a big win, and we can build on it. Hopefully, we're on our way."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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