PHILADELPHIA -- There comes a point in every season when underachieving teams can sense an unnerving despair swallowing all the optimism they've clung to for months. The Dallas Cowboys hit that wall on Sunday night in what has become an all too familiar result. They left Lincoln Financial Field with the knowledge that they had a healthier roster filled with more talented, accomplished players. Their problem was that the Philadelphia Eagles departed knowing they had the tougher, more focused team.
We're now beyond wondering when the Cowboys will become the team most people expected them to be. After their 17-9 loss to the Eagles, it's time to accept them for exactly the underwhelming squad that they actually are. In many ways, it seemed naïve to think Dallas would come into Philadelphia and play up to their immense potential when a victory here would've given them the NFC East title. All the Cowboys did was offer one more piece of evidence for all those who believe head coach Jason Garrett's job is going to be vacant in the not so distant future.
This was the one game that Dallas had to win, largely because the Eagles were so injury-riddled. It became the kind of game the Cowboys have been destined to lose all year, the ones that leave people scratching their heads and wondering why this franchise has become so maddening. "I thought we'd come up here and be competitive," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after watching his team fall to 7-8. "I thought we'd come up here and play a better game than we played. I thought right up until the near end of this thing that we'd make some plays and get it done."
That belief Jones has kept in this team isn't hard to understand. This version of the Cowboys was built to do great things, to contend for a championship and to bring back the glorious aura Jones helped create when his franchise won three Super Bowls in the 1990's. Talent has never been the issue with this team, as Dallas literally has a slew of players who have appeared in the Pro Bowl. It's just that this bunch has never really displayed anything resembling an identity, let alone the kind of chemistry and leadership that are the trademarks of true championship contenders.
The Cowboys don't have the defiance or the camaraderie that is so apparent in the Baltimore Ravens. They also don't have the hunger of the San Francisco 49ers, the dynamic magic of the Kansas City Chiefs or the championship experience that exists in places like Seattle and New England. The Cowboys have hung their hat on potential for so long that they often play as if success is going to happen eventually. As Sunday proved yet again, they really aren't that skilled at making the most of their opportunities.
Dallas now has played five teams who have qualified for the playoffs (New Orleans, Green Bay, Minnesota, New England and Buffalo). They haven't beaten any of them. The Cowboys did beat these same Eagles by 27 points back in October but that feels like a lifetime ago, especially with Dallas losing five of their last seven games. All the Eagles have to do is win their season finale -- against the 4-11 New York Giants -- to complete a run to the postseason that once seemed improbable for a team that has lost so many starters to injury.
Of course, that is the difference between the Eagles and the Cowboys today. Philadelphia, who improved to 8-7, continually has found ways to fight through adversity. Dallas, on the other hand, has wallowed in it far too often this year. "It's frustrating," said Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. "I've sat here after every game pretty much, win or lose, and said the good part about it is that we control our own destiny. That's gone. That's out of our hands now. That's unfortunate and very disappointing because we had the chance to control our destiny and be where we wanted to be."
To understand how much of an advantage the Cowboys had in this game, all you have to do is look at the lineups. The Eagles didn't have their best offensive lineman (right tackle Lane Johnson), their toughest runner (Jordan Howard) or their top three wide receivers. Even with all those issues, they still produced 431 total yards and controlled the ball for over 36 minutes. For all the scrutiny Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has faced over the last two years, he found a way to make the players around him better in a crucial situation.
All Dallas did was frustrate anybody who truly cares about this team. They started lethargically. They couldn't muster a consistent running game (Ezekiel Elliott gained 47 yards on 13 carries). Prescott played valiantly despite dealing with an injured shoulder on his throwing arm -- he completed 25 of 44 passes for 265 yards -- but he couldn't create any real rhythm in the passing game. In fact, it felt like the game was over when Eagles running back Mile Sanders scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to give Philadelphia a 17-6 lead with six seconds left in the third quarter.
Dallas did have some opportunities after a Kai Forbath field goal cut the deficit to eight points midway through the fourth quarter. However, their final possession was a microcosm of their entire season. Prescott overthrew a wide-open Tavon Austin after Austin streaked past a cornerback on a go route. Wide receiver Michael Gallup dropped a deep pass two plays later, when Prescott produced a more accurate throw. The drive finally ended when Eagles cornerback Sidney Jones deflected a ball that Prescott tossed towards Gallup in the end zone on fourth down.
Garrett faced obvious questions about his coaching moves afterwards -- such as his decision to not have wide receivers Amari Cooper or Randall Cobb on the field for that final fourth down play -- but the bigger problem was that Dallas couldn't execute consistently all day. "We weren't as efficient as we needed to be in the passing game," Garrett said. "They loaded up against the run. They came in with the idea that we weren't going to be able to run the ball. I thought we were persistent with the run but it wasn't effective enough ... And then we had to attack them in the passing game based on what they were doing. At times we made some big plays and at other times we weren't able to convert like we needed to."
When asked about his job security, Garrett evaded the issue by saying, "The biggest thing we have to do is to try and process this game, learn from it and move forward." He also emphasized that there was no benefit in stressing over the fact that they need the Eagles to lose to keep their postseason hopes alive (the Cowboys can still win the division if both teams finish at 8-8). As Garrett said, "(the opportunity to win the title in Philadelphia) is not going to come back. We have to learn from it and move forward and control what we control next week."
Garrett was referring to the Cowboys' season finale against Washington, a team that is now 3-12. It's a game Dallas should win easily, but that won't make anybody feel good in that franchise today. It's just one more contest against an opponent that isn't on the same level as the Cowboys. We all know Dallas has feasted on that kind of competition all year.
This is likely why Prescott was lamenting a three-hour plane ride home, as he acknowledged he would watch the game film and suffer through even more frustration. It's also why Jones held an uncommonly brief press conference outside the Dallas locker room before trudging to his car with a throng of reporters begging for more answers. Everyone in Dallas knows that they're beyond the point of hoping for miracles. All they can do is accept the reality of where this season has taken them, while bracing for the eventual consequences that will soon follow.