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With unbeaten record intact, HC Nick Sirianni says Eagles still challenging themselves to get better

PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles coach Nick Sirianni is all about embracing challenges, so following the biggest win of his young career -- a 26-17 defeat of the rival Cowboys on Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field -- he wasn't about to back down when asked to perform the famous handshake from one of his favorite childhood shows, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Sirianni had just returned to a largely empty locker room, and there in the middle of it was DJ Jazzy Jeff, a character from the 1990s sitcom. It was debatable who was more excited to meet the other, and after a few minutes, someone asked the second-year coach if he could do the handshake that Jeff and Will Smith regularly shared.

Hesitating only long enough for onlookers to set their phones to record, Sirianni slapped right hands with Jeff, then in one motion leaned back and threw up a hitch-hike gesture. It was a cool ending to a memorable evening for Sirianni, whose team showed the playmaking and resolve that speak to its stature as the NFL's only undefeated outfit, at 6-0.

After surrendering 17 consecutive points to nearly squander an early 20-point lead, the Eagles put together a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter that removed any remaining suspense. The performance, in many ways, highlighted the resiliency a team staffer spoke about before kickoff, when he said the club was built for the moment of a prime-time national game against a bitter NFC East rival who was seeking to move into a first-place tie atop the division.

Yes, the Eagles were undefeated, but they were not untested. Three of their first five games had been decided by one possession, including two by field goals. So when Dallas (4-2) made a game of it early in the fourth quarter, after looking like it would be run out of the stadium early, Philadelphia barely blinked.

Like their young quarterback, Jalen Hurts, the Eagles calmly took over at their 25-yard line and converted on three consecutive third downs to set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Hurts to DeVonta Smith. Then, fittingly, the defense ended any threat with its third interception of the night and second for safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson.

"I think being 2-5 (to start last season) did a lot for this team," Sirianni said in the privacy of his office, his mom at his side and his dad across the room. "Not everybody was involved with that 2-5, I get it, but a big part of the meat and potatoes of this team was involved in that, and they just kept coming to work. All we wanted to do was improve daily, and get better, and get better, and get better. You do that by practicing harder. The best teams that I've been on have the common denominator that they practice hard, they walk-through hard, they meet hard; then you get this trajectory of where you're building and building and building."

The ultimate version of what they're building won't be known for a few months, but for now, it appears general manager Howie Roseman and Sirianni have constructed a roster with no apparent holes. More importantly, they have hit the mother lode in terms of landing not only talented players, but guys whose accountability to each other is matched only by competitive nature.

There really is no other way to explain how they have been able to meld the new and old so seamlessly, particularly in the secondary. They traded for Gardner-Johnson two weeks before the season opener and acquired cornerback James Bradberry late in free agency. Acquiring two such talents to go with cornerback Darius Slay and safety Marcus Epps involved risk and good fortune: It was good fortune to wait and think they could find a player of Bradberry's skill set so late in free agency, and it was good fortune that the Saints were willing to trade Gardner-Johnson when Philadelphia was looking to upgrade from Anthony Harris.

That said, the only remaining question was whether the group could jell quickly.

"We bonded," said Slay, who had the other interception Sunday. "We hang together, chill together, go eat together, watch film together. We do everything as a group, as a family. We understand it's a business and our job, but we treat each other like brothers. It's a standing relationship. We're not co-workers, we're friends."

The group put on a show early Sunday, sticking to Dallas receivers so closely it was like they were running routes for Cooper Rush, who threw two second-quarter interceptions after not throwing a single pick in his previous four starts. Rush's first mistake was forcing a ball into the middle of the field one play after the Eagles had taken a 7-0 lead. Bradberry tipped it, Gardner-Johnson intercepted it, and Hurts followed it with a 15-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown, making it 14-0.

It was the first time since Rush took over in Week 2 that the Cowboys trailed by more than one score. In fact, he had been so efficient and the defense had been so stingy that Dallas had trailed for a total of just 12 minutes and 37 seconds over the previous four games. Suddenly, the Cowboys looked like the the team most people expected to see once starting quarterback Dak Prescott had a plate and seven screws placed in his right (throwing) hand after fracturing his thumb in the season opener.

Offensively, everything was a struggle for the Cowboys in the first half. They couldn't throw the ball, run the ball or generally move the ball with any consistency. It was their nightmare come to life. Rush, who had been turnover-free on the season, now had two in one quarter. A defense that had not allowed more than one touchdown in any game surrendered two in the second quarter. And questionable game-management decisions that were largely absent during the streak also returned, with coach Mike McCarthy going for it on fourth-and-1 from his 34-yard line (and failing to convert), then later passing on an opportunity to challenge a third-down spot that might have given Dallas a new set of downs.

Meanwhile, the Eagles were building on their season-long, second-quarter domination. They entered the game having outscored opponents 92-14 in the period, and pushed that advantage to 106-14 with barely four minutes gone. Seemingly anything they wanted to do, they did -- except capitalize on great field position. Twice they settled for field goals after taking possession at the Dallas 34- and 46-yard lines, leaving the door open for the Cowboys to walk through. And the 'Boys tried to do just that.

After ending the first half with a field goal, Dallas opened the second half with back-to-back touchdown drives, the first culminating with a 14-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott, the second ending with a 7-yard pass to Jake Ferguson, finishing a 93-yard drive and making it 20-17 with 21 seconds gone in the fourth quarter.

But that's when Hurts took charge. He had a 5-yard run on third-and-4, then later added 2 yards on third-and-1. Two plays later, he got the ball to Brown for a 22-yard gain that set up the Smith score. Hurts finished 15 of 25 for 155 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers.

"The guy's not fazed by things," Sirianni said of Hurts. "He's got a great demeanor that you see in great quarterbacks. There are so many big games in the NFL. It's a huge game, right? Sunday Night Football, division rival, both at the top of the division, and he's unfazed by things. That's what I love about him. He just goes and plays the next play -- and he made a big play on third-and-4 when we didn't have anybody open. He made a play with his legs, he controlled the clock, he was in complete control. It was Quarterback 101 by Jalen."

The same could not be said of Rush, who likely will hand the starting reins back to Prescott next week, barring a setback in Prescott's rehab. Rush showed moxie by trying to rally the Cowboys after the poor start, but he could not rise to the moment when Dallas needed a playmaker instead of a caretaker. He finished 18 of 38 for 181 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.

"They obviously were the deciding factor," said Rush of his turnovers.

The Eagles downplayed the victory only in the sense that it was one of 17 games, with none counting more than the rest. But not far from the locker room, Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blared loud enough to seemingly shake the cement walls. The Eagles know they didn't take the Cowboys' best shot, which partially explained why the focus remained on themselves and not anyone else.

"Teams are either coming together or they're not, and this team is coming together, and they fight each week," Sirianni said. "The motivation of not letting your teammate down -- coach to player, player to coach, player to player, coach to coach -- that's just love, right? There is no greater motivation than that. This is a close team, and we're going to keep working on getting closer and keep working on getting better."

That is the challenge, right? And if there's one thing we know about Sirianni, it's that he's not afraid of a challenge. Just ask Jazzy Jeff.

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