PHILADELPHIA — Mike McCarthy had a choice.
The Dallas Cowboys head coach could emphasize the details his team missed in a 28-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the near-scores they whiffed on and the penalties that haunted them.
Or, the Cowboys could focus on the 406 yards of offense they piled up against Philadelphia, the second most a team has managed vs. the defending NFC champions. McCarthy could focus on his defense’s strengths, accentuated best by three consecutive fourth-quarter stops, as the Eagles managed 292 yards of offense, second fewest of their nine games.
McCarthy focused on the second. He focused on what the Cowboys did well. And he said more.
“He said we played well enough to win,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott told Yahoo Sports in the postgame locker room. “He did say those words.”
The message speaks to an interesting conundrum that the 5-3 team faces. The Cowboys must ask themselves: How good are we? And how close are we?
Leaders like McCarthy and Prescott must consider: Will emphasizing that football is a “game of inches” (Prescott used the word “inch” or “inches” at least 12 times Sunday night) give a team that has fallen short for nearly 30 years an overinflated sense of confidence in its ability, or the needed motivation to go that extra proverbial mile and inch?
“You have three different plays where you're talking about inches that change the way that game unfolds near the end of the game,” Prescott said. “I mean, he's not wrong. We did [play well enough to win]. And that's what even hurts more.
“There's no moral victories in this, I can promise you that, not by any means. But being inches away, we know we're doing the right thing.”
Loss to 49ers influenced Cowboys’ postgame locker room in Philly
Micah Parsons’ postgame comments gave a clue why this Cowboys team was relieved to discover they could hang with the Eagles.
“A team like the 49ers, we won’t see them again,” Parsons said after recording nine tackles, 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits in the loss. “But we got a chance to get our redemption [against the Eagles]. We’re gonna see them.”
In the regular season, the Cowboys can’t cleanse themselves of the bitter taste that lingered after the 49ers trounced them, 42-10, Oct. 9 on “Sunday Night Football.” Dallas turned the ball over four times that game, including three Prescott interceptions. The 49ers — who already have eliminated the Cowboys from each of the past two postseasons — steadily pounded downfield against what was considered a strong Dallas defense. Quarterback Brock Purdy tossed four touchdowns, tight end George Kittle caught three, and all-purpose weapon Christian McCaffrey collected 78 yards and a touchdown from scrimmage.
Prescott called the game the most humbling he’d had. McCarthy called the result “a punch in the gut, a kick in the ass.” The problem wasn’t just that the Cowboys were ambling too close for comfort to .500 (the loss put them at 3-2); it was that their game plan had failed and their execution flopped with it.
In contrast, against the Eagles, Prescott completed 65.9% of passes for 374 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Prescott-CeeDee Lamb connection continued to roll to the tune of 11 catches for 191 yards on 16 targets. And while the Cowboys’ defense struggled to get off the field in the third quarter, in part due to self-inflicted penalties, the group held the Eagles scoreless in the fourth, not even allowing a first down on any of three Philadelphia possessions.
Still, the Cowboys lost.
Dallas almost came within one score when Prescott found rookie tight end Luke Schoonmaker diving at the goal line, Schoonmaker’s right leg clearly over the plane but his left leg — after review — outside of the end zone and landing first. Officials overturned the touchdown on review, the Cowboys continuing to trail by 11 with 10:07 to play.
No touchdown for Cowboys here. Luke Schoonmaker is ruled short of end zone. Eagles take over with a 99+ yard field, up 28-17 with 10:07 to play pic.twitter.com/et1NYygj9u
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 6, 2023
Dallas marched downfield again on its next drive, lining up at the 7 after a Tony Pollard touchdown was nullified by penalty. Prescott scrambled to his right and threw on the run, finding receiver Jalen Tolbert with separation on the right edge of the end zone. But when Prescott began to race in the 2-point conversion attempt, he stepped too far wide, the top half of his right cleat escaping the field nearly 2 yards early.
Dak Prescott finds Jalen Tolbert on TD. Then, Dak steps out of bounds early on 2-point conversion.
Eagles ball up 28-23 with 6:23 to playpic.twitter.com/Fvz6uVgTsX
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 6, 2023
“Really just mad at myself for not just attacking the pylon earlier with two hands,” Prescott said. “Disappointed I didn’t trust my speed and just get vertical, honestly. … Obviously, we get that, those last two possessions are completely different.”
The Cowboys then trailed by 5 for the final six-and-a-half minutes, needing a touchdown rather than the field goal with which the 2-point conversion would have allowed them to tie the game. Cowboys rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey has made all 19 of his field-goal attempts this season, resetting the NFL record for most made field goals without a miss to start a career when he connected from 51 yards on Sunday.
But the Cowboys needed a touchdown.
Prescott would miss Tolbert on fourth-and-8 from the 29 the next drive. And while Eagles penalties helped Dallas travel 81 yards in 46 seconds on the game-ending possession, Dallas’ own penalties pushed it back from the 6 to the 27, altering the play-calls and probability charts the Cowboys use.
Prescott’s final pass found Lamb for 23 yards, but he was tackled and fumbled short of the winning touchdown.
“It’s a roller coaster, the ebb and flow of the NFL,” receiver Brandin Cooks told Yahoo Sports. “We got guys that are resilient, that kept on fighting and just unfortunately came up short.”
Dak: ‘I wanted to be in this position’
So where do the Cowboys go from here?
In the macro sense, they head toward a schedule that’s about to pit them against three straight teams with losing records in the New York Giants, Carolina Panthers and Washington Commanders. They’re 2.5 games behind the Eagles in the NFC East but would earn a wild-card spot if the playoffs started today.
Finding the postseason recipe for success is on all of their minds.
After left guard Tyler Smith was called for a false smart on the final drive, Smith said “that’s something I gotta improve on, because we can’t have that, especially if you want to win a championship.” Receiver Michael Gallup, who caught two passes but dropped a third, knew that “you need these games, because when it gets down to crunch time, when we get into the playoffs, they’re gonna be games like this. You’re not just gonna be blowing people out anymore.” (The Cowboys’ five wins have come by an average margin of 26.2 points.)
In the micro sense, Dallas knows exactly what it needs to work on. The defense knows it can’t afford the pass interference penalties that aided the Eagles’ long third-quarter scoring drives. The offense knows that in the red zone, it has to get home rather than continuing to come close. And everyone knows the Cowboys need to cut down on pre- and post-snap penalties.
The Cowboys weren’t, as it might seem, resting on the laurels of a strong performance against a rival that ultimately faltered. Rather, they believed that the game plan, talent and coaching that powered Sunday’s performance give them their best chance to win if they can boost their execution. More colloquially, Prescott and McCarthy spoke at length this week about how great the “vibes” are on the team.
“For me, as a leader, it's about going into this week and just moving forward and making guys understand how tight this league is, and that's the difference in winning and losing,” Prescott said. “We’re doing things right. We’re working our asses off. We’re going through the right plan.
“We're not gonna change up who we are and what we're doing when we fought. … Honestly, I wanted to be in this position and I'm sitting over there thanking God for putting me in this position, having a chance to go win this game. Just because I didn't win, it's not gonna shake me and I'm not gonna let it shake this team. We're gonna be fine.
“We're OK. We’re damn sure OK.”