Why Cowboys’ win over Eagles was a ‘huge’ step for Dak Prescott and Co., and what it means for Dallas' ultimate goal

ARLINGTON, Texas — In a zero-sum sport in which the point is to win, the Dallas Cowboys achieved the goal Sunday night at AT&T Stadium with a 33-13 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Five weeks earlier, they had fallen short in a 28-23 loss at Philadelphia.

The accompanying emotions, then, should also be obvious.

Frustration after getting so close on so many plays only to fall short? Jubilation after a game in which they never trailed, passing the Eagles not only on the scoreboard but also — at least temporarily and tenuously — in the NFC East standings?

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott experienced neither.

His seemingly reverse emotions may be just what Dallas needs from its leader.

In the postgame locker room in Philadelphia, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy told his players that they had played well enough to win. Five weeks later, they achieved the result that their coach had believed possible. Prescott played well in both games, if via different formulas and with room for improvement both times.

But after a 24-of-39 (61.5%) day on which he passed for 271 yards and two touchdowns, Prescott was solemn.

“I’m my biggest critic,” Prescott said, noting a first-quarter series where he struggled through six incompletions. “As I talk about my performance tonight, it was good enough to win, but I hold myself to super high standards. If I play my best game, we’re putting up 50 out there.

“I’m going to keep pushing for that.”

In the meantime, the Cowboys appear to have a group that can discover victories in myriad ways. Dallas outlasted the Seattle Seahawks last week despite the defense allowing 35 points; they bested the Eagles this week by pairing a good if inconsistent offense with superb kicking and a defense that did not allow a touchdown.

The variety of recipes en route to their 10th win encourages team owner Jerry Jones.

“I have to pinch myself right now to just realize we’ve won this game,” Jones said from the AT&T Stadium tunnel. “I still have that kind of respect for Philadelphia. What is at stake and how it addresses perception.

“There's no question everybody feels better about their ability to compete than we did three hours ago.”

Prescott’s error a chance for Cowboys to learn something

Four minutes into the third quarter, Dallas’ confidence-infusing win faced its biggest threat.

The Cowboys were up 24-6 and faced third-and-10 from their own 45-yard line. Prescott dropped back to pass on what he called a “touchdown play” call from McCarthy, his eyes downfield as he sought to buy another third to half a second before sailing it. Six-time Pro Bowl Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox had other plans as he blew past six-time All-Pro right guard Zack Martin. Cox knocked the ball loose from Prescott’s low grasp, sending it bouncing into the hands of 2023 first-round draft pick Jalen Carter.

Carter, the Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite, returned the ball 42 yards for the Eagles’ first (and, ultimately, last) touchdown of the game.

“I'm about to get the ball off and really throw it with anticipation in that sense, and so I had the ball a little low, getting ready to hum it down the field when Fletcher grabbed me,” Prescott said. “At that point, I think I was going for the tuck and just trying to tuck it away and it came out.”

“I'm on the ground and watch it roll and watch the guy pick it up with a clean scoop. It’s a feeling that sucks.”

It was also a feeling that wouldn’t last.

Because with the ball back in hand, the Cowboys scraped together enough plays (cue the hurdle highlight reel from tight end Jake Ferguson) to position rookie Brandon Aubrey to become the first kicker in NFL history to make 60- and 59-yard field goals in the same game. Dallas’ defense contained the Eagles’ subsequent drive to force a turnover on downs.

An Eagles defensive game plan that aimed to take away the deep ball, forcing underneath and trafficky throws that generated nine pass breakups successfully kept Dallas out of the end zone in the second half.

But the Cowboys kept moving the ball sufficiently to set up field goals and bleed the clock. Their defense alternated between tackling short of the sticks and capitalizing on errors, recovering three forced fumbles after the Eagles' offense recovered each of their own three fumbles in the November face-off of these teams.

The lost strip sack was costly. But it wasn’t fatal.

“I think you could have lost your momentum,” Jones said. “You felt like, ‘Boy, you’ve awakened a real additional challenge to this thing.’ So for our bunch to stand up and stay in there … I’m pretty impressed with the way we came back.”

Did Cowboys make a statement with win over Eagles?

Outlasting an opponent that shrunk its deficit from 18 points to 11 in the third quarter may not seem monumental for the Cowboys.

But warding off the tide of momentum the Eagles have proven capable of seizing in recent second-half comebacks was important. Finishing, rather than only temporarily producing, in big games was also a necessary box for the Cowboys to check on the path to their ultimate season goals.

The Eagles entered this week with the best record in the NFL. They had beaten the Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills in their prior six games and become the first team since 2005-06 to stack consecutive 8-1 starts.

Philadelphia has presented itself this season as the caliber of team the Cowboys will need to beat to end an NFC championship drought that dates back to the 1995 season. Dallas compiled a complete if imperfect game, with Prescott at the helm, to callous them toward the mettle they need in January.

“Everybody who follows the NFL and follows sports knew that [Dak] had a lot of expectations as to how he was going to perform and how he was going to meet this challenge,” Jones said. "The ever overhang of, ‘Well, did he do it in the right situation? Did he do it with the right competition?’

“He did it tonight, and he did it in a very efficient way against [a team] as good as we’ll play.”

Prescott and the Cowboys will face two more chances against top-caliber competition in the next two weeks, with road games at Buffalo and then Miami.

Again, those games won’t be the Cowboys’ or Prescott’s ultimate goal.

The goal Prescott wears literal reminders of and sets daily alarms for remains two months away, on Feb. 11, 2024, when the Super Bowl will kick off in Las Vegas.

But road games against winning teams will test the Cowboys ahead of the road playoff games that may loom. December road games will test the elevated play of Prescott, who entered this week tied with 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy as an MVP favorite.

Sunday night was a step in the right direction that Cowboys teams in the Prescott era have too often failed to take.

“It was huge,” Prescott said. “[This was] about grabbing a huge chunk of confidence and moving forward.

“We needed it. Let’s not sugarcoat that. We needed that.”