Philadelphia comes into AT&T Stadium sporting a three-game winning streak at the Cowboys' stadium, the second-longest such streak for an NFC East opponent in the venue's history. The first game to begin that streak had two elements on display this Sunday: a prime time Sunday night game and no Tony Romo.
Back on Dec. 29 2013 the Cowboys were vying for the division title in a "win and get in" game. Romo suffered a herniated gamesmanship from head coach Jason Garrett throughout the week that Romo wasn't ruled out, even the average Dallas fan knew backup quarterback Kyle Orton would make his first start for the franchise in his two-year tenure.
Dallas started off with inauspiciously as running back DeMarco Murray, who had not lost a fumble all season, did so on first-and-10 from the Eagles' 28-yard line on the first drive of the game. The Eagles offense, led by Nick Foles who wowed the NFL with his league-leading 119.2 passer rating that year, converted the turnover into a 47-yard field goal by Alex Henery to take a 3-0 lead.
Murray responded the next drive on a second-and-6 from Dallas' 42-yard line with a little dump off from Orton. The third-year running back out of Oklahoma who hadn't played a full complement of games even back in his Oklahoma days launched into defensive lineman Damion Square and knocked the rookie off his feet. Aside from the big hit which earned Murray a $21,000 fine because he used the crown of his helmet to hit Square, the Cowboys drive stalled at the Eagles' 40-yard line.
From their own 12-yard line, the Eagles had no trouble driving against the league's worst defense in terms of yards surrendered. Foles capped off a nine-play, 88-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to running back LeSean McCoy to mount a 10-0 lead with 14:18 in the second quarter.
The Cowboys went three-and-out thereafter, but so did the Eagles. And upon getting the ball back, Dallas put together its first scoring drive of the game thanks to big plays from their rookies. On third-and-12 from their own 32-yard line, Orton found receiver Terrance Williams for a 39-yard gain.
Three plays later, the nine-year signal caller hit tight end Gavin Escobar in the right flat short of the marker on first-and-10 from the Philadelphia 17. The second-rounder out of San Diego State ran for the pylon and somersaulted into the end zone to trim Philadelphia's lead 10-7 with 8:21 in the second quarter.
After forcing the Eagles punt at midfield, Dallas got the ball back at their own 25. Orton threw his first interception of the night on the drive's sixth play when he was looking for tight end Jason Witten. The pass was a little behind the All Pro and second-year linebacker Mychal Kendricks intercepted the ball to give the Eagles first-and-10 at the Dallas 49-yard line.
Foles hit tight end Brent Celek on two passes of 35 yards and 14 yards, the last being a touchdown, to extend the Eagles' lead to 17-7 with 1:25 to go in the first half. Dan Bailey's 44-yard field goal with 23 seconds left toggled the deficit back to seven for the Cowboys as they entered halftime down 17-10.
Dallas took command coming out of the locker room by forcing the Eagles into a three-and-out. The Cowboys turned around and drove down the field for a 43-yard Bailey boot to cut the Eagles' lead to 17-13 with 9:04 in the third quarter.
With defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who had an injury-riddled season with Dallas, healthy and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher similarly healthy, the Cowboys defensive line was able to generate pressure on Foles. On third-and-11 from the Eagles' 33-yard line, Hatcher sacked Foles for an 11-yard loss that Ware recovered to give the offense a favorable start inside the red zone. However, the Cowboys offense was only able to muster a 36-yard Bailey field goal after going three-and-out to come within a point of the Eagles at 17-16.
Though the Cowboys offense wasn't able to get any momentum, the defense had plenty. After having a first-and-goal from the Dallas 6-yard line late in the third quarter, the Eagles came away with nothing as Foles was stuffed at the goal line on fourth-and-1. The fast-paced Philadelphia offense led by first-year head coach Chip Kelly was down throughout the third quarter, but they wouldn't stay that way for long.
When Eagles linebacker swatted down Orton's pass to Murray in the right flat on fourth-and-1, the Eagles offense was no longer grounded. They drove 60 yards in 11 plays to take a 24-16 lead with 6:16 remaining thanks to backup running back Bryce Brown's 6-yard touchdown run.
Fourth-year receiver Dez Bryant, who had only one target so far in the fourth quarter, was the key target on this must-have drive for the Cowboys who were on the verge of going a third consecutive year with an 8-8 finish thanks to a loss in provisional NFC East championship game. On first-and-10 from the Cowboys' 20-yard line, he caught a 13-yard pass. Witten caught a 34-yard pass with his fingertips. The Cowboys were at the Eagles' 33-yard line in two quick plays.
But like everything that Week 17 affair, the Cowboys were their own problem. A delay of game on Orton made it first-and-15. A six-yard pass to Bryant on second down made it third-and-9 from the 32-yard line. Orton failed to find Bryant and the Cowboys used their second timeout to set up success on a critical fourth down.
Orton was lined up in shotgun with Murray to his left. Williams was split out wide left and Witten was on the inside right. Bryant was lined up in the slot and receiver Miles Austin was out far right. Bryant ran a slant to the 25-yard line and safety Patrick Chung dove for the tackle with arms clasped around Bryant's waist, but only tenuously.
The 6-2, 225-pound receiver shook off the defensive back and kept on running for a 32-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion would tie the game, but that was a pass Bryant could not make a play as cornerback Cary Williams' coverage was too tight.
With one timeout remaining and the two-minute warning with 3:45 remaining in the season, the Cowboys needed a three-and-out, and they came up with it. Defensive end George Selvie almost drew a personal foul as Foles slid and gave himself up near the right sideline as he saw no receivers open and took the sack to keep the clock running. Thankfully, referee Gene Steratore would let the game play on and not let one of his calls affect the outcome of a significant game.
The Cowboys had one timeout and only needed a field goal with 1:49 remaining at their own 32-yard line. This was their fourth-best starting field position of the game. Bailey had not missed a field goal since Sept. 29 at San Diego, and that was on grass at Qualcomm Stadium. He was 8/10 on game-winning field goals in his three-year career. The Cowboys had the best chance they could ever hope for without Romo and his then-20 fourth-quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives.
On first-and-10, Orton threw a slant to Austin that was picked off by cornerback Brandon Boykin. Game over. Season over. Welcome to another 8-8 finish and an interminable off-season with the franchise quarterback recovering from another back procedure all the while the commentariat called for Garrett to be fired.
Sunday night will have the NFC East at stake, but only for bragging rights as the top team heading into November. For the first time in the series, two rookie quarterbacks will square off against one another in Dallas' Dak Prescott and the Eagles' Carson Wentz. The Cowboys also need to find victory or else the Eagles' win streak will match that of the Giants from 2009-12 as the longest by an NFC East foe at AT&T Stadium.
Commiserate with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane about the perpetual purgatory that was 8-8.