As far as predictions go, you get some right, you get some wrong, and some you get wrong by a mile. I missed by a mile on the Dallas Cowboys' 34-14 blowout of the Philadelphia Eagles, but so did Philadelphia's coaching staff.
Last night, I was off the mark by a wide margin when I picked the Eagles to reverse their fortune of a few days earlier and find a way to beat the Cowboys in their postseason rematch. Part of the rationale was based on an expectation that Andy Reid and his coaching staff would make key adjustments to combat the things that were working against them and to find ways to exploit Cowboys' alignments and schemes.
That did not happen to any discernible degree. The Cowboys largely continued doing much of the same things that had been successful last Sunday over and over. Wide receiver screens, draw plays, quick slants, double coverage to take away the vertical game, etc. After countless hours of film study and six days to think about it, Eagles coaches could not come up with any remedies.
Although Sean McDermott has done an admirable job as defensive coordinator since stepping in several months ago, the past two games highlighted how much the team misses the late Jim Johnson. Watching the continuing horror show unfold over the last week, the little voice in my head kept saying, "Jim Johnson would never have allowed this to happen."
Besides the blow of losing their beloved leader, the defensive unit also lost their field general when Brian Dawkins traded in his midnight green for Denver Broncos blue and orange. The disastrous end to the season served to highlight a missing element this season: veteran leadership.
Donovan McNabb tried to step forward as a more overt leader on the offensive side, but the defensive unit still had a void to fill. Jeremiah Trotter assumed some of this dearth, but being a specialty player and a late addition, it was not the same. Stewart Bradley might have filled some of the void left by Dawkins, but of course, was lost for the season at the outset of training camp.
As far as McNabb goes, he clearly didn't have a good game last evening. He misfired on some throws, sometimes held the ball too long, and often seemed tentative.
That aside, the offensive unit's biggest problem stemmed from the tremendous pressure applied by the Cowboys' defensive line. And, by doing that with primarily four pass rushers, while the Eagles would use a running back, and tight end to help protect him, the receivers were usually blanketed.
It's a simple math equation. No matter how talented or elusive your receivers are, three in the pattern covered by seven doesn't provide a whole lot of opportunity.
Another offensive anomaly last night was a game plan that almost totally ignored a seasoned veteran of postseason play and one of the best offensive players in team history. Brian Westbrook did not carry the ball one time, and looked pretty darned good on the only ball that came his way- a 27-yard catch and run.
This lack of playtime was not lost on Westbrook, either, as he appeared extremely frustrated standing helplessly on the sideline. I can only imagine how pleased the Cowboys players and coaching staff were to see him used to chip block, run an occasional decoy route as a wide receiver, or spectate on the sideline. In my book, this was a horrific coaching blunder.
The team's newest weapon, Pro Bowler DeSean Jackson, was also largely missing in action. Unfortunately, he was on the field and in the game, but for the third time this season, the Cowboys shut him down in both the passing and return game.
As an aside, I cringed when I saw footage of McNabb playing air guitar and jumping against the Plexiglas tunnel wall before the game. Personally, I don't have a problem with what he did as he was trying to stay loose and it is his personality to clown around, but I knew that it would surely provide more fodder for his detractors.
Watching McNabb last night, I also could not help but wonder if the situation was a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is difficult to lead a team to a playoff win in the NFL, especially on the road and against a hot, talented team; this is especially true when someone is being bombarded with negative thoughts and consequences heading into the game.
Like on the offensive side, the Eagles' defensive unit suffered from a similar math equation. In order to get pressure on Tony Romo, they would often need six pass rushers, leaving five on five in coverage. After a couple of early sacks, the Cowboys found a way to buy enough time for Romo to carve them up, even making Roy Williams look like an NFL-caliber receiver.
Any notion that the Eagles simply had an off day and were a little flat a week ago was quickly put to rest last night. Make no mistake about it; the Cowboys dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, in both games.
After being viewed as a strength in the offseason, the offensive line has presented major challenges from training camp through last night's swan song. Sixty percent of the group on the drawing board were not in the lineup in Dallas. Leader Jamaal Jackson went down with an injury a couple of weeks ago, Stacy Andrews has been a major bust, and Shawn Andrews tacked another year onto his rehab program.
Philadelphia's normal defensive scheme favors speed over size, but it became an even larger differential when injuries forced them to play smaller linebackers on anticipated passing downs. The Cowboys exploited this for two weeks by playing to the weakness of the Eagles defenders on the field. The absence of Bradley set this in motion due to the loss of his ability to play stout run defense and drop in coverage.
In the Palace in Dallas, the Eagles compounded their plight by turning the ball over, losing the battle of field position, and racking up penalties. As bad as the season finale performance may have been, last night's showing was even worse.
Speaking of penalties and bad performances, I have a brief rant about Ed Hokuli and his officiating crew. Apparently they decided that the game should be about them, or they didn't realize that they had back pockets to stow their flags in, because they littered the field all evening.
In the "winner-takes-all" NFL postseason format, it is ridiculous for referees to indiscriminately throw flags on every marginal infraction. As Madden would say, "Let the players play." It is doubtful that the outcome would have been different due to the physical mismatch, but it would be preferable to see the players have a chance to let things play out without 228 yards in penalties.
In conclusion, the Dallas Cowboys proved over the past week that they are clearly the superior team. Besides outperforming Philadelphia in every phase of the game, they thoroughly out-coached them, as well. This is a bitter pill for the Eagles and their fans after the late season six-game winning streak and offensive explosiveness seen prior to visiting the Palace, which had generated high hopes of a Super Bowl run.
Once again, it's back to the drawing board. And this time, it looks like the Cowboys are raising the bar a little higher.
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