Remember back to the halcyon days of early autumn, when every NFC East would lose in the same week, and the NFC North was a good division? It was all the way back when Miley Cyrus was twerking her way to #1 with “Wrecking Ball”, Chip Kelly’s one week run of revolutionizing the game ended, and Aaron Rodgers had two healthy shoulders.
On Sunday, the Eagles and Cowboys played hot potato with the NFC East lead against Minnesota and Green Bay, and now both the NFC North and East remain a muddy mess. Philadelphia had appeared to be surging, winners of five straight games with Nick Foles at quarterback. The defense had not given up more than 21 points since the fourth game, in Denver.
That changed in a big way in Minnesota, facing a quarterback who was not the starter when the season began (Matt Cassel) and a running back by the name of Matt Asiata, pressed into his first action of the year because of the Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart injuries. Asiata lumbered to 30 carries and 51 yards, making his the third lowest yards per carry in a game where the back had 30+ carries (Curtis Martin and the Arizona version of Edgerrin James).
It was the passing of Matt Cassel, though, that was the difference. Yes, I actually said that. Cassel set his career high for yards per attempt in a single game, and had his highest completion percentage in a game with at least 25 pass attempts. Cassel looks confident, and is hanging in the pocket and then taking deep shots, things that I rarely saw in Kansas City. He was always a tough player and good teammate, but he took too many sacks and you could adjust his eyes with pressure. Here was the pocket on the first long touchdown to Greg Jennings.
He is actually pulling the ball back in the picture on the left, as the rusher just misses him. He keeps his eyes downfield, steps up in the pocket, and delivered a strike to Jennings.
The Vikings controlled the ball with long drives other than that long touchdown pass. The biggest play, though, came in the fourth quarter. After Minnesota built a 27-9 lead, the Eagles had come back with two quick scores to make it 27-22. Two big drives for the Eagles, and Minnesota faced a 3rd and 14 at midfield.
In a game with Cassel at quarterback and Asiata at running back, of course you would have to bet on Chase Ford and his four career catches playing a role. Ford caught a pass that came within inches of being touched by the defender, and instead turned it upfield for a 37-yard gain.
That play put the Vikings down near the goal line, and Asiata ran it in two plays later. Philadelphia never got closer than 11 points for the rest of the quarter. The Eagles came in as the favorites in the East, but left with a loss to the previously 3-9-1 Vikings. How close was that big 3rd and 14 pass with Philadelphia rallying? It is a game of inches, where that inch can be the difference between defeat and a big comeback.
The Cowboys, of course, know this as well. When that ball is just an inch or two away. The defeat does become a big comeback.
Dallas had jumped to a 26-3 lead against Green Bay at the half. The defense, for a moment, was not getting torched. So what do you do when down by 23 to start the second half? You come out with power, and get a huge 60 yard run.
Green Bay used two blocking backs in front of Lacy, while Dallas originally showed an eight man front, but rotated the safety back to coverage. Once DeMarcus Ware rushed upfield and his blocker allowed him to do so, it was all numerical advantage. Left guard Josh Sitton pushed the tackle out, fullback John Kuhn was able to come through cleanly and double team the linebacker on that side (and then take out Barry Church, allowing for an even bigger gain).
There is plenty of criticism to go around for this one in Dallas. The defense is dreadful, and that returned in the second half starting with that run. Green Bay had 304 total yards in the second half, and scored a touchdown every time they had the ball, until the final kneel down. Dallas’ offense also managed only 100 yards on 38 second half plays.
Green Bay, while trailing by 23 to start the half and not taking the lead until the last two minutes, had 22 passes and 16 runs. Dallas had 20 and 11. There is much blame, and Garrett said that Romo switched to a pass in that situation, but that was just one of the many breakdowns.
It still came down to those inches. Romo, under pressure with an open rusher in his face, throwing while moving to his left. It was the difference between a big touchdown that would have bailed out a defense under fire, or one that put them on the field for a winning short drive.
Now, the inches have evened out, and the Eagles and Cowboys appear to be heading for a week 17 scratch off . . . if Dallas wins this week (or Philadelphia loses again).