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Sunday Night Loss Dashes Eagles Division Hopes

By Paul Macrie, Sports Talk Philly staff writer 

Caleb Sturgis' third field goal of the game on Sunday night gave the Eagles a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter. It appeared they were on their way to a convincing win against the first-place Cowboys, but questionable play-calling, terrible execution, a key turnover and a sputtering defense were reasons for the collapse.

The overtime loss to now 6-1 Dallas most likely dashed hopes of an NFC East title. 

Heading into the 2016 season, very few were selecting the Eagles to win the division. A first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback were two of the reasons for the lower expectations. A 3-0 start to the season created more optimism, especially after their blowout win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3.

Four games later, the team stands at 4-3, losers of three of their last four, including key division losses to the Redskins and Cowboys.

The NFC East road losses are the most important to date. Now at 0-2 in the division entering another road NFC East contest -- this time against the Giants on Sunday, the chances of finishing first place in the division are slim. The Cowboys are 6-1 overall, 2-1 in the division. The Giants are 4-3, 1-1 in the division, and the Redskins are 4-3-1, 2-1 in the division. Dallas and Washington already have key wins against the Eagles -- as mentioned. 

The Cowboys are in the driver's seat to win their second NFC East crown in three seasons. Their schedule the rest of the way is easier compared to Philadelphia, starting with the Browns this weekend. They do have road contests against the Steelers and Vikings, upcoming, but the Eagles have a road game against the Seahawks, plus home games against the Falcons and Packers. 

Of course, it ultimately boils down to how teams perform in the division and then the conference. Head-to-head matchups always decide key playoff tiebreakers at the end of the regular season. The Eagles are now essentially three games back of the Cowboys -- Sunday's result in mind -- with nine games to go. 

After letting a golden opportunity to get back into the division race slip away on the Sunday night stage, the Eagles will need to shift their focus to the Giants - who currently sport the same record. A loss to the G-Men would certainly take Philadelphia out of division contention, especially considering Dallas layup matchup with the winless Browns. A playoff spot remains a possibility, but the division is almost out of the question.

Some could say this thought is premature. There are nine games left in the season, and Dak Prescott can hit the rookie wall at any given moment. For three quarters on Sunday night, it looked like he was about to hit that wall head on with an Eagles' defense that was pressuring and knocking him down. He appeared dazed and confused with some of the throws he was making, too. 

The fourth quarter comeback and overtime nail in the coffin proved otherwise. Prescott has displayed resiliency on several occasions this season, and he has the ideal weapons on offense to help him during the rough moments. Carson Wentz, on the other hand, doesn't have that support from his offensive teammates. His defense has picked him up from time-to-time, but the poor receiver play and untimely turnovers from his running backs are just not conducive for consistent success.

The next four games will dictate whether or not the Eagles will remain in playoff contention. The Giants, Falcons, Seahawks and Packers is a gauntlet of a stretch, and it can easily wear a team down like it did with the Jets' 1-5 start. Though all four teams are certainly beatable, each team has a veteran quarterback that gives them the upper-hand against a rookie under center. 

Though the chances of claiming the NFC East dwindled in the fourth quarter and overtime on Sunday night, time remains on the Eagles' side to get into the playoff conversation. Their performance during the next month will ultimately decide whether they are contenders or pretenders. 

For now, the Cowboys appear poised to win the division and earn a top-two playoff seed. Why? They possess all the key ingredients of a playoff team, including a potent offensive line, above-average running attack and a game-breaking wide receiver in Dez Bryant. It is a formula that led to a playoff win in 2014. 

The Eagles don't have those characteristics on offense, though the defense is superior. Their limitations on offense should begin to curb expectations again. There are reasons to not count out the team altogether, but there are issues that probably won't be addressed until the offseason. 

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