PHILADELPHIA -- Even in a matchup as complicated as Sunday's roller coaster contest, marked by peaks and valleys and wild swings of momentum and emotion, the outcome of the game was still reduced to a simple NFL fact of life.
The team that makes more plays usually wins.
That the Philadelphia Eagles prevailed 38-24 over the hated Dallas Cowboys certainly held to that truism, right to the end, with cornerback Lito Sheppard's 102-yard interception return for a touchdown securing an important victory. But what really made the difference in the final outcome was three big offensive plays the Eagles made, all on passes where the Dallas defense was undone by its two most notable attributes: youth and speed.
Those three plays -- a 60-yard catch by tight end L.J. Smith in the second quarter that set up a short touchdown run by Donovan McNabb, an 87-yard TD catch by rookie Hank Baskett in the third and a 40-yard scoring grab by wideout Reggie Brown on a flea-flicker in the fourth -- established the Eagles as the best team in the short term.
In the long run, though, many came away from the contest believing the Cowboys had outplayed the Eagles in several facets, and Dallas might ultimately become the better team. Right or wrong, such a suspicion was based on two factors: First, despite surrendering seven sacks and five turnovers, and with quarterback Drew Bledsoe playing miserably, Dallas still had a chance in the closing seconds to send the game into overtime. Second (and far more meaningful), the Cowboys have assembled a defense that could emerge as a terrific unit.
Of the 11 defensive starters, eight have less than five full seasons of NFL tenure, and four are either second-year players or rookies. The starters average just 26.2 years of age and everybody runs well. Coach Bill Parcells used the 2005 draft to all but complete the transition to the 3-4 front he preferred, netting three starters, and now has his kind of personnel on hand. Even the reserves on the unit are young, quick and aggressive.
The only older players in the lineup are 10th-year nose tackle Jason Ferguson and linebacker Greg Ellis, the ninth-year pro who balked at moving from defensive end in the spring, but has made an excellent transition to a stand-up role.
"I think the pieces are here, yeah, even if it didn't show all the time [on Sunday]," said second-year linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who had three tackles, 1½ sacks, a quarterback pressure, one pass defensed and a fumble recovery that he returned 69 yards for a score. "There are a lot of good, young, hungry players around here. But we've got to grow up. A lot of us were in position to make
plays and we didn't. And that was the difference."
A look at the three difference-making plays:
• On the 60-yard pass to Smith, up the right seam, McNabb was able to get the ball to his tight end behind the coverage because inside linebacker Bradie James had taken a misstep toward the line of scrimmage, and rookie free safety Pat Watkins failed to cover the void created. It was the first but hardly the last play on which Watkins, a gangly, fifth-round draft choice, committed a crucial error.
• Leading 21-17 midway through the third quarter, and with Philadelphia backed to its own 13-yard line, the Dallas coaches made what should have been a perfect defensive call for the play the Eagles ran on first down. Ellis blitzed from the left and Anthony Henry came on a "corner fire" blitz from the right side. But Ellis, who got around right tackle Jon Runyan easily on the play, as he had most of the afternoon, whiffed on what should have been a sack. McNabb stepped up and, because Henry had blitzed, knew that Baskett was in single coverage against Watkins. He lofted a perfectly thrown pass deep up the left side that Baskett took in stride. Watkins missed a tackle, and the Eagles scored.
"It was the perfect [defensive] call for the play they ran," a frustrated Parcells said. "I mean, we couldn't have made a better call. We blitzed the corner [Henry], because we felt like we knew the play. But McNabb made a good adjustment [to avoid the sack] and then [Watkins] missed a tackle."
• With the game tied at 24 in the fourth quarter, the Eagles ran the flea-flicker, with reserve tailback Correll Buckhalter taking the handoff then pitching back to McNabb. The Eagles' quarterback floated a deep pass toward the end zone, where Watkins and strong safety Roy Williams seemed to have Brown blanketed. Somehow the ball got through Watkins' hands and Brown made the catch deep in the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Those three pass plays accounted for 187 yards, nearly half of the 383 yards the Eagles netted and more than 60 percent of McNabb's passing yardage.
"For them to make as many big plays as they did, no, never did I see that happening," James said. "Give them credit, but put [the onus] on us for not making the plays ourselves."
Said Williams: "When there are plays right in front of you to be made, you've got to make them, because those are plays that determine the outcome. Most games are going to come down to three or four key plays, and this was one of those games. And today, we didn't make them, and it killed us."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.