What a game! Just when you think it can’t get any better for this storybook 2016 Dallas Cowboys’ season, it does. This was the Cowboys’ biggest test, on the road against a desperate Steelers team that plays much much better at home. Off a Dak Prescott strip-sack fumble on the third play from scrimmage, the Cowboys spotted the Steelers field position to get their first six points, and fell behind 12-3 early, but battled back in a game with seven lead changes to take the lead late in the third quarter, then had to rally twice in the final minutes, including with 42 seconds left, and came out on top. Stunning! Dallas won 35-30.
It was the Cowboys’ eighth victory in a row, matching the 1977 team led by Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett, for the longest in franchise history. Let that sink in for a minute.
It was more Zeke tonight than Dak, with 21 carries for 114 yards, and 95 yards receiving on two catches, including this 83-yard screen play for a touchdown in the second quarter that brought the Cowboys back into the game.
But Dak Prescott was very impressive in his own right as well. He had a season high 319 yards passing. He completed 68.75% of his passes, for a passer rating of 121.7. He threw two touchdown passes, to Zeke on the screen pass above (on a second and eighteen play), and to Dez Bryant for 50 yards (on a third and eleven play). Dallas was seven of thirteen on third down, for 54%. Dak did not scramble or run, and was sacked twice for 24 yards, the most yards lost on the season.
But what stood out more than the stats that are outlined below was when Dak and Zeke were at their best, in the fourth quarter, when the game was on the line.
Starting at 7:51 of the fourth quarter, with Dallas down 24-23, Dak led Dallas on a 10-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown just inside the two minute warning. In the drive, Dak was six for six for 48 yards. Zeke ran for a first down on third and one, caught a pass for 12 yards, and finished off the drive with a 14-yard scamper into the end zone for a 29-24 Dallas lead with 1:55 left.
They left Pittsburgh a bit too much time, however, and Big Ben moved the Steelers rapidly down the field (thanks in part to an illegal uncalled downfield block on Sean Lee) to re-take the lead 30-29 with 42 seconds left. (Pittsburgh missed their fourth two-point try after their TD, one of the truly odd elements of the game.)
Dak was unfazed. You could see him fist bumping his offensive linemen on the sideline helping infuse the team with confidence that they could come back. And come back they did, in five plays for 75 yards and another touchdown! This time Dak needed only three completions for 28 yards, with the help of a Pittsburgh face mask penalty (and another that was missed), to put Dallas on the Steelers’ 32-yard line. Seeking to line up a better kick with one time out left, Dallas decided to hand it to Zeke, who powered untouched into the end zone for the final 35-30 lead.
Dak’s stats from his first nine weeks.
(Note: The key stats here are Adjusted Net Yards per attempt, which demonstrates how well a QB gets the ball down the field and into the end zone. Completion percentage tends to show accuracy. Attempts shows the run/pass balance, with fewer attempts for QBs often the goal. Turnovers, or the lack of them, are also critical.)
This was Dak’s first game over 300 yards passing. It was his third-highest in ANY/A and passer rating. He had his longest pass play of the season - the 83-yard screen pass to Zeke - and a beautiful 50-yard TD bomb to Dez Bryant. Indeed, a week after Dez was held to one catch for 19 yards, Dak hit him six times in nine attempts for 116 yards and the long touchdown.
Dak had two touchdown passes again, and now has 10 in his last four games.
He went toe-to-toe with Ben Roethlisberger, and only narrowly lost the passer rating differential 121.7 (for Dak) to 125.4 (for Ben), which is a key variable in who wins football games. (Big Ben was able to pad his stats in the last nine seconds with two passes for 55 yards. Taking those away, he still would have nipped Dak by a point. But the Dallas defense would have kept their streak of no 100-yard receivers alive.) Dak didn’t get picked, but he did fumble, and showed again how important keeping the turnovers down has been on this historic run.
Overall, Dallas gained 422 net yards - 209 of them by Zeke - for its seventh game in a row over 400 yards, extending its franchise record.
How does Dak stand up against Tony Romo’s 2014 season? With another great game by Dak, and Tony out of the Arizona game due to injury, Dak has extended the lead he re-established last game. His ANY/A number is more than a yard ahead of Romo’s at this point, and higher than Romo finished the 2014 season. With Romo out, his seasonal passing yards are 341 yards ahead of Romo, and he’s only one passing TD short of Romo, while having four rushing TDs. Plus, Prescott still has only two interceptions to Romo’s six.
With his eighth consecutive win, Prescott has bettered Tony Romo’s best streak of seven from 2007. It’s a team game, but that’s still a record worth acknowledging.
Here are Tony Romo’s 2014 stats after nine Cowboys’ games. The ninth game was against Arizona, with Brandon Weeden at quarterback. Dallas lost.
Tony Romo will be active next week, but he’ll be backing up Dak Prescott.
"Dak has got a hot hand and we're going to go with it."— ESPN (@espn) November 14, 2016
Jerry Jones says the Cowboys are sticking with Prescott: https://t.co/H6obPBUksC
As long as Dak and Zeke and the Cowboys keep winning, there is no reason to make a change.
How did Zeke do in game nine? This was his most impactful game, though it didn’t seem like it well into the fourth quarter. Zeke had only 72 yards rushing and no rushing touchdowns when Dallas received the ball down 24-23 with 7:51 left. But he would add 42 yards and two touchdowns on the Cowboys’ final two drives, punctuating the win with a 32-yard untouched romp up the middle that scored with nine seconds left.
- Rushing: 21 carries, 114 yards, 5.4 YPC, 2 TD, long 32 yards, no fumbles.
- Receiving: 2 receptions, 2 targets, 95 yards, 1 TD, long 83 yards.
What do his totals look like after nine games?
Zeke had his biggest game yet, with more 209 yards from scrimmage and three of Dallas’s four touchdowns. Zeke is now over 1,000 yards rushing after nine games, becoming only the third running back in NFL history to achieve it, along with Adrian Peterson and Eric Dickerson. That projects out to 1,786 over 16 games, so he remains slightly behind the Eric Dickerson rookie pace. But Dallas has bigger fish to fry than chasing individual records. At 8-1, tops in the NFL after New England’s loss to the Seahawks, Dallas is chasing a ninth Super Bowl appearance.
Sure, some Dak Prescott passes missed their targets and a few were dropped. But let's get a few things straight about this performance: It was in a hostile environment vs. a proud and desperate team. It was against a capable defense that put on more pressure than has been seen all year. And it was 35 points, 422 yards, 54 percent third-down efficiency and four second-half scores. Big plays and relentless spirit topped off by two clutch touchdown possessions to win the game. There seem to be no bounds to this offense and no limits to what it thinks it can accomplish. It is an elite offense.
This seems a bit harsh, given the two late drives. Are expectations rising?
My grades this week?
- Dak. A. Positives: Dak’s composure at the end of the game is perhaps his most remarkable trait. When the game is on the line, he’s been performing at his best, and the team is right there with him in pulling these tight games out. This time, all he did was match up against Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and one-up him with a 33 second drive after Big Ben had thought he’d pulled out the game. Negatives? The strip fumble on the game’s third play.
- Zeke. A+. Zeke was the difference maker in this game, with his three touchdown plays of 14, 32, and 83 yards. Negatives? None really.
What did you think of their performances?