After the way this season has unfolded, you keep thinking that nothing can still amaze you about the 2016 edition of the Dallas Cowboys. And then they deliver what has been called the best game of the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers and you see even more than you had imagined this team, led by two incredible rookies, could do. Challenges keep coming up, and the Cowboys just surmount them. Here are things we learned in that marvelous 35-30 win.
Adversity just seems to bring out the best in them.
We keep hearing how an upcoming game represents the biggest task of the season so far, but in this case, that was a justifiable claim. The Steelers are a talented, experienced team. Heinz Field is one of the toughest venues to go into and try to win. And Pittsburgh was playing with a bit of desperation as they are fighting to stay in the playoff race. If there was ever a time for a rookie quarterback to finally come up against something that was too high for him to climb, it was this game.
It wasn’t going to happen. With a depleted secondary getting gashed late in the game, the Cowboys were forced into a shootout between Dak Prescott and Ben Roethlisberger, and the rookie turned out to be too much - partly because he had a weapon that Big Ben could not match in Ezekiel Elliott. Yet that does not take anything away from the way Prescott stepped up down the stretch. Needing to match the Steelers touchdown for touchdown late, he kept coming through. The one thing the Cowboys could not afford was a turnover, and despite being victimized on a fumble early in the game that put Dallas in an early hole, Prescott did not come close to throwing an interception in those crucial drives. Poise has become his trademark, and it was simply off the charts. And Elliott was there to deliver the defining shots with his two go-ahead touchdowns AFTER the two minute warning at the end of the game. With the more than able support of the offensive line and the rest of the receivers, who take blocking as seriously as they do catching the ball, Dak and Zeke showed that together, they are something incredible.
And do not forget the huge game by Dez Bryant, who was playing less than 24 hours after learning of his father’s death. He not only came through with his best game of the season, but you could see the way the rest of the team rallied around him. They call themselves a family, and that was never more so than when they gathered around him in the end zone after he scored his touchdown. This team plays for each other, and that is a major factor for winning teams.
Preparation is everything.
There were two things that the Cowboys faced that they handled with complete aplomb, and in both cases, it was the effort spent in practices beforehand that made the difference.
First, the Steelers went for a two-point conversion on all four of their touchdowns - and failed on all of them. One was at least partly on their own mistake, but the Cowboys stated after the game that they had practiced to defend the two-point conversion because they knew that was Mike Tomlin’s tendency. It must be remembered that every time, they had just been beaten for a score, so to go back out and successfully stop the potent attack of Pittsburgh four times is noteworthy. They knew what they had to do because they had been prepared by the coaches.
Then they faced the do-or-die situation at the end of the game, down by a point with only 42 seconds left on the clock. They did have all three timeouts to work with, which was vital. But Prescott remarked that he knew how to handle the situation, because the Cowboys practice that scenario every Thursday. He was seen before the drive pumping up his line to go out and win the game. And that’s just what they did, even though they wound up with six points instead of the expected Dan Bailey winning field goal they were planning on.
This is really happening.
It seems unreal given the circumstances that faced Dallas to begin the year, but they now boast the best record in the NFL at 8-1, following the New England Patriots losing their second game of the year. Their +88 point differential is a full ten points ahead of the second place Patriots as well. Detractors still point to the losing record of so many teams that the Cowboys have beaten, but there have been ample examples this year that no NFL game is a given for any franchise. The Cowboys have now won in almost every way conceivable, coming from behind, forcing and winning an overtime, two-digit wins over teams that were supposed to be much more difficult, and flat out dominating lesser foes. There just aren’t any boxes left to be checked off on the field, except beating another team with a really good record. And it looks like they may not face one of those until the playoffs. Only one of the remaining opponents for them have more than five wins on the season. It is certainly a long shot for Dallas to win out the rest of the way, but they have a full two-game cushion in the win column for both the first seed and the division championship, and are rapidly approaching locking up a playoff spot.
It still seems impossible for them to be here, but they are. They are the hottest team in the league. They may be the most complete one as well. There is still a lot of football to play, but we are past the halfway point of the regular season, and since that one point loss to open the season, nothing has thrown them off course.
This Cowboys team is for real.