A week ago, doubt and concern stormed rampant throughout the vast Dallas Cowboys fan base, leading to a very uncomfortable and nervous wait to see what the second Sunday Night game in a row would bring. Now, a sense of calm and a good bit of relief prevails after the 26-20 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After fourteen games, it would seem logical that there is not much to learn about a team, but in this remarkable year for the Cowboys, there are still things to glean in every contest.
Dak is definitely back.
Forget the “quarterback controversy”. Chalk those awkward comments from the owner early in the week up to Jerry just gonna be Jerry. The amazing year of Dak Prescott didn’t just get back on track, he was in top form. He completed 32 of 36 passes on the night, which is reported to be the second-best completion percentage for a passer throwing over 30 attempts in NFL history. He found eight different receivers, and while he did not throw a touchdown that was not called back by penalty (more about that later), he added another score with his legs, setting the all-time franchise record for rushing scores by a quarterback.
Once again, the most significant thing Prescott demonstrated was not his physical skill but his mental acumen and toughness. Add resiliency to his impressive and growing resume. Given all that he has so unexpectedly accomplished this season, it may not be a good idea to bet against the rookie just yet as we head toward the playoffs.
Resiliency is a team trait, too.
The pressure was not just on Prescott to rebound from that ugly loss to the New York Giants last week. The entire offense had looked out of sync. With one notable exception, the offense was firing on all cylinders this time. Receivers were open, Ezekiel Elliott was eating while also tweaking the league’s nose with his celebrated leap into the giant Salvation Army kettle, and the team was able to convert several key third downs. The only negative was that Dallas should have scored significantly more points, but repeatedly shot itself in the foot with penalties, snuffing out several promising drives. Still, the Cowboys racked up 449 yards (setting yet another team record with the ninth such game in a single season), dominated time of possession, and thanks to the leg of Dan Bailey eked out enough points to secure the victory.
The Cowboys still have problems, but they look to be the fixable kind.
Those penalties were highly frustrating. Dallas left at least 14 points on the field, and possibly more, as well as setting up the Buccaneers for a field goal when Bailey left that 56-yard attempt short. The Cowboys were flagged a total of eight times for 91 yards, and that is just not acceptable. But those are the kinds of mistakes that the team has the ability to get corrected. Given how much the Cowboys corrected from the previous game, there is good reason to expect the penalties to be cleaned up as well.
Another concern was that the play-calling seemed to get a bit too cute at times. In particular, they missed on some conversions when they tried to get Lucky Whitehead involved in the offense. But this was perhaps more an issue of execution than play selection. And there is certainly value in keeping those plays in the mind of the defense. The threat of a jet sweep or a reverse can freeze a defense for just a tick, which is all you need to sometimes get a big play. Plus sometimes it can work very well. Had the handoff from Elliott gone well on the play that was disrupted by penetration, it looked like Whitehead had some room to operate. Don’t expect those kinds of plays to disappear from the repertoire, but instead look for more work on getting them right.
Meanwhile, the defense is cooking just when they need it to.
While the resurgence of Prescott and the offense was badly needed, it was the domination of the defense down the stretch that really won this one. In the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers had the ball for five possessions and gained a total of ten yards. That is a complete shutdown, including neutralizing the one turnover by the Cowboys when Jason Witten fumbled the ball for the only giveaway committed by Dallas. David Irving, for the second time this season, absolutely took over a game and rendered Jameis Winston impotent. Benson Mayowa continued a late-season surge. And the Cowboys took the ball away four times. Winning both the turnover and sack battle was big. For the game, Dallas’ defense limited the Bucs to only 276 yards and continued to hold the opponent’s score to 20 points or less. For the season, the Cowboys are only yielding 18.4 points a game, tied for fourth in the league with the vaunted Denver Broncos’ D. And nobody is rushing the ball on Dallas.
Don't worry about the #Cowboys facing the number one rushing defense in the NFL anymore because they are it with 80.9 yards a game.— Mark Lane (@therealmarklane) December 19, 2016
The Cowboys have still not allowed a 100-yard rusher. They have only seen one receiver get 100 yards, which included some garbage time yards. The formula this season was supposed to be control the ball and score while the defense was just good enough, but now the defense may be the strength of the team as the playoffs loom. And they say that defense wins championships. This is just as shocking as the emergence of Prescott, and a true tribute to Rod Marinelli and his staff. They are figuring out what their players can do and how to put them in a position to win.
Now the Cowboys have 12 wins against only those two losses to the Giants, and still sit in the driver’s seat for the first overall seed in the NFC. One more win, or one stumble by those pests from New York, and they will hold home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
It continues to be an amazing ride for the Cowboys and the fans. Here’s hoping for five more victories to make this a season for the ages.