If you were expecting a lackluster effort from the Dallas Cowboys after the NFC East and home field advantage for the playoffs were locked up, you were very, very wrong. Facing the Detroit Lions, who were playing with their own playoff chances very much in the balance, they stormed to a 42-21 victory where the Cowboys were at times unstoppable on offense and, after looking very vulnerable in the first half, the defense put the clamps on the Lions. Dak Prescott had his best statistical game of the year, throwing three touchdowns while posting a 148.3 passer rating. The defense notched four sacks, a recovered fumble, and an interception. Dez Bryant had one of the best games of his career, including throwing a touchdown as well as catching two. Ezekiel Elliott only totaled 80 yards rushing, but scored two touchdowns, including a 55 yard breakaway. And that was the most points scored by Dallas all season long as they tied the all time record for regular season wins, now standing at 13-2. Even the punter got in the act, as Chris Jones laid as big a hit as you will ever see from a punter in the fourth quarter.
It was not without some bad news, however, as Tyron Smith left the game in with an apparent knee injury. There were reports that he might be able to return, so the injury is hopefully not too serious, and the wise choice now might be to keep him off the field until the playoffs. There were some other injury problems along the way, penalties still were committed by the Cowboys far too often, and the special teams yielded too many return yards. But overall, Dallas definitely looked like it was headed for the playoffs as the NFC favorite.
The game started out with both offenses firing on all cylinders and neither defense having an answer. The Cowboys got the opening kickoff after the Lions won the toss but deferred (a strategy that is still puzzling given how productive Dallas has been on opening drives, especially early in the season) and the Cowboys drove right down the field as Prescott connected on all but one pass, capping things off with a 21 yard touchdown pass to Brice Butler, who climbed the ladder to haul it in. But Detroit answered, with a surprisingly effective run game from Zach Zenner, who scored untouched from the 7. Ezekiel Elliott would come back at them with a 55 yard touchdown run, and then the Lions would punch it in on fourth down from inside the one yard line, when the Cowboys came within a couple of inches of holding Matthew Stafford out of the end zone after Detroit had a first and goal from the one.
Then things got a little dicey for the Cowboys offense. They continued to have penalty problems, this time mostly centering around false starts, and would go three and out. Detroit, which was running a no huddle offense throughout, would slice through the defense again, and Zenner would get his second rushing touchdown. It was starting to look like the Cowboys did not have their head in the game and the visitors wanted it more.
The Cowboys’ defense had problems keeping enough healthy linemen on the field. With DeMarcus Lawrence, Cedric Thornton, and Tyrone Crawford all inactive, they had more bad news as both Ryan Davis and Terrell McClain were injured. Getting a pass rush was becoming difficult, and it was an opportunity for the Lions to start to take control. But Rod Marinelli got creative, and after a Jones punt went out of bounds at the Detroit ten yard line, Benson Mayowa and David Irving held a little rushmen meeting at Stafford on the two yard line. It set up Dallas at their own 49 with plenty of time, and after offsetting penalties kept the drive alive, Prescott found Dez Bryant in the end zone on as great a catch as you are likely to see. He was clearly interfered with (and drew the flag), but still reached down with one hand to knock the ball up into his own body and secure it. It brought the Cowboys even at 21 all for halftime. Prescott was 9 of 12 for 122 yards and the two touchdowns, Elliott had 74 yards rushing, and Dez had 51 yards in total receptions. However, one disturbing thing that happened several times in the half was Prescott trying to make plays with his legs, and taking hits that induced queasiness for Cowboys fans. There was clearly no protecting the starters for Dallas in this game.
With the first drive of the second half, the Lions had disaster strike. Despite the depleted defensive line, the Cowboys got a second sack of Stafford from Maliek Collins, setting up a second and 31 (including an earlier holding penalty), and Stafford tried to bail his team out under pressure again, only to have the ball carom off Brandon Carr and into the arms of J.J. Wilcox. The interception set up a penalty-aided short touchdown drive by the Cowboys, capped by Elliott’s second score of the night as he continued to make his case as the league MVP. It would probably be even stronger if that other rookie was not having such a strong year at quarterback.
After Bryant had a very strong first half, Terrence Williams showed up in the third quarter, catching three passes on a 95 yard drive, this one assisted by a questionable personal foul call that may have been a bit unwarranted. But you take the breaks when they fall your way, and that set up a totally unexpected bit of trickery from the Cowboys. After they drove to the 10, Prescott flipped the ball to Bryant on what looked like an end around, and then Bryant pulled up and tossed it to a wide open Jason Witten for a touchdown. That pushed the lead to 35-21, and there were still over four minutes left in the third quarter.
One story that was very fascinating to watch was how the Cowboys repeatedly used the 3-2-dime package, as Jon Gruden called it on the broadcast. With six defensive backs, Marinelli still found ways to use blitzing linebackers to bring pressure, and sometimes the three linemen managed to do so on their own. It led directly to the Wilcox interception, and Stafford nearly threw another one in the third quarter as Sean Lee put him under duress. And things were effectively ended by Irving’s strip-sack of Stafford in the red zone with 4:51 left before the end of the game.
Another thing was that the Lions clearly put it on Stafford’s shoulders with the no-huddle offense, despite finding some rushing success in the first half. He began missing throws under the unexpected pressure (including a batted ball by Irving, who continues his emergence as a multi-faceted force on the defensive line), while the Cowboys continued to use a balanced attack, including some strong work by Darren McFadden in relief of Elliott. They would show that on a drive to finish with Bryant’s second receiving touchdown of the game. Along the way, Prescott faced an all out blitz and calmly found Cole Beasley for the first down.
There were flaws, but overall, the Cowboys were clearly the dominant team, and hopefully the injuries in the game will not turn out to be severe. If Dallas wanted to maintain their edge as the playoffs approach, that mission was clearly accomplished.