Things are feeling pretty good for the Dallas Cowboys. The winning streak is still alive, and after the results of Sunday’s games, they are the first team in the NFL to lock up a playoff spot.
But the rosy feelings should not keep us (or the team, of course) from looking at the very close, difficult win over the Minnesota Vikings and seeing what we can learn about the Cowboys. There are definitely some lessons to take away from that game.
The Cowboys have won eleven in a row, but they still have some very real flaws.
For once, all the talk about facing the biggest challenge of the season so far was completely accurate. The Vikings threw pressure at Dak Prescott and largely bottled up Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas was only able to convert one third down. Minnesota dominated time of possession, out-gained the Cowboys, and won the turnover battle. It was largely one huge play on special teams, the recovered fumble at the Vikings’ eight-yard line, that made the difference, plus one deep pass to Dez Bryant. Controlling the ball so much also allowed Minnesota to expose Dallas’ defense. In particular, the game looked a bit like so many from last year, when the defense would have a strong performance for three quarters, only to fade late in the game as they were forced to stay on the field for so many plays. The Vikings had 69 snaps on offense, which is a huge number for an NFL game. Conversely, the Cowboys only had 49, which gave the defenders little time to get any rest. Most disturbingly, this was the second game in a row with such an unfavorable ratio for Dallas, and Washington was similarly able to rack up some big offensive numbers in the fourth quarter, although in that game the Cowboys were never really in danger as they had a two score lead to work with at that point and were able to match Washington drive for drive.
However, it must be acknowledged that this was the fourth game in a rather grueling stretch. They played the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens leading up to the Thanksgiving Day game, both very physical teams. There is no question that the players looked drained in the video of Jason Garrett’s post-game speech. The extra rest the team is getting this week could not have come at a better time to get some energy back for the final stretch run to the playoffs.
But despite all, the Cowboys just keep winning.
Yes, the Cowboys have their flaws. But they still look like one of the strongest teams in the league, and there are very few teams that have the talent to challenge them. A lot has been said about Minnesota giving other teams a formula to beat Dallas, but no one else has the defensive talent the Vikings bring to the field. One thing is evident this season, and that is that the coaching staff has done a very good job of identifying things that need to be fixed and correcting them.
They say that things get tougher in the NFL after Thanksgiving, and the Vikings game may be evidence of that. The Cowboys rose to the challenge in the first of those games, and it is unlikely their focus is going to falter because they have already been assured of a trip to the postseason. Rising to the challenge has become a characteristic of this team. The final four games will certainly not be easy, with the first three against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today, and the finale against a Philadelphia Eagles team that may be playing to salvage a little pride by getting some revenge against Dallas for the loss earlier in the season. Still, this is in no way a soft team that has shown any hints of getting off task.
One very important thing for the Cowboys is that they came home from the trip to Minnesota with no significant injuries, per Jason Garrett. Meanwhile, the New York Giants, the next opponent, may be without Jason Pierre-Paul, who left the game Sunday with a groin injury and is going to have an MRI. Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and receiver/returner Dwayne Harris were also knocked out of the game, although their injuries are not thought to be as serious.
Most importantly, Dallas has a margin for error.
With a three game lead over the New York Giants in the NFC East and a two and a half game lead for home field advantage all the way for the playoffs, the Cowboys only have to win two of the remaining four games to finish as division champs and have the best record in the NFC. There are some who speculate that losing a game would be a good thing to get the Cowboys ready for the playoffs. The theory seems to be that they need to face some hardship in order to be toughened up and to not be overconfident. After the Minnesota game, that seems a bit unnecessary. They got punched right in the face in that game, and there are going to be a lot of things on the video from that experience to learn from. It was better than a loss, of course, and still comes with many opportunities for teachable moments.
15-1 still seems to be an overly lofty goal, but that is not the way the Cowboys will approach things, anyway. They take it one game at a time, and right now the focus is on the rematch with the Giants. That may see a little extra intensity from Dallas, since it will be a chance to get a bit of revenge of their own for the only loss this season.
This is going to be a tough four game stretch, make no mistake. Remember, though, that this was supposed to be a very tough year with a rookie quarterback and a suspect defense. That has turned into a franchise-record winning streak.
The Cowboys have already made a little history. Maybe they are going to make a good bit more.