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Grading the Cowboys after they survive for one more week in the NFC playoff chase

Grading the Cowboys not-so-pretty 30-10 victory over the Giants.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The boxscore and the standings will forever show a routine, seemingly dominant 30-10 victory for the Cowboys over the Giants Sunday. But for those of us watching it was mostly an ugly affair that only turned pretty in the final 10 minutes. Dropped passes, penalties and missed field goals were the story for the first 50 minutes as Dallas found itself in a 10-10 snoozer early in the fourth quarter. But then Cole Beasley took a short hitch for 54 yards, Dak Prescott hit Jason Witten for a 20-yard touchdown on the next play, Rod Smith did his best Marshall Faulk impression a few minutes later, and next thing you know the Cowboys are setting up in victory formation. Let’s check out the grades:

Overall: B

The New York Giants are a bad football team. There’s a reason they’ve won only two games all season. Yeah, they had Steve Spagnuolo making his Giants’ head coaching debut and the emotional lift of a returning Eli Manning... but none of that changes the fact they’re one of the two or three worst teams in the NFL. So, it was a bit frustrating to see Dallas unable to gain any sort of advantage over the first three quarters of the game. The Dallas offense took turns grinding out short yards then shooting itself in the foot. Dez Bryant had a potential touchdown pass go through his hands and hit him in the face. Cole Beasley immediately followed up by dropping an easy first down pass.

In total the Cowboys dropped four first half passes. The ever-reliable Dan Bailey proved he’s human by missing two field goals and an extra point. Alfred Morris’ best run of the day was wiped out by a Jason Witten penalty. The defense, meanwhile, allowed one of the worst rushing games in the league to run effectively, didn’t record a sack and through 55 minutes, recorded zero turnovers. It was that kind of day... until suddenly it wasn’t.

In the final ten minutes the offense would explode for 191 yards and put 20 points on the board while the defense forced two turnovers. Fifty minutes of frustrating game-play suddenly morphed into a cornucopia of Cowboy fun.

The bottom line is Dallas went on the road and beat a division foe, something that should never be taken for granted. They kept the team’s faint playoff hopes alive for at least another week. Dak Prescott had his best game in several months. Following three straight embarrassing losses Dallas has outscored two division opponents by a 68-24 margin. I’ll take it.

Coaching: B

There’s lots to complain about Jason Garrett’s robotic “process” but he gets his guys to play hard. The Cowboys’ issues weren’t a lack of effort. In fact, I’d say that was one of the harder hitting games we’ve seen from the defense. The decision to go with the kids in the secondary looks like a permanent move. Finally, the coaches figured out a way to use their running backs in the passing game and the isolation of Rod Smith on a linebacker resulted in the biggest play of the game.

Quarterback: A

A number of folks have opined that in order for the 2017 Dallas Cowboys to have any hope of a post-season Rayne Dakota Prescott was going to have to play better than he has recently. Message received.

Yeah, more than half of Dak Prescott’s career-high 332 yards passing came on runs after the catch but does anyone care? Prescott played a lot like the cool, poised decision-maker we saw over his first 20 games in his career. He was smart with his decision-making and delivered the ball into tight spaces.

The contested first half first down pass to James Hanna was the kind of thing we haven’t seen much of lately. A downfield pass to Dez Bryant should have been a touchdown. Dak hit Jason Witten on a perfectly placed deep seam route for a 20-yard touchown.

After committing six turnovers in the Eagles and Chargers games Prescott again protected the ball, with no fumbles or interceptions.

Then there were three big yardage plays:

  1. Dez Bryant taking a short slant pass to the house after out-muscling the defender for the ball.
  2. Cole Beasley with a huge catch-and-run that turned a dire-looking tie game into a quick Cowboys lead.
  3. Rod Smith icing the game with a simple slant route where Prescott knew exactly what he wanted, looked the other way, then delivered another well-placed ball for a back-breaking 81-yard touchdown.

Prescott’s 137 passer rating was his best since week 3 against Arizona; his 87.3 QBR rating was his best since week 5 against Green Bay. It was a much-needed top-shelf performance for the second-year vet.

Offensive line: B

I was a bit bewildered by the rushing results. On the one hand, the numbers are mediocre (122 yards for a 3.9 yards average) and there weren’t really any noteworthy plays until Rod Smith scampered 15 yards for a touchdown with just under three minutes remaining.

But I also remember a lot of productive runs setting up 2nd-and-6 or 3rd-and-3. The Giants’ defense never surrendered like the Redskins did a week earlier. But they never totally shut the Cowboys’ run game down either. This is an instance where Garrett’s stubbornness paid off as the Dallas offense maintained balance throughout the game.

Prescott again enjoyed solid pass protection throughout. La’el Collins held up very well despite not practicing all week. The Cowboys offensive line is again at the point where a relatively poor game still warrants high grades.

Running back: A

We pretty much know what we’re gonna get with Alfred Smith. He’s going to run hard. He’s going to hit holes and occasionally break a tackle. He’s not going to make any eye-opening plays. He had the makings of another 18-22 carry, 80-100 yard game until a Jason Witten holding penalty wiped out a 25-yard run.

No problem. The Cowboys went instead to one of the team’s Smiths. This time Rod Smith turned the game in the fourth quarter. His 81-yard catch-and-run effectively ended the game and electrified Cowboys fans. He later added a 15-yard touchdown to finish with 160 yards from scrimmage.

Smith looked impressive in preseason and there were quite a few clamoring for him to get touches while Ezekiel Elliott has been on suspension. Smith has rewarded that faith with 260 yards of offense and four touchdowns in the last five weeks. I’m pretty sure the 2018 running back depth chart will be Elliott and R. Smith.

Wide receivers/tight ends: B

What a difference a quarter can make. Through three quarters this grade would have been a C- or D+. As mentioned above, the receivers combined to drop four passes, including a touchdown pass and two first down passes. A Jason Witten penalty negated a 25-yard Morris run at a key juncture late in the third quarter. The only positive play from this group had been a throw-back Dez Bryant play where he outfought the defender for the ball then raced 50 yards for a touchdown.

But then, with the game in the balance, Cole Beasley and Witten made back-to-back plays that completely changed the momentum. First, with less than 10 minutes remaining and the score tied, Beasley took a short third-down pass 54 yards to put Dallas in scoring position. On the very next play Jason Witten also gave us a throwback play, going deep up the seam to receive a perfectly placed pass for a 20-yard touchdown and 17-10 lead the Cowboys would never look back on.

Defensive line: B-

The Cowboys defensive line recorded no sacks, no fumbles, no tackles for loss and no passes defensed. They also allowed the Giants’ woe-begotten rushing game to enjoy some early success. But they were able to pressure Manning and didn’t allow him to sit in the pocket and find open receivers as he has in the past. The Giants were only twice able to sustain drives of any real length as the Cowboys forced four punts and two long, missed field goals.

Linebackers: A

That Sean Lee guy is pretty good. All he did in his first action back since injuring his hammy was record 18 tackles and add an interception. He also made the defensive play of the game early in the fourth quarter of a tie game. The Giants had a 2nd-and-4 from their own 26 and tried an end-around to Sterling Shepard. But Lee sniffed the play out immediately, quickly raced to the point of attack and took down Shepard with a solo tackle for a nine-yard loss. The Giants would punt two plays later and the Cowboys would score touchdowns on their next three drives. Not sure all that happens without Lee’s prescient play.

Anthony Hitchens had another strong game, adding 14 tackles. Jaylon Smith added five tackles of his own. This much-maligned unit is a strength with Lee in the lineup and a major weakness without him.

Secondary: A

It’s hard not to get excited now that we’re finally getting a chance to see Chidobie Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods all getting extended playing time together. They’re simply better than what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the Cowboys’ secondary the last... oh, 15 years or so. Sunday the three combined to defend six passes, a tackle for loss and 10 tackles. The Giants passing game never really got going with Evan Engrams’ 35-yard catch being the only play that went more than 16 yards. Awuzie’s aggressive defense of a fourth-quarter Manning attempt knocked the ball in the air, allowing Sean Lee to make the interception.

Through two weeks this group has looked promising against the likes of Kirk Cousins and Eli Manning. We’ve yet to see them face a high-octane passing attack but they at least give fans hopes after years of prayers and crossing fingers.

Special teams: D

Sunday was Dan Bailey’s 105th game with the Dallas Cowboys. And this is the first time I can say he was a major weakness for Dallas. He missed two (admittedly lengthy) field goals as well as an extra point. The extra point miss was his first in 273 tries. None of it mattered but it easily could have. Honestly, when Bailey missed late in the third quarter to squash a Cowboys drive and give the Giants good field position it really felt like another small thing that was going to end up costing the Cowboys big.

Instead, thanks to Dallas’ big fourth quarter outburst Bailey’s difficult day will be just another footnote. Otherwise the special teams didn’t make any big plays but also didn’t allow any. Though Ryan Switzer didn’t have any big returns he looks much more confident than just 5-6 weeks ago. He’s aggressively fielding punts in order to return them but also made a smart decision to allow a deep punt to bounce through into the end zone for a touchback.

Uniforms: A

The navy blue tops with the white pants... be still my heart! Absolutely love the new look and hope we see it a lot more!

Summary: it wasn’t pretty but we’ll all forget about that. It was a 20-point road victory over a division foe and makes next week’s game count and that’s all that matters.