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Cowboys lesson learned: We don’t know what this team really is

Feeling puzzled after the win over Washington? You should be.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Every week, you get to read my take on the lesson or lessons learned from the most recent Dallas Cowboys game. But folks, this week, I am channeling my inner Jon Snow: I know nothing. (My apologies to all you non-geeks who don’t follow Game of Thrones.)

After the previous three games where the Cowboys looked like they should be in contention for the first overall draft pick, not the playoffs, they came out on Thursday Night Football and just dominated Washington. It was a huge and remarkable swing, especially on the scoreboard. But does this mean that Dallas has really snapped out of its funk, or did the team just take advantage of an injury-depleted opponent and some good luck for a change?

We will find out more over the final four weeks of the season, but with the data at hand, it would not be that surprising to see them go 4-0 or 0-4, or anything in between. The next game certainly is shaping up to be much like the Washington game, coming against a New York Giants team that seems to be approaching full meltdown with a head coach making desperation moves to try and keep his job. But even that matchup is not a sure win, given the ways the Cowboys found to lose those dismal three games.

So what was the aberration? The horrid play in the first three weeks of the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, or the huge rebound on Thursday?

The offense was not exactly overwhelming. They only amassed 276 total yards, and a paltry 93 net yards passing with the one nine-yard sack Dallas gave up. They had 21 first downs, but 13 of them were rushing, with only six through the air. Of course, four of those first downs were scoring plays, which is very efficient.

There were certain aspects of Dallas’ play that did seem to really come together. The most significant was the offensive line, which was just bullying Washington on many running plays, and generally gave Dak Prescott good protection. And as might be expected, when the O line is cooking, so is the running game. 182 yards on the ground is a good performance at any time in the NFL, and in the fourth quarter the Cowboys wisely stuck with the run to bleed the clock as well as maintain possession.

Except for the two long scoring drives by Washington, the defense was quite good throughout. The pass rush was back in force, notching four sacks and a takeaway. And the secondary came away with two interceptions, including one by Jeff Heath to deny a scoring opportunity in the first quarter, and then pretty much sealing the win with the Anthony Brown pick in the fourth. And they were stout against the run as well, only yielding 56 yards on the ground. Most importantly, when the Dallas offense was unable to do anything in the first quarter, they kept getting the ball back, which kept the game from getting away from them before the Cowboys finally started scoring. Throughout the game, Anthony Hitchens was making tackle after tackle, Jaylon Smith had arguably his best performance as a Cowboy, and the rookie defensive backs, particularly Chidobe Awuzie, held up very well.

And we cannot forget the huge punt return for a touchdown by Ryan Switzer, which not only pushed the lead to 17 points in the second quarter, but bought time for Prescott to get his injured hand examined before he returned to finish out the game. That was not the only big play on special teams, either, as Kavon Frazier also downed a punt inside the Washington one-yard line with a bit of tightrope walking on the goal line, and Kyle Wilber knocked the ball loose on a Washington punt return.

That leaves the question of whether or not Prescott is really out of his funk or not. It is hard to be sure - but there are some encouraging signs.

He certainly was still struggling through the first quarter, when the Cowboys had four consecutive three-and-outs. That is usually something that dooms a team, but again the defense was able to prevent any real damage. And then things picked up for Prescott. It started not with a pass, but a 13-yard run up the middle against a confused defense. That seemed to settle things down for Prescott, and he would complete his next three passes, culminating in the first touchdown to Jason Witten.

If you dig a little deeper into the numbers, you will note that Dallas was 50% on third-down conversions for the game. And after that 0 for 4 futility of the first quarter, they would convert seven of ten opportunities the rest of the way. Most of those were on the ground, primarily due to Alfred Morris’ best game as a Cowboy.

That was the real key to the victory, at least as far as the offense is concerned. The old formula was back in play: Dominate with the running game, and just call on Prescott to convert a few third and longs. It also was a different game as far as penalties were concerned. Dallas only drew three flags, where the officials called seven infractions on Washington, including the first hold on an offensive lineman in 34 quarters. That may not completely quiet the conspiracy theories, but it does mute them a bit.

Before the game, I wrote about how everything that could go wrong for the Cowboys had over the previous three contests. On Thursday, excepting the offensive struggles in the first fifteen minutes, just about everything went right for Dallas. RJ Ochoa did a piece about the defense and special teams creating a mirage for the offense, but there might be more to it than that. The sudden flurry of takeaways plus the special teams score certainly were huge, but with the running game suddenly gaining traction, there was no reason to lean on throwing the ball. Prescott was certainly doing much better from the second quarter on. He didn’t need to carry the team, which is the way the offense is designed to work.

The problem is that we won’t know if he is going to continue to make plays until the Giants game. If he has regained his confidence, then the last four games of the season may go very well for Dallas. That also depends on the defense continuing to take the ball away, getting to the quarterback, and stuffing the run, as well as special teams contributing. And the running game has to stay strong until Elliott is back for the final two games of the regular season. That is a lot of ifs. And it may still be too late for Dallas’ playoff hopes, as they need a lot of help from other results.

Right now, the questions are still to be definitively answered. Until we see the final four games, we really don’t know anything. Right, Jon Snow?

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