It was not the overwhelming rebound by the Dallas Cowboys we might have wished for. There were times when both the offense and the defense struggled. But at times, they got it all put together, and managed to come out of the desert with a hard-fought if sometimes ugly 28-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
It would feature some unlikely heroes, including very strong performances from young secondary players like Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, and Kevan Frazier, who were at times vulnerable, but who came up big at others. It saw big receptions from Terrance Williams and Brice Butler on a night when Dez Bryant was quiet most of the game (although he had one magnificent effort on a touchdown).
But the Cowboys, although outperformed statistically, managed to stay close early thanks to the defense suddenly figuring things out. And despite some deep throws by Carson Palmer that were eerily reminiscent of some Aaron Rodgers throws we’d all like to forget, they were able to outscore Arizona in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys made a very big stand in their own red zone, forcing the Cardinals to settle for a field goal after Palmer had marched them rapidly down the field. Three consecutive incompletions by him, after he had been nearly perfect to open the game, forced the Cardinals to settle for a field goal.
That followed Prescott’s second touchdown pass of the game early in the final stanza, to Butler. And then Butler came up with his second big catch of the game with 6:20 left in the game, a 53 yard completion off of play action that fooled everyone in the stadium. That put Dallas close enough to work some time off the clock while running the ball, with Ezekiel Elliott making one of his dynamic touchdown runs to put his team up by 11, and with not enough time on the clock for the Cardinals to come back. The Cowboys were inconsistent offensively for so much of the game, but they had just enough good drives to pull out the win. And more than once, they forced the Cardinals to come away with either no points or a field goal when they needed touchdowns. Given that the defense led the way early, it is fitting that the game was essentially ended on a pass breakup by Byron Jones.
It also has to be mentioned, there was a huge story outside of the game itself, as the Cardinals and Cowboys teams both had to decide how to respond to the national anthem controversy. While both teams, along with the coaches and owners, linked arms in unity, the Cowboys made perhaps the most perceptive gesture of any NFL team in this weekend of protest and controversy. The entire team took a knee before the anthem, which seemed to acknowledge the protests, then stood back up for the anthem to make it clear they meant no disrespect to the flag or others. It was both subtle and forceful.
The start of the game was a disturbing case of deja vu, as the Cowboys were unable to even slow down the Cardinals as they marched to a touchdown on their opening drive. Palmer opened the game completing his first 11 passes, including the touchdown. Pressure was not getting to him, and the Cowboys coverage was just not getting the job done.
Even worse was the continued ineptitude of the Dallas offense. Elliott got stuffed repeatedly, Dak Prescott was not able to find receivers, and the Cowboys opened with not one but two three-and-outs. If someone did not wake up for them, it was going to be nothing but ugly for the second game in a row.
Someone did wake up, though. The defense finally started making some stops, aided by a fairly blatant holding call on Demarcus Lawrence (who was the clear MVP on defense, with three sacks and multiple other splash plays and QB hits). Then Damontre Moore made his first big play as a Cowboy, dropping Palmer just past the line of scrimmage to force a field goal attempt. And attempt would be all it was, as the kick was wide right, and the Cowboys were able to keep it to a 7-0 deficit, despite being severely outplayed for the entire first quarter and beyond.
Then the defense made an adjustment, going with a three man rush and putting eight men in coverage. And despite only bringing those three, the pass rush started to get to Palmer. First Maliek Collins got a sack (the first of two he would notch on the night). Lawrence had one wiped out by a penalty in the secondary. Tyrone Crawford got through for his first of the season. And after halftime, Lawrence got one that would stick, forcing a three and out for the Cardinals inside their own red zone. That three man rush would not be used throughout the rest of the game, but it would be what was needed at certain times, and represents what turned out to be a really good job of coaching by Rod Marinelli.
But late in the second quarter, the Cowboys finally put together a drive. They had help from another Arizona penalty, this one a holding call by Patrick Peterson against Dez Bryant. Then Noah Brown caught the first pass of his pro career, setting Dallas up with a first and goal from the nine. From there, Prescott took it on his own shoulders, and legs, running it in on a read option play with a flip over the defenders to punctuate it. And amazingly, at the end of the first half, the Cowboys, who were totally outperformed in most aspects, were tied with the Cardinals at seven all.
Following halftime, perhaps the most important thing of the game took place. The two teams exchanged punts, and finally the Cowboys we remember from last year seemed to show up. With the exception of one 30 yard run after he broke a tackle behind the line of scrimmage in the first half, Elliott was totally frustrated in the first half. But on their second possession of the second half, he put together rushes of eight, three, and fifteen yards in a row. The line finally looked like it was taking command. And that opens all thing up for the Cowboys.
The next play was a pass to Dez Bryant, who caught the ball around the 11 yard line, then put his head down and pushed what looked like the entire Arizona secondary to the goal line, just getting the ball across the plane (at least according to the refs). He got some assistance from Travis Frederick pushing the pile, but most of the credit for the play had to go to Bryant, who simply would not be denied. It would give Dallas the lead for the first time in the game at 14-7.
Things would regress a bit after that. Neither team was consistent on offense, and the Cowboys were unable to get out of the shadow of their own end zone. Then Palmer would hook up twice with Larry Fitzgerald, first on a 37 yarder to get them close, and then a 15 yard touchdown. The game was tied up with 3:13 left in the third quarter, setting up the fourth quarter dramatics.
But the main thing was that the Cowboys won the game, largely purging the bad memories from the loss to the Denver Broncos and keeping pace with the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington for the lead in the NFC East. It was gutty and a clear case of not giving up despite some early hardship. It may have not been the prettiest victory ever, but it was a very strong performance just when it was needed the most.