What in blue blazes just happened? Well, it was almost all good for the Dallas Cowboys, as they didn’t just win a game they just about had to have to keep any hopes for the season alive, they flat-out dominated the Jacksonville Jaguars 40-7.
From the beginning, the team with the Star on their helmet didn’t look at all like the one we have been watching so far this year. The first half was as complete a performance as we have seen in a long, long time. They put up 24 points on one of the best defenses in the NFL, especially against the pass. They racked up 17 first downs, amassed 251 yards, converted six of nine first downs, and scored a touchdown on all three of their trips to the red zone. Cole Beasley was virtually unstoppable, with six receptions and two touchdowns against a defense that just seemed unable to find him. Meanwhile, the Dallas defense was throttling Jacksonville, limiting them to only 64 yards and three first downs, with two sacks of Blake Bortles. Oh, and they did not have a penalty called against them, while the Jaguars gifted them with a first down when they had 12 men on the field on a punt - and that led to the third touchdown for Dallas. The Cowboys did not even have an official punt in the first half, thanks to that penalty just mentioned.
Things slacked off for both the offense and defense after halftime, as the Cowboys had two three-and-outs while the Jaguars finally got a touchdown halfway through the third quarter. But the Cowboys got some offense going again, getting Brett Maher (who is rapidly making us forget the unease at the release of Dan Bailey) into position for a field goal, then getting a rebound pass interception by Jeff Heath that set them up in the red zone again. That only led to another Maher field goal, but staked the Cowboys to a 23 point lead with just 16:17 left to play. Then, on the next offensive play for the Jags, Jaylon Smith forced a Keelan Cole fumble, and Jourdan Lewis (who had by far his best game of the season) managed to recover the ball at the Jacksonville 31 just before he slid out of bounds. Ezekiel Elliott would do the rest, with a 21 yard run and a 15 yard touchdown sandwiched around a Dallas delay of game penalty (and the end of the third quarter). From there, it was largely academic as the hill was far too steep for the Jaguars to climb.
It was an extremely encouraging performance from the Cowboys - but it leaves one lingering question. Is this the real team, or just an aberration? Was it more about execution or luck? They certainly got some of the latter as Prescott had not one but two fumbles bounce right back into his arms, one of which he converted for a first down on the way to another of their touchdowns. Prescott made a lot more throws, but still had some very awkward looking deliveries, and missed some long shots. Ezekiel Elliott was not exactly running free early as the Jaguars kept him mostly contained until Dallas wore their defense down in the second half. They didn’t need him to carry the team as the passing game finally took up the lead at crucial times, and Prescott had the best game running the ball of his career, but will that carry forward? The team still has shown no real consistency week to week - although there might be a real home field advantage for Dallas this year, with all three wins coming at AT&T Stadium, and the losses all on the road.
Still, the up and down performances will not take this team very far. For this game, the players made a lot more plays than they blew, and the play calling, perhaps as a consequence, looked far, far better. It also didn’t hurt to have Dak making something out of nothing repeatedly when he escaped pressure and got up the field. And getting two takeaways while not giving the ball up (those two near-fumbles could have changed things so much) was big as well. They also converted two fourth downs (in situations that will just further irritate all of us who were so upset with that punt in overtime last week). Beasley became the first 100-yard receiver of the season. Elliott wore them down to get another 100-yard rushing game. Randy Gregory got a sack, and David Irving had a tackle for a loss, so they look to be back as well. But they have to repeat this performance. Over and over.
Prescott is the crucial element here. If this is the way he is going to play the rest of the way, this team may be able to string together wins and get into the playoffs. If there was something that might be pointed to as a lingering concern, it was that the total yards passing were not exactly impressive. But with the way Dak and Zeke combined to move the ball on the ground, efficiency was much more important, and the Cowboys had that. It is rare that you see an NFL team gain more rushing the ball than throwing it, especially when they are over 350 yards in total offense, but it worked. And again, it was against one of the top defenses in the league against the pass. It may have been, to a degree, Dallas taking what they gave them. And they gave them a lot.
Still, no matter how you look at things, this was easily the best game of the year for the Cowboys as a team, and for several players individually. Getting to 40 points is significant in the NFL, as is topping 200 yards on the ground and getting close to 400 total. Heck, when you get to put Cooper Rush and Rod Smith in to finish things up, it’s just domination. If this is what the team really is, then the season may wind up better than we thought just a week ago.
But if it is just a blip where things just aligned as they do at times in the NFL, then as enjoyable as this game was, it was just a tease. On to Washington, which now has just a half game lead over Dallas for the NFC East lead.