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Cowboys vs. Jaguars: Lessons learned, including one big one in 40-7 win

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It was a stunning win in so many ways for the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Dallas Cowboys
The saucy one was just unstoppable.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It still feels a little unreal. But it really happened. The Dallas Cowboys delivered what an old friend of mine used to call a “Mississippi butt-whipping” (or words to that effect) to the Jacksonville Jaguars, a 40-7 win that was, if possible, not even as close as the lopsided score indicates.

We try to come up with what we learned from each game, and there is a lot to take from this incredibly satisfying win. Let’s start, though, with a really big one to keep in mind.

We still don’t know what this team really is.

There have been games where the Cowboys could do almost nothing right, and a couple of wins where they did enough but then fell back into incompetence the following week. Now they have shown what they can do when they get just about all cylinders firing and all the breaks seem to go their way. (Like two incredibly fortunate bounces of fumbles right back to the quarterback, a tip-drill interception, and a fumble recovery by about an inch before it went out of bounds.)

But for now, we still don’t know which version of this team will show up. If they can maintain any consistency in their performance, they are not only in the thick of the hunt for the playoffs and the NFC East title, but actually could have a real chance to win in the postseason. However, that is one very huge “if”. Above all, they can’t get cocky because of one blowout win. They have to keep grinding with the knowledge they aren’t going to steamroll many teams the way they did the Jags.

Maybe they have a new set of triplets.

Or maybe that is something we need to not focus on so much. But in this game, there was a clear triumvirate of offensive stars, Dak Prescott, Cole Beasley, and Ezekiel Elliott.

The clear leader in all aspects was Prescott. He didn’t dazzle with his passing numbers, but he was stunningly efficient. He threw for 183 yards and two touchdowns without giving up an interception (and threw another pass that should have been a touchdown but for Michael Gallup getting his own legs tangled up), but the biggest contribution came with his legs. He ran for 82 yards, including the first touchdown of the game, and repeatedly evaded the fierce Jacksonville pass rush, turning near-sacks into gains and even first downs. Some of the runs were by design as well, and that is something that needs to remain a part of the offensive plan, because it gives defenses a migraine.

Beasley was not just open. It was as if the Jaguars forgot to cover him at times, he had so much empty space around him on many plays. He amassed 101 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches (more than all the others who caught a ball combined). Prescott did find seven other receivers during the game, but that seemed more like keeping the defense honest than anything. Beasley was the true star in this one.

Elliott had a game that was certainly respectable, with 106 yards on 24 carries plus one pass for 11 more yards, but outside of the two runs on either side of the end of the third quarter that netted 36 yards and the final touchdown of the game, he was mostly grinding it out. And that was crucial. The Cowboys had 11 first downs on the ground, and that included Zeke converting a third and one, a fourth and one, and another fourth and one. It was a hard-nosed performance by the best running back in the league, and played a big part in the win.

The offensive line seems to be getting it together.

This is crucial to any success that the Cowboys have, and while it wasn’t perfect, the big guys up front certainly got the job done. They did allow some pressure on Prescott, and three sacks, but with a little help from the scrambling of their quarterback, they delivered a very solid game.

Quietly, Geoff Swaim is becoming a key part of the offense himself.

He was the only receiver other than Beasley to catch more than one pass, plus he had a key block on the Prescott touchdown run that really got the points piling up. No one is drawing comparisons to Jason Witten, but Swaim is doing his part to alleviate the loss of one of the greats.

Don’t overlook the defense.

Admittedly, Blake Bortles doesn’t exactly strike fear into a lot of NFL defenses. And they were without their best running back, Leonard Fournette. But any time you hold an offense to 204 total yards in a game while racking up three sacks, a total of five tackles for a loss, seven passes defended, and two takeaways, you are doing something right. A lot of somethings. They only gave up one real drive (the lone touchdown) after shutting the Jaguars out in the first half, and then applied the clamps the rest of the way. The secondary looked impressive again, and the defensive line was strong all game.

And all that was without Sean Lee, held out again. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch were once again far more than adequate, combining for 20 tackles between them. That decision in the first round this year, plus the gamble three years ago on Smith, are paying huge dividends.

Oh, and Randy Gregory and David Irving are back.

And not just in the sense of being on the field. No, they both contributed, with Gregory notching his first sack of the season plus credit for two TFLs and Irving having two tackles plus one TFL, and nearly blocking a punt if not for drawing a perfect form tackle holding call on the play.

Meanwhile, there were no complaints about the coaching in this one.

Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan have suffered their share of slings and arrows this season, but any fair consideration of this game has to give them credit for what they did. Tony Romo was at times effusive in his praise of Linehan’s work, perhaps feeling a need to come to the defense of his old offensive coordinator. In any case, a whole lot worked in this game. It doesn’t help settle the execution vs. play-calling argument, because the execution was generally good, while Linehan did a very nice job of getting his players in a position to succeed. In the first half, they converted six of nine third downs (plus one of the fourth downs) before they eased off the pedal a bit after halftime, and in the game they had four touchdowns on five trips into the red zone. Those are welcome numbers to see after so many struggles.

And then there were the two times Garrett elected to go for it on fourth down, but we won’t go into that too much because the pain of the OT loss to the Houston Texans is still too fresh.

The important thing is that Garrett and Linehan both made strong cases for keeping their jobs in this game. Now, like the team as a whole, they have to show that they can do it with consistency. If they do, the prospects for this season just got a whole lot brighter. If not . . .

Well, we just will leave that alone for now and enjoy this big win. Because we also were reminded just how much fun one of those is.