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Amari Cooper breaks out as Cowboys beat Washington 31-23 to take NFC East lead

It was harder than it should have been, but Dallas got the result they needed.

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

The Dallas Cowboys now have the NFC East lead, thanks to a 31-23 win over Washington in the annual Thanksgiving Day game at AT&T Stadium. It felt harder than it should have been at times, but the win is all that really matters, and there were certainly some big performances by the Cowboys to praise.

This game was important because of the standings, with the winner being in first place in the NFC East and having a lot of control over how things would wind up. But it will be remembered for being the breakout game for new WR Amari Cooper. He had 180 yards and two touchdowns on eight receptions, and his back-to-back scores in the third quarter put the Cowboys back in control after Washington had taken a three point lead. It is hopefully a sign of much more to come.

Demarcus Lawrence has been one of the real stars this season for the Cowboys, getting sacks, pressures, QB hits, and run stops. He outdid himself near the end of the third quarter, going up, batting the ball to himself, and pulling it down to return the ball to the Washington 17 yard line. It set up the touchdown that really made the lead too big for the visitors to overcome. Washington certainly tried, aided by a fifteen yard penalty that set up a touchdown to cut the lead to 11. But their last chance to mount a real comeback was snuffed out when Xavier Woods came up with an interception of a ball batted in the air by Chidobe Awuzie, the third of the game for Dallas. With Prescott again not giving up an interception, the turnover margin was a big reason that the Cowboys got the win.

The jobs done by Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott have to be mentioned. Prescott was more solid than spectacular, and the big touchdown receptions from Cooper really padded his stats. He did get the ball to eight different receivers as well. But that protection of the ball is one of his strongest traits. And Elliott was well over 100 yards rushing again, helping put the game away by keeping possession and burning time.

Dallas probably benefited from some missed penalties, and could have put the game away much sooner, but we got to see the Landry shift at the end, which was very gratifying.

In what would turn out to be a huge factor for the game, Tyron Smith was not able to go for the game, with Cameron Fleming replacing him. It certainly had to contribute to the constant assault on Dak Prescott by the Washington front seven, as he was sacked four times in the first half alone. And it probably cost the Cowboys points. Inside the two minute warning before half, the Cowboys had the ball on the Washington four yard line with a second down, after Prescott missed Noah Brown due to having to retreat from the pressure coming at him. He was sacked for a 13 yard loss, and Dallas had to settle for a Brett Maher field goal. It put them up 10-7, but they really should have had a touchdown. Fortunately things got much better after the half, as Prescott was not sacked at all in the second half.

Then after the defense stopped Washington, including a sack of their own, and a short punt, the Cowboys had the ball back at their own 40, with 1:02 on the clock and two time outs. But after they had already gotten into the fringe of Maher’s range, Prescott was sacked yet again, pushing them well out of range.

It was disheartening after Dallas had opened the game with a nearly perfect opening drive, marching 75 yards, converting two third downs, and capping things with a sixteen yard Ezekiel Elliott scamper for a touchdown, capped by a nice twist on his red kettle jump from his rookie season when he threw $21 into it. The defense was very solid with one glaring exception, a 53 yard touchdown pass to Jordan Reed from Colt McCoy in the only real breakdown of the half. Still, it meant that the Cowboys would only have a three point lead to work with in the second half, with Washington getting the kickoff.

The defense was up to the challenge, almost getting a three and out except for an offensive holding call, and then doing it again. But the offense was unable to do anything, and Washington wound up with great field position after poor coverage and a strong 30 yard return to the Dallas 25. Washington would take their first lead of the game when McCoy hit Trey Quinn, who also had the punt return to set it up, for a 10 yard touchdown. However, they missed the extra point, so the Cowboys were only down 13-10.

And they answered this time, as Cooper took a short pass 40 yards to the house to take a four point lead. It displayed all his talents, route running, catch radius, and ability to get yards after the catch. Elliott had some big runs in the drive as well.

Then came the biggest play of the game for the Cowboys, and it made you chuckle at the (somewhat ridiculous) remarks by Terry Bradshaw during the pregame show concerning how the Cowboys weren’t getting much from Cooper. With a second and nine at their own ten, Dak found Amari for first down yardage - and Cooper broke free from the defenders around him and raced to the end zone, for what was announced as the longest pass play in the league this year.

Prescott later added his own touchdown with a full display of his athleticism and strength as he evaded a sack with the ball on the Washington five yard line, then evaded defenders to dive into the end zone, putting Dallas up 31-13 with most of the fourth quarter still to play. Zeke then picked Dak up and deposited him in the red kettle, which did draw a flag.

There were some some other nice individual performances for the Cowboys. Anthony Brown got an interception and a big sack late in the game to help make sure there would not be a miracle finish by the visitors. Blake Jarwin had a couple of early receptions. Jamize Olawale and Noah Brown even showed up with receptions for first downs. Jaylon Smith had a forced fumble (although Washington recovered it). And Leighton Vander Esch was still making big plays.

If there was one really bad performance, it was by the Cowboys’ special teams. They allowed the 30 yard punt return and a 44 yard kickoff return (following the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Prescott going in the kettle), both of which set up Washington touchdowns that kept the game from becoming a real blowout.

Now the Cowboys have another Thursday game coming up against the New Orleans Saints, which will tell a lot about this team. For now, though, they have come back from the dead and are above .500 for the first time all season at 6-5. And that first place in the division ain’t bad, either.

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