It was huge. The 31-23 win over Washington represents another important step by the Dallas Cowboys in turning around what looked just three games ago like a lost season. It has literally been a tale of two halves as they now have a three game winning streak after going 3-5 in the first eight games, and for the first time are over .500 at 6-5. They now are atop the NFC East and clearly in the playoff picture.
But the biggest challenge of the latter part of the schedule faces them with the 10-1 New Orleans Saints coming to town for Thursday Night Football. So what can we hope for? Hope is the operative word, since expectations for the Cowboys are at times hard to pin down with so many things having changed. However, here are some trends that may give us some clues.
The Cooper effect just kicked into overdrive
Despite some ludicrous comments from Terry Bradshaw, Amari Cooper is having a simply invaluable impact since arriving in Dallas.
Amari Cooper has done something badass in every game he's played here.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) November 23, 2018
5 catches for 58 & a TD vs. Tennessee
6 catches for 75 vs. Philly
freakshow sideline catch vs. Atlanta
8 catches, 180 & 2 TDs tonight
This was his breakout for the Cowboys, and it is certainly arguable that the win might not have happened without him. Most importantly, that 90-yard touchdown adds a whole new dimension to the offense that had been sorely missing. The catch was deep (21 air yards) and to the middle of the field, where Dak Prescott has done basically nothing all season. Now opposing defenses have to worry about something that they have been basically ignoring. That is a very big deal.
With Cooper’s help, Dak is playing at a higher level
Before Cooper arrived, Prescott’s highest completion percentage on the year was 66.2. Since then, his lowest has been 67.7, with 71.1 on Thanksgiving. He also had his highest passer rating of the season at 121.6. Oh, and his highest passing yards of the season with 289. More importantly, after throwing four interceptions in those first seven games, he has only had one since. He also has five touchdown passes, plus has rushed for three TDs in the last four games after only having scored with his legs one time prior.
Prescott is still inconsistent, especially against a stout pass rush like Washington’s. After the nearly flawless opening drive touchdown, he was unable to do much at all the rest of the first half. But Cooper was a big boost to his game, with the two scores on back-to-back drives, and then he added his impressive touchdown run.
There is little question that the chemistry between Dak and Coop is very, very good. If it continues, the season is going to be fun down the stretch.
We are seeing vintage Zeke
Thanks to Cooper’s huge night, Ezekiel Elliott didn’t have to carry the load by himself. But he certainly did his part, having his third big game in a row. His 143 yards from scrimmage and 16-yard touchdown run were major factors in this win. He is playing his best ball of the year, and that is always a great thing.
The O line is meeting adversity head on, and winning
Things looked grim when Cameron Fleming started the game in place of Tyron Smith, who is still feeling the effects of his stinger. With the fierce pass rush Washington brings, it could have spelled disaster. It almost did, as Prescott was sacked four times in the first half, contributing greatly to the offensive struggles after the opening drive. But things settled down, and Prescott would not be sacked again (with some great plays avoiding sacks with his athleticism). And they kept opening holes for Elliott for the most part, although the failure on fourth and one was disappointing.
And things would get even worse, as Fleming left the game with his own injury. But Connor Williams filled in, and the line still managed to function. The impact of Marc Colombo (feat. Hudson Houck) has been major.
The defense has lapses, but makes the plays when it has to.
Some of the commentary on social media was definitely of the glass-half-empty variety, focusing on the 53-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Reed, how Colt McCoy moved his team all to easily at times, and those ten points Washington scored in the fourth quarter to make it a one possession game. But the defense also notched three interceptions, sacked McCoy three times, and in an under-reported stat, held Adrian Peterson to only 35 yards rushing.
Those interceptions were not capitalized on well by the offense, only one leading to a touchdown. But the other two snuffed out real scoring threats and helped preserve the win. There was also a forced fumble on the sack by Jaylon Smith that Washington managed to recover.
The defense may not be the elite unit that many claim it is, but it has a certain big-play aspect that has been important in the three-game winning streak. Getting crucial stops is effective. It is also something they will need against the Saints.
Special teams have a problem
Now for some bad news. Two of the Washington touchdowns were set up by big returns surrendered by the special teams. One was a 30-yard punt return, and the other was the 44-yard kickoff return after the Cowboys were assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct after the Zeke and Dak kettle celebration. Those fueled the comeback attempt by McCoy and company.
At least Chris Jones had a good day punting, averaging 47.8 yards, and Brett Maher didn’t miss any of his FGs or PATs, though he came close.
The inconsistency is too consistent
This is the thing that has to be fixed. At times, this team clicks and can do some impressive things. But they keep falling back into bad stretches with too many mistakes. The Cowboys, for once, got some real help from the officials with obvious penalties that were missed and one really questionable holding call on Washington. They can’t rely on that, and they certainly have to find a way to not have the dangerous lapses they still do.
And the task next week is a lot greater. Washington played with their backup quarterback and an offensive line that was even more patchwork than Dallas had. On the other hand, the Cowboys have often stumbled facing such situations, and this time they managed to do enough to overcome them.
Mistakes like the ones that allowed Washington to make the game as close as it was at the end will not be so easy to overcome against Drew Brees and company.
The positive trends need to continue, and the brakes must be slammed on the bad ones. How that goes will determine if Dallas makes the playoffs or not.