The NFC East continues its streak as one of the more competitive divisions in football with no repeat champions in the last 14 years. The Dallas Cowboys (9-6) won their third division title in five seasons, following their 27-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-10). The game, like many for these Cowboys, had it’s ebbs and flows. The offense had flashes of brilliance and also moments that resembled someone stuck in quicksand. That’s been the 2018 season for this Cowboys team. Most of the time, it’s not going to be pretty but winning ugly is far better than the alternative:
If the Cowboys hadn’t won, the division would’ve been up for grabs heading into Week 17.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 23, 2018
Even if it was ugly, an incredibly important win. https://t.co/2yA1pnJh8g
After sweeping last year’s champions, there is no way the Cowboys would feel great about letting their division rival back in the race. By taking care of the error-prone Buccaneers, the race is over, let Philly battle Minnesota for a wildcard spot. Back to the win over the Bucs, Dallas simply did what they had to do in order to achieve that first goal of a division title. Not only that but they also went 2-for-3 in the red zone (66.7%).
Just how ugly was the victory?
The Cowboys offense tied their season-low in total yards at 232 against the Buccaneers who racked up nearly 400 yards. The last time that happened was in a week one 16-8 loss to the Panthers. Tampa’s offense ran 25 more plays and had over two times as many passing yards as the Cowboys. The Buccaneers also won the time of possession battle with 35 minutes to the Cowboys’ 25. Defensively, the Cowboys gifted the Bucs’ seven first downs by penalty. Yet, the final score was 27-20 Dallas, don’t shame the winners for the lack of style points.
Criticism during the broadcast from Joe Buck aside, it’s pretty hard to win football games in this league. One decision to do ‘X’ over ‘Y’ could decide whether your team goes 11-5 or 5-11. If every team was supposed to win comfortably over bad teams then the Patriots wouldn’t be sitting with three losses to teams under .500. They are still headed for the playoffs and so are the Cowboys, who cares about pretty when you can be gritty? That’s what should be said about this year’s Cowboys team that were 3-5 at the halfway point.
Since the league’s playoff format changed in 1990, 163 teams have started the season 3-5, the average finish is 6-10. Only 13 teams (8%) of that 163 made the playoffs and eight of those teams lost in the wildcard round. Four teams made it to the divisional round before they were eliminated and only the 1996 Jaguars made it to the conference title game.
This is rare territory for the 2018 Cowboys, who became the first in franchise history to win the division after starting 3-5. Better to enjoy that feeling while it lasts because things are about to get much tougher.
That’s why we’re reminded of that word “gritty” because this Cowboys squad is the very definition of the word. This team has won just about every type of game this season. Let’s review:
Blowout Win? Cowboys hang 40 on trash-talking Jaguars’ defense as Cole Beasley humbles Jalen Ramsey.
4th Quarter Game-Winning Drives? Dak Prescott’s ice cold two-minute drills fend off Matthew Stafford’s Lions at home and exercises past demons on the road in Atlanta vs. Matt Ryan.
Season Salvaging Win? At 3-5 crossroads, Dak and Zeke go 3 of 4 in the red zone, saving season by taking down defending champions in Philly.
Nail-biting Overtime Win? Cowboys complete sweep of Eagles in overtime, losing turnover battle 3-1, going 1 for 4 in red zone, with over 100 yards lost in penalties. Dak Prescott + Amari Cooper + Ezekiel Elliott = Career Day (576 yards).
Victory of Vengeance? Amari Cooper throws YAC party with 180-yards with two touchdowns of 40 and 90 yards, taking division from Redskins on Turkey Day.
Statement Win? Dallas defense holds juggernaut Saints offense to 176 total yards and one lone TD as Dak outduels Drew Brees despite being sacked seven times.
Defense wins Divisions? Cowboys take down Buccaneers with just 161 passing yards and 80 rushing yards on offense. Defense shoulders the load, notching three sacks, forcing two turnovers, returning one for a defensive TD, and clinching the NFC East.
The Cowboys margin of victory this season is eight points, take out that 40-7 rout over the Jaguars and it’s only five points. Maybe the Cowboys style of keeping it close takes a toll on everyone’s nerves but that’s just football. Experts may look at this Cowboys team and say they can’t be trusted in the playoffs after yesterday’s low production on a bad defense. At the end of the day, they did their job in the red zone, won the turnover battle, and ultimately the game. Being able to win some ugly ones in the NFL should be cherished like a badge of honor. After all, the ugliest win will always be better than the most beautiful loss.