It was a game that meant nothing for the Dallas Cowboys, but you would never have guessed that just from watching it. Lead changes, a breakout game from a supposedly journeyman tight end, and the best performance of the season from their quarterback overcame a soft defense and a bunch of missing starters to give Dallas a 36-35 win over the New York Giants.
This was supposed to be a yawner of a game, given that the outcome would change absolutely nothing for the Cowboys. But Cooper Rush never saw the field as Jason Garrett elected to go with Dak Prescott the entire way, and the game had turned into a see-saw affair up until the 3:21 mark of the fourth quarter, when Amari Cooper lost the ball after a catch and turned it back over to the Giants. New York wound up with the ball at the Dallas 18 yard line with a four-point lead. Even then, the Cowboys defense came up with a stop and forced them to settle for a field goal, keeping the margin at seven and with 2:35 left to play - and setting up one of the most dramatic finishes of the year. The Cowboys would get to the New York 27, and it looked like the game was over after a false start made it fourth-and-15. But a scramble (one of several by Prescott) and a great pass and one-knee-down catch by Cole Beasley set up a two point conversion pass to Michael Gallup, and Dallas had a one-point lead with only 1:12 left. A final defensive stand after a penalty set up the Giants to get the ball at their own 48 gave the Cowboys a ten win season and some possible momentum heading to the wild-card round.
Some of the biggest developments for the game came before it even started, as both Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith were inactive. With Zack Martin and Tyrone Crawford having already been designated as not playing, it made it clear at least some of the talk about maintaining intensity and playing to win was saying the right things while making smart decisions for the playoffs. But there was no quit in either of these teams, who both were playing to win from start to finish.
Although the offensive line was compromised and Elliott and his pass protection were out, Prescott went the entire way as the outcome remained in doubt to the very end. If the idea was to get some rhythm going on offense, that mission was accomplished by the end of the first half, as the Cowboys were eight of ten on third down conversions and two of three on red zone trips. Prescott found eight different receivers, and the big target of the first half was tight end Blake Jarwin, who caught three passes for 42 yards, including both of Prescott’s touchdown passes. Oh, and Jarwin was hardly done. In the third quarter, after the Giants had pulled to within four points, Dak scrambled on a third and three at the NYG 39 yard line. He did a little traffic directing, and found Jarwin again. With some help from what sure looked like a business decision to not take him on, he was able to rumble all the way in for the score. Add in Dalton Shultz having a catch for 17 yards, and the tight ends continued their trend of becoming more and more important in the passing game. Jarwin would go on to have a true breakout game with 119 yards on seven catches and those three scores.
Prescott was still in to start the second half. It certainly looked like Jason Garrett wanted to see some more work from him and the offense. It left us holding our breath every time Dak dropped back behind that patchwork offensive line, but the passing offense was there. Cole Beasley had a strong game, looking once again like the third-down converting machine we remember as he wound up with 94 yards and a game-winning touchdown. Amari Cooper had one play in particular that deserves some mention, where he caught the ball and demonstrated excellent grasp of where he was and where the first down line was, as well as impressive body control to extend the ball to move the chains. And Tavon Austin even got his first catch since his injury.
The defense gave up some yards early and late in the first half, but only surrendered seven points on the Giant’s final drive of the half. The big story there involved two takeaways for the Dallas defense. The first came in the end zone as Chidobe Awuzie perfectly diagnosed the play, read the eyes of Eli Manning, and went up to intercept the ball. The second was the result of Demarcus Lawrence getting to 10.5 sacks for the year, on a play where the ball popped up in the air right into the waiting (and soft) hands of Antwaun Woods, who was credited with a fumble recovery after the stats guys decided it was not really an interception. It was a great exclamation point for just how big a contributor the unheralded Woods has become this season for Dallas.
They had some real letdowns, though, none more evident than the 68 yard explosion by Saquon Barkley in the third quarter that set up the Giants’ second touchdown. And it was a play where New York seemed to run right at Sean Lee. Add in a pass play where Lee was facing the wrong way to allow the completion, and it leads to a thought that seemed unimaginable at the beginning of the season: Maybe the Cowboys are worse off when Lee is on the field. It is sobering, but one more piece of evidence just how valuable Leighton Vander Esch is. And in the second half especially, the defense was just not able to get stops, allowing the Giants to take a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter. It would end up as the first time all season Dallas has given up over 30 points. Fortunately, it was not enough for the other guys.
This may have been a meaningless game for the Cowboys, and one where losing would actually be beneficial for the Giants’ draft position, but there was little doubt that both teams were playing to win. Prescott was still on the field through the third quarter, and both teams went for it on fourth downs to keep scoring drives alive - Dallas doing so from their own side of the 50. The result was a game that was far more interesting and entertaining than these “pointless” end-of-season types of games usually are. And while we may have been happier to see Prescott on the sidelines, he would up having a very good day throwing the ball. He not only had four touchdown passes, but 387 yards as well to nine different recievers, and some of his most impressive throws would come when he was scrambling and improvising. In addition to the long touchdown to Jarwin, he found Allen Hurns for a 49 yard play while evading the rush that would set up a Rod Smith touchdown to retake the lead at 28-25 with 9:11 left in regulation. And the game winner was another one.
Injuries are always the biggest fear in games of this sort. The Cowboy had a couple of scares, the biggest to Vander Esch, but he returned to the field after having getting kicked in the shin by Jaylon Smith. Xavier S’ua-Filo left the game and did not return, but it was hoped his injury would not keep him out next week.