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Lessons learned from the Cowboys’ season finale against the Giants

It was not the game we expected. It was so much more.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Wait a minute.

This was a meaningless game. The Dallas Cowboys could not change their playoff situation one whit. The New York Giants could only affect their draft position. The biggest priority for Dallas was to protect banged-up starters and not get any significant injuries. It had all the makings of a dull, conservative contest.

Color us completely and absolutely wrong. It was exciting, and in many ways totally out of character for the Cowboys as they traded leads down the stretch before coming away with a 36-35 win.

Here are some lessons we (maybe) learned.

The defense does not have to carry the offense

In many ways this was a very disappointing game for Dallas’ defense. They gave up over 30 points for the first time all season, yielded 441 yards including 143 yards rushing, mostly to Saquon Barkley (as would be expected), and allowed the Giants to convert seven of 15 third downs and two of three fourth-down attempts. This follows a similarly questionable showing the previous week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It’s not that they were totally worthless, of course. They took the ball away from New York twice in the first quarter, didn’t give up a score until just before halftime, and shut the Giants down on their final possession when they were only down a point with plenty of time to get in position for a field goal.

But this victory belongs to the offense. Make that the passing offense, since the Cowboys only mustered 51 yards rushing with Ezekiel Elliott on the sidelines. Dak Prescott had one of his best days in his young career, throwing for 387 yards and four touchdowns, plus nearly getting a fifth on the Allen Hurns catch that gave them the ball at the New York two-yard line. Prescott repeatedly delivered when the team needed it, making play after play under pressure, scrambling away from the pass rush and improvising throws.

Oh, and while the Giants had some nice offensive stats, the Cowboys were even better. 11 of 17 on third downs (a gaudy 65%). Two for two on fourth-down attempts. And best of all, three out of four on red zone trips, with only one of Brett Maher’s recurring chip shot misses keeping them from at least getting points every time they got inside the 20.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tight end

While the Cowboys came up with an answer for their wide receiver woes when they traded for Amari Cooper, they still were searching for a solution to the departure of future Hall of Famer Jason Witten. Well, maybe they found it. Blake Jarwin was simply ridiculous, catching seven balls for 119 yards and three touchdowns. Folks, Witten never caught three scores in a single game in his illustrious career.

Those numbers are wonderful, but what is far more exciting is how they were accumulated. Jarwin caught balls down the seam, something the Dallas offense has been sorely lacking. And he displayed great chemistry with Prescott as the QB directed him in traffic at times.

The past few games have seen Cooper being bottled up to a degree. Now there is another target out there who can get a lot of catches, yards, and points for opponents to worry about.

Oh, and he isn’t the only one.

Beas is back

It was starting to look like Cole Beasley was the forgotten receiver after Cooper came to Dallas. He was anything but in this game, getting 94 yards on six catches, including some key third-down conversions and, of course, that game-winning touchdown grab.

While we are at it, the entire receiving corps had a good day, as Prescott found nine different players with his passes. Michael Gallup was solid with three catches for 50 yards, Cooper still contributed even though he only totaled 31 yards on five grabs, and Allen Hurns had the longest Dallas play of the day with his 49-yard reception. Even Tavon Austin and Dalton Schultz made cameo appearances.

It is not just the Amari Cooper show now. This is the perfect time for that development, too.

Playing to win

Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett both alluded to this, saying that healthy players would get lots of work. That was particularly true on the offense. The defense seemed to be using more of a rotation to give the starters some rest, but given that Ezekiel Elliott, Zack Martin, and Tyron Smith were all held out this game, that just may not have been much of an option.

At least if the Cowboys were going to win this game. Clearly, that was Garrett’s intent. He went for it on fourth down twice, once from his own 43, in the third quarter. He kept Prescott in the entire game, despite so many of us (raises hand) really expecting Cooper Rush to come in during the second half, if not earlier. And he went for two at the end, which was certainly a bit of a relief to those of us who did not want to see overtime in the last game of the regular season.

It worked, and it appears there were no major injuries. Most importantly, Prescott came out healthy after adding four more sacks to his litany of punishment. And he has to be feeling extremely confident after he put this team on his shoulders and passed them to victory. That should carry over to the whole roster now. Going into the playoffs 10-6 and on a two-game win streak just feels better than being 9-7 and coming off a loss.

Emotions and confidence are important in the NFL. Garrett took a bit of a chance to get this W. It paid off, thankfully.

The General may not be quite ready

This one hurts, but Sean Lee looked bad on a couple of plays, including the big run by Barkley. It may just be rust. It may be a lost step. Whatever the reason, Lee is clearly a backup for the playoffs, and the team probably needs to hope he isn’t called on to make a big contribution. Oh, he is a real warrior, and might well rise to the occasion. Still, when he was in, the defense did not look the same. That may not be all on him.

It does raise some hard questions about what his future should be. For now, we just need to hope Leighton Vander Esch doesn’t get kicked in the shin again.

One problem with all these things is that there have to be a couple of caveats. First, the Giants really aren’t very good right now, especially with Odell Beckham Jr. not available. Second, there were times on both sides when some players did not look like they were giving 100% effort, especially on defense. That is a bit understandable given that nothing was really riding on this game.

So take these lessons with a small grain of salt. The Cowboys are in the playoffs, and that is still the one really important thing.

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