It was a nail-biting, heart-stopping game for the Dallas Cowboys, as they came from behind in the closing seconds to get a badly needed 26-24 win over the Detroit Lions. More importantly, so many of the Cowboys’ offensive problems that have been so riling the fan base seemed to have been successfully addressed - at least for the moment.
Look, you can’t claim that one game against a team that also came in at 1-2 is real proof that things have been fixed. But you can’t ignore the positives of this contest, either. Just about every question about the offense had a good answer. The failure to get big plays had been one of the most glaring issues facing Dallas. In the first three games, they had only had three plays go for more than 20 yards. In the first half against the Lions, they had three plays go over 30 - and all came through the air. While two of them were short passes with big yards after the catch, Dak Prescott threw a 37 yard pass to Michael Gallup that served notice that he was not afraid to go deep. That was important not just for this game, but for the season going forward. Teams can’t just focus on bottling up the run game and guarding against the short pass. With the offense able to get chunk passing plays, even if just for a few during a game, the run game opens up and those short completions have a better chance of adding that YAC. That was obviously working for the Cowboys in this game, as Ezekiel Elliott broke a 41 yard run in the third quarter and had easily his best game of the season, eclipsing 200 yards in combined offense about midway through the fourth quarter. He also had a 38 yard touchdown reception and a 34 yard catch to set up the last second field goal attempt by Brett Maher.
But even while it was clearly the most complete offensive performance of the year for the offense, they had a Lions team and quarterback Matthew Stafford that were coming at them hard. And the one offensive bugaboo that did rear its head was failing to complete drives, having to settle three times for Maher field goals. That kept Detroit in the game, especially as Stafford repeatedly completed passes that were nearly perfectly covered by Chidobe Awuzie. The Lions had apparently made the decision that they were going to attack Awuzie, and didn’t challenge Bryon Jones at all. They also had some effective runs at times, and Stafford came through again after Dallas had taken a 23-17 lead in the fourth. He overcame DeMarcus Lawrence’s third sack of the game, and used just 3:32 off the clock to move down the field and hit Golden Tate for a 38 yard touchdown pass. The Cowboys were playing short-handed in the secondary with Jeff Heath out with a shoulder injury. But Stafford was doing that all day, and Tate was over 100 yards for the game. It gave Detroit a one point lead, and Dallas just 2:17 to try and get in position for at least a shot at a winning field goal.
But Prescott came up with an ice-in-his-veins drive, Maher put his fourth attempt of the game, a 38 yarder, right down the middle, and the Cowboys got a very important win.
It was somewhat ironic that in a game where the offense finally began to get on track, the defense was just not able to make plays so often. Still, they were able to keep things close enough for the dramatic win at the end.
There were several interesting developments in this one. After a lot of talk about Brice Butler being active while Terrance Williams was not, Butler was a no-show. In addition to his 152 yards on 25 carries, Zeke was also the leading receiver with 88 yards and a touchdown on four catches. Geoff Swaim had three nice grabs, including a one yard touchdown throw, and Cole Beasley was the workhorse of the wide receiver group, catching four for 53 yards.
And the Cowboys finally did something many have been calling for. They won the toss, and then deferred. It had a lot to do with the field position to start the second half, which helped them get the crucial second touchdown of the game.
The Lions helped the Cowboys at times, making several penalties that extended Dallas drives and wiped out one sack of Prescott. They might have been egregious flags, since there were a lot of plays where it looked like a flag could have been thrown for pass interference, but the hankies stayed in the pockets.
A scary moment came when Elliott was going for a fourth and one in the third quarter from the three yard line. He got the yardage needed, but was fighting for the touchdown when the ball popped straight up into the air. Fortunately, Blake Jarwin recovered it, and Prescott would hit Swaim for the TD on the next play.
There were really only two negatives to take from this game, The secondary was not at all good, and Heath’s injury is worrisome. And those three dries that could have been touchdowns but left four points on the field were disheartening.
But the positives were far more numerous. The play-calling looked creative at times, and the execution by the players was vastly improved. No one made that big mistake on offense that could have caused a loss. Prescott was good if not great, finishing with 255 yard passing on 17 of 27 and two touchdowns and a 118.6 passer rating. And Elliott was a monster, accounting for 240 yards total offense and the touchdown. Add in that the offensive line looked noticeably better, with more protection for most of the game and some gaping holes for Zeke plus a spectacular downfield block by Joe Looney on the screen pass touchdown, and there was a lot of hope to take from this game.
Now all they have to do is repeat it. But given all the good things they showed, that does not look like it is out of the question at all.