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Grading the Cowboys’ Wild Card victory over the Seahawks

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It’s report card time for the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Your Dallas Cowboys advanced to the division round of the playoffs with a tough, gritty 24-22 triumph over the Seattle Seahawks. It was a game that largely went to plan with both teams trying to run the ball, play solid defense and make the occasional big play. Dallas simply did those things better. And now, for the third time in five seasons - and second time in the 214 era - Dallas advances to the final eight in the NFL playoffs. Let’s go to the grades.

Overall: B+

Dallas played a quintessential Jason Garrett-era football game. They ran the ball well, totaling 164 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. They played (mostly) stout defense, holding the league’s most prolific run game to only 73 yards on 34 attempts (only 3.0 yards per carry). Even the special teams finally chipped in a play, with Tavon Austin returning a punt 51 yards (and having another punt return touchdown negated by a holding call).

The Cowboys essentially did to the Seahawks what the Seahawks have been doing to opponents for years. Dallas controlled the clock for nearly 35 minutes, piled up an 81-yard advantage in total yards (380 to 299) and won the fourth quarter (14-8). The only real blemish was an end zone interception (which was both an outstanding play by K.J. Wright as well as illegal, as he clearly interfered with Noah Brown).

One could nitpick about the fact Dallas bizarrely allowed Tyler Lockett to get behind the defense for a 52-yard gain when the sole objective at that point in the game was to not allow a big play. Or allowing the Seahawks to twice convert fourth downs. Or allowing the Seahawks run game to waltz into the end zone without much resistance on two 2-point conversions.

But that would be picking nits. The team played strong, tough, disciplined football, was the better team on the field and deserved the win.

Coaching: B+

Everything written above can be attributed to the long-term Jason Garrett effect. This is the team he wanted to build, this is how he wants to play. It’s not always the most aesthetically pleasing team to watch but they play hard and they play from opening whistle to the final gun.

The Cowboys didn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. They ran the ball and played tough defense. They used screens and short passes and took a couple deep attempts. They even ran on 3rd-and-14, calling a quarterback draw on the most important play of the game. The Seahawks clearly expected a pass in that situation, as their interior lineman were stunting, which helped Zack Martin and Connor Williams combine for two devastating blocks that opened a huge hole.

So give Scott Linehan credit, I guess, for an unexpected play call that miraculously worked (had it not the chorus of boos for the OC would have been loud and sustained). Regardless, this is the Jason Garrett Cowboys and this is how they win.

Quarterback: B+

Dak Prescott didn’t have a huge game, throwing for only 236 yards and compiling an 83.6 passer rating. He badly missed on the one turnover of the game. But, as he has repeatedly throughout his career, Dak made big plays when it counted and led the team to victory. He marched the team to two fourth quarter touchdown drives. He had yet another signature running play, this time on the designed quarterback draw to convert that key 3rd and 14:

That’s your quarterback, Cowboys fans, running through the best tackling linebacker in the NFL (Bobby Wagner). Dak would follow that play by taking the ball himself on the touchdown that virtually ended the game.

There’s no longer any question who the leader of this Cowboys team is: it’s Rayne Dakota Prescott. We’re going to see how far he can take the team this season; he’s already carried them farther than most of us expected.

Running back: A

The one truly reliable component on the Cowboys is the running back. Elliott did what he seems to do every week: he ran hard, he ran often and he ran effectively. He also caught a few passes. His 30 touches and 169 total yards came in typical Zeke fashion:

While it was Zeke who proclaimed loudly on national television that Dak Prescott is “a grown-ass man” the same can be said for Elliott. He’s a rare talent playing in the prime of his career.

Offensive line: A

The numbers tell the story:

  • 34 rushing attempts
  • 164 rushing yards
  • 2 rushing touchdowns
  • 34 dropbacks
  • 1 sack

The one sack is the lowest number since the first Washington game back in week five. There were zero holding penalties by the group. It was an overall impressive performance against a pretty good Seattle front seven. Connor Williams’ return to the LG spot was successful. Tyron Smith looked like the dominant version and not the penalty-plagued player we’ve seen recently. Joe Looney, Zack Martin and La’el Collins names were never called, which is what you want from your offensive lineman.

Simply a terrific overall performance.

Wide receivers: B

It wasn’t a flashy performance from this group. Amari Cooper had a nice game, totaling 106 yards on nine targets, including this 34-yard gain that led to the team’s first fourth quarter score:

Michael Gallup had only two catches on six targets but added the go-ahead touchdown that would put the Cowboys in front for good.

Cole Beasley toughed out a sprained ankle for three first down catches. The group combined for 13 catches on 19 targets for 166 yards and a touchdown. The evening was only marred by a horrific looking ankle injury to Allen Hurns. Both teams were classy in support of Hurns, as were the Cowboys fans:

Tight ends: B-

After being named Offensive Player of the Week last week, Blake Jarwin was targeted only three times and had only 15 yards in catches. So much for the idea that what we saw in the Giants game was a harbinger of things to come. Jarwin did run a seam route to clear out the linebacker on one of Amari Cooper’s big plays, so there’s that.

Beyond that it was mostly blocking for Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. Speaking of the rookie, he almost made the lowlights when he got blown back into Elliott near the goal line. Only Elliott’s ability to break through avoided what would have been a safety.

Defensive lineman: B+

This seems like a high grade for a team that had only one sack on the night, but this group was a terror up front. Not only did they help completely squash the Seahawks’ ground game they also stopped Russell Wilson from hurting them with his legs (except for a short touchdown run). They put pressure on Wilson most of the night, forcing him into short throws.

The officials also seemed happy to let the Seahawks offensive line clutch and grab all night, including this on the Seahawks big fourth down conversion:

They also contributed a big-time tackle for loss when Antwaun Woods made this play:

That effectively ended a promising Seattle drive. Malik Collins had the one sack, ending another Seahawks drive. DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory combined for three tackles for loss. So even though there was an absence of big, highlight-reel plays this group still had a very solid performance.

Linebackers: A

The dynamic duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Williams had another big game. They combined for 17 tackles, and two deflected passes. They seemed to be all over the field as they stifled the league’s best running game. This play is indicative of their overall night:

Secondary: B-

This grade would be higher were it not for the inexcusable lapse right after Dallas took a 10-point lead with just over two minutes left. Playing in an extreme prevent, where the one thing you can’t allow is for a receiver to get behind the defense... they let the receiver get behind the defense. Byron Jones was burned on the play and looked like he was expecting help over the top. Regardless, he never should have allowed the play to happen.

Seattle’s only offensive success on the night came on big, downfield passes:

  • 26 yards to Ed Dickson
  • 40 yards to Tyler Lockett
  • 25 yards to Tyler Lockett
  • 22 yards to Doug Baldwin
  • 53 yards to Tyler Lockett

That’s 166 of Seattle’s 299 total yards on five plays. It’s a mystery to all why the Seattle coaching staff stubbornly stuck to running the ball for little or no gain on first and second down and only put the ball in Wilson’s hands on third down or in desperation. For once it’s the opposing coaching staff being questioned about being too conservative and not stretching the opponent out.

Special teams: B-

First the good: the return of Tavon Austin revived the Cowboys’ long-dormant return game. Austin had two long punt returns; the first going the distance but negated by a penalty:

His second return, however, counted. Only a stumble on his part stopped this from being an 88-yard touchdown.

Now the bad. For seemingly the tenth consecutive game the Cowboys coverage team allowed another long return. Kicking off with only 24 seconds remaining in the first half Tyler Lockett returned the ball 52 yards to the Cowboys’ 49, setting the Seahawks up for an eventual field goal try. Luckily Janikowski missed the kick (and injured himself doing so). It’s bewildering that this happens every single week and it seems like only a matter of time before it bites the Cowboys’ big-time.

In addition, Brett Maher missed yet another field goal, his fourth miss in the last five weeks (6-of-10 overall during that time). Like the return game, it seems only a matter of time before one of Maher’s misses costs the team.

In short, Tavon Austin’s return is promising but the team is playing with fire with this special team’s group.

Summary:

This is what the Cowboys are and this is what they do. They’ve now won eight of their last nine games and none of the wins have come by more than seven points. They’ll face a stiffer test next week as they’ll have to go on the road against a quality opponent. But that’s an unexpected development considering where this team was back in the first week of November. It feels like we’re playing with house money at this point, but that’s a terrific place to be. Let’s see how far this ride goes.