When it looked like the Dallas Cowboys were done for the season, they put together their best game of the year in beating the Los Angeles Rams 44-21. It was absolute dominance, particularly in the first half. It was so big a win, that Cooper Rush got some snaps at the end to protect Dak Prescott. Arguably, the biggest mistakes that the Cowboys made happened before the clock ever started running, and one would get reversed while the other didn’t really matter after all.
If there was one recurring problem for the Cowboys it was that they had something of a slow start once again, as they had to punt on their first possession. But they would then score on four consecutive series before halftime, and keep the string going to start the second. They wouldn’t punt again until the 7:53 mark in the third quarter.
The first half numbers give just an indication of how the Cowboys completely controlled the game on both sides of the ball. Dallas outgained the Rams 285 yards to 160. They put up four touchdowns, including drives of 90, 75, and 97 yards. They converted five of seven third downs in the first 30 minutes, and also the lone fourth down try they had. Tavon Austin had the long play of the game, going 59 yards after a brilliant bit of route running by him and Blake Jarwin, which caused the Rams defending them to collide. That left Austin all by himself, and after evading some pressure, Prescott delivered one of the longest and easiest touchdown passes of his career. Next Gen stats would later show it was the most open deep reception in the league this season.
The tight ends had a great first half, with Jarwin and Jason Witten combining for 76 yards, with Witten getting the first touchdown of the game on a 19 yard play from Prescott where Witten got the last four yards on his own. Ezekiel Elliott had 78 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, and passed the 100 yard mark on the opening drive of the second half. Tony Pollard was also contributing with 33 yards of his own, including a 25 yard gain. Meanwhile, the defense absolutely shut down Todd Gurley, holding him to only one yard net before half. Antwaun Woods seemed to know when Gurley was getting the ball and exactly where he was going, as he met the back in the backfield multiple times. Gurley was actually outgained by Jared Goff, who had a long run before half of (checks notes) three yards.
While the offense was putting up some gaudy numbers, the defense may have been the real heroes of this game, because they looked entirely different from what we have seen the past few weeks. There were no missed tackles. They were getting off the field. And Sean Lee came up with a beautiful interception after the two minute warning in the first half to set up Elliott’s second touchdown.
Outside of the opening kickoff, the special teams even had a decent game. At least they didn’t make any huge mistakes. The Rams still had better field position to start their drives, except for the Lee pick, but it was not due to any major mistakes made on STs.
If there was one thing the Cowboys did not have much of, it was production from the wide receivers beyond the Austin long play. Part of that may have been that Prescott was playing with some taped fingers after getting his hands banged up in the loss to the Chicago Bears. His passing was generally not sharp. But his receivers stepped up on many occasions, hauling in balls that were a bit off.
He wasn’t alone, as Goff was seen icing his hands during the game after banging it off a defender. He was not very accurate, either, and it certainly handicapped the Rams, who got nothing going except for that one touchdown drive in the second quarter. They would get a couple of meaningless touchdown drives late in the fourth quarter, but by then it was already impossible for them to overcome a four score lead.
The passing game may have been a bit less effective, but the Dallas running game was very much going full blast. Not only did Elliott wind up with 117 yards, Pollard would eclipse him, thanks to a 33 yard run in the third quarter and a 44 yard touchdown with three minutes left in the game, where the Rams were the ones unable to finish tackles. With a big lead, and still moving the sticks enough to get into field goal range, the Cowboys had no reason to pass the ball in the fourth quarter, and wound up the game with more yards on the ground that through the air. And it was not even close, as they had 264 on the ground to only 212 through the air before the final, kneel down possession.
There was a weird controversy before the game even started. The Rams lost the coin toss, and when Dak Prescott was asked what he wanted to do, he said “Defer” - but Walt Anderson didn’t hear him well. He did hear Prescott saying that Dallas wanted to kick the ball, and Anderson initially ruled that the Rams would receive the ball to start both halves. But the league officials in New York confirmed that Prescott had verbalized “defer”, and the Cowboys received to open the second half as they had intended. They weren’t able to get a touchdown, but got close enough for Kai Forbath to kick a 50 yard field goal, pushing the lead to 24 points. It was a bit reassuring, as Forbath opened the game by kicking the ball out of bounds to set the Rams up at the 40 on their opening drive. But the defense stood up and stopped the Rams. A couple of series the Cowboys would score their first touchdown, and never trailed from there on. And Forbath added a 42 yarder on the first play of the fourth quarter, pushing the lead to 34-7 at the time, before connecting on a second 42 yard attempt later in the final stanza.
As satisfying as it was to see Dallas put together such a complete, wire-to-wire performance, we still are left with a bit of “what if” to consider. If only they had found this earlier, they could have locked up the woeful NFC East long ago. Now, with the Philadelphia Eagles, also at 7-7, tied for the division, the Cowboys still face a must-win game against them in a week. They will have to prove that this was not just a fluke against a team that is having some issues of its own.
It does raise a faint hope that any trip to the playoffs, if they can hang on for that, will be more than a futile exercise. It also at least means that Jason Garrett could conceivably save his job yet. They still have to do a lot more to really turn this season around.
But this was one incredible start.