Suddenly, there’s hope. The Dallas Cowboys got exactly what they needed with a totally overpowering performance in defeating the Los Angeles Rams 44-21. They never trailed in the game, and it was effectively over by halftime as they already had a three score lead and were able to put it in the hands of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. It got them to 7-7, kept them very much alive to still win the NFC East, and even makes the idea of a surprise run in the playoffs a little more feasible.
While the game was a good step to take with the Philadelphia Eagles having already won to also sit at 7-7, things will likely be decided between the two teams when Dallas travels to Philadelphia on Sunday. And while this was a very encouraging win, we still are going to have to see how it all plays out to really have a grasp of what this edition of the Cowboys really is.
So what can we take away from the big win?
The team does have talent
One big question that has emerged during the recent struggles is whether the talent of the roster was just vastly overrated. Against the Rams, the players really made a statement. Just about all of them.
Let’s start with the offensive line. They had one of the best performances of the season, as they not only cleared the way for not just one, but two, 100-yard rushing performances, and did not see Dak Prescott sacked even once. Of particular note is how they controlled Aaron Donald, the best defender the Rams have. He never got to Prescott, and only tallied three tackles, one for a loss. Several key runs went right up the gut. Prescott helped with the lack of sacks with his mobility and awareness, but give some credit to that line. It is also worth mentioning that they did not get flagged once for holding.
And Elliott and Pollard absolutely shone. Elliott was the workhorse, totaling 24 carries for 117 yards and two touchdowns. Pollard only had half as many attempts, but was the long range hitter, with runs of 44-, 33-, and 25-yards, the longest one a “kick ‘em while they’re down” touchdown late in the game. He would wind up the night as the leading rusher with 131 yards, for a whopping 10.9 yards a carry.
The running game really picked up the slack, accounting for 263 yards of offense in a game where Prescott only passed for 212. But with a big lead, it was obvious that Kellen Moore just didn’t need to call passes as much - especially given how Elliott and Pollard were shredding the Rams.
Prescott was more efficient than overpowering, completing 15 of 23 passes with no interceptions and two TDs. He had fingers taped after injuring them the previous game, so the running game needed to help him out. They certainly did.
The tight ends were a big part of the offense despite only having six catches combined. Jason Witten had four, including the touchdown that puts him just one behind Dez Bryant for the all-time lead for any receiver. Blake Jarwin had two, but each was for 20 yards. His grab at the Dallas nine-yard line in the second quarter converted a third down, got the team out of the shadow of their own goalposts, and kept a 97-yard drive alive that would eventually result in a touchdown.
A group that didn’t show up much were the wide receivers. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb, and Tavon Austin each had just one reception apiece. Cooper’s was important, as it also kept a drive alive that led to a touchdown. Austin’s one catch was a thing of beauty, not because he made it and turned it into a 59-yard touchdown. It was how incredibly wide open he was, as he and Jarwin had run crossing patterns that ran the defenders covering them into one another. As a result, Austin was, according to the graphic put up during the game, the widest-open receiver for any NFL team all season on a deep pass.
Defensively, let’s take a moment to appreciate Sean Lee. It was the first game of his career where he had both a sack and an interception, and he not only grabbed the errant pass, he almost took it all the way back, only getting drug down at the Rams nine-yard line by a gang.
Antwaun Woods almost single-handedly took Todd Gurley out of the game. He had five tackles on the night, and all of them might have been of Gurley. Several were behind the line, leading to Gurley ending the night with just 20 yards rushing. Stopping the run was a big concern coming into the game in light of what the Rams did to Dallas in the playoffs last season. They only had a grand total of 22 yards.
Part of that was the tackling overall. After weeks of badly missed tackles, the Cowboys’ defense was locked in. Jaylon Smith has gotten a lot of criticism lately, but it was one forceful takedown he had that signaled that things were different in this game.
The defensive line did not get any sacks, with Jourdan Lewis joining Lee to account for both that the team had, but they were in Jared Goff’s face all game, and it showed as he was held to 284 yards in a game where Los Angeles was forced to throw to try and catch up, and a lot of the yards came on the two late touchdown drives when Dallas was in a prevent mode. More importantly, he only averaged 5.6 yards a completion. That is also a tribute to how well the secondary contained things. Goff also hurt his hand in the game, which didn’t help them much.
And while new kicker Kai Forbath had a couple of kickoffs go out of bounds, which will need to be fixed, he hit all three of his field goal attempts. None of them were chip shots, either.
It was a game when the stars came out. It wasn’t always who we expected. But it was more than enough.
The coaching stepped up just as much
The Cowboys won in all three phases of the game. The staff had them ready.
One thing that is implied but a bit unknowable is what Wade Phillips was focused on doing defensively against the Cowboys. It may be that his priority was taking those wide receivers out of the game. If that is so, props to Kellen Moore for taking what he was given. Of course, it hardly hurt that his running backs were both on fire, but any time you put 44 points on the board, you are doing a good job calling the offense. For much of the game, the Rams had absolutely no answer for the Dallas assault. Had they not gone heavily to the run to eat up the clock and protect the ball in the second half, the Cowboys might have scored even more.
And something definitely changed for the better on defense. There were few mistakes at all, and a lot of key stops. They had Sean McVay baffled.
Even the special teams had a good night, outside of those Forbath miscues on kickoffs. Most importantly, the Cowboys had a better average starting field position on their drives than their opponent. That has been a huge issue this season. The Lee interception really helped, but it all comes into play. They gave up almost nothing in the return game. 23 yards on the one kickoff that was returned. Plus they handled an onsides attempt late, although that was more about the ball almost not making it the required ten yards before getting to the sidelines. The one blemish was giving up the fake punt.
Jason Garrett made a case
Prior to this game, almost everyone (raises hand) was convinced that there was no way that Garrett would be offered a new deal to return as the head coach. Well, we might want to put that on hold for at least a week. He had this team prepared, motivated, and playing as well as they have all season. He still has a lot to prove, but this was the first time he made a real argument that he isn’t toast yet.
Now he has to do it again. Several times, in fact. But give him credit for what he did.
And it raises a real question of just what has been wrong for so many weeks. Here’s a thought.
Mistake-free football is kinda important
Outside those two bad kickoffs and a very small handful of defensive penalties, this was about as flawless a performance as you are likely to see. In all the losses, there were plenty of self-inflicted problems on display. The Cowboys eliminated those, and the results are pretty obvious.
I don’t have any answers for why those mistakes were just beating the team down before, or how they managed to eliminate them. Somehow, they figured it out, at least for a week.
Suddenly, a playoff run doesn’t seem so far-fetched
It’s just one game. But it was just the kind of game that makes the idea that the Cowboys could make some noise in the postseason conceivable. There simply had been no evidence of that since the first Eagles game.
This was a display that is hard to dismiss. It was just so decisive. In one stretch, the Cowboys strung five scoring drives together while only giving up one. They only called on Chris Jones to punt twice. They dictated things for almost the entire game.
Some were claiming that the team had given up on Garrett, but I always felt it was more a case of them giving up on themselves. Their confidence looked absolutely shattered in the two most recent losses. This game was a near-perfect antidote to that.
It can all still come crashing down in Philadelphia, but this boost in confidence should be a major help against an Eagles team that was pushed to the wire by a pretty bad Washington squad.
We’ll soon find out if this was finally the real Cowboys showing up, or just a flash in the pan.