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One play against the Rams might have saved the Cowboys’ season

You’ve probably forgotten about it, but had it gone differently, it might have ruined everything.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
This time, the zebras did Dallas a solid.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The afterglow of the huge Dallas Cowboys victory over the Los Angeles Rams is still with us. Dallas was a reeling team. A once-promising season had dissolved into frustration and incredibly bad performances. While this game did not decide whether the Cowboys will make the playoffs, they most assuredly needed a boost to their confidence. They got exactly that with a 44-21 beatdown that wasn’t as competitive as the score indicated. Once they got their foot on the Rams’ neck, they didn’t really let off. A key to that was scoring on five consecutive possessions, starting at the end of the first quarter.

But it came so close to not happening that way. There was a play that could easily have changed things dramatically, killing Dallas’ first scoring drive, handing the ball to the Rams in easy scoring position, and possibly starting a cascade of failures like those that had plagued the Cowboys over the previous few weeks.

The situation for Dallas was a third and nine at their own 34 during their second possession. Here is the play, as described on the ESPN website.

(5:07 - 1st) (Shotgun) D.Prescott pass short left intended for T.Austin INTERCEPTED by D.Williams [S.Ebukam] at DAL 46. D.Williams ran ob at DAL 46 for no gain. Penalty on LA-D.Williams, Defensive Pass Interference, offsetting, enforced at DAL 34 - No Play. Penalty on DAL-L.Collins, Offensive Holding, offsetting.

We’ve seen the Cowboys falter after an early turnover before, especially when the opponent is able to capitalize by scoring. Had that pick stood, the Rams had an excellent chance of at least getting three, and given that they went 75 yards on the next series to score a touchdown, it is not at all improbable that Dallas would have been down by seven when the second quarter started.

Instead, that play was wiped out. For all statistical and effective purposes, it never happened. On the next snap, Dak Prescott found Amari Cooper for 19 yards to keep the drive alive, although it took a leaping grab of a high throw. Seven plays later, Prescott would get the ball where Jason Witten could get a hand on it, do a bit of an OBJ impression, and drive into the end zone.

That is the sequence of events as they happened. We cannot say what would actually have transpired if the officials had missed the DPI call. That makes the rest of my hypothesis speculative. I do, however, think it is very logical and consistent with the first thirteen games of the season.

Had the ball gone over to the Rams, and they scored, I think the Cowboys might have folded.

I’ve stated before that I think the Cowboys were suffering a real crisis of faith. Not in a religious sense, of course, but faith in themselves, in the coaching, and in just about everything involving football. To expand on that, the problems that have plagued them this year are almost all mental. Bad decisions, loss of technique, trying too hard to make a big play, or not being in position all come from not having your head right in a game. The issue extends to the coaching staff. Play-calling seemed to be reverting back to excessive conservatism, while the team just looked woefully unprepared in the games leading up to the Rams. Had that turnover not been wiped out by penalties, the game could easily have reverted back to the sad script we have suffered through too often this season.

Instead, it all changed, in a huge way. With the exception of the wide receivers, everyone on offense was finding success. The running game wasn’t just brutally effective, it was creative and unpredictable. It didn’t hurt that both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard were just flat out dominating defenders at the point of contact. The tight ends did nicely, and of course having the interception wiped out made Prescott’s day look a lot better. The defense was hugely impressive. Antwaun Woods basically took Todd Gurley out of the game single-handedly, despite only being on the field for 32% of Dallas’ defensive plays. The secondary was very solid. Sean Lee had a monster game, while everyone suddenly remembered that the idea behind tackling was to wrap up and take the ball carrier to the ground. Even the special teams did their part in securing the win. The coaching staff, for a change, put their players in a position to succeed, and for a change, the players seized just about every opportunity.

This does make the supposition that the Cowboys were that fragile coming into the game. It is hardly something you can read in a stat sheet or derive from analytics. However, it is an idea that is entirely consistent with the way so many of the losses have gone this year. Adversity would hit the team early in the game, and they would clearly be staggered by it. Usually they would mount something of a rally late, but in most cases it was more a garbage time thing that meant nothing.

That’s why the way the Cowboys won the game was more important than just getting the W. As mentioned above, the next game against the Philadelphia Eagles will (likely) determine the playoff fate for both teams. Even without beating the Rams, a victory against Philadelphia would have meant Dallas just had to get a win in the last game hosting Washington to make the playoffs. Now, of course, if they can take down the Eagles in their own house, they clinch the NFC East.

Winning the Rams game was not necessary, although it was obviously helpful. Winning in a dominant fashion was far more beneficial. It builds confidence, proves that this team is capable of that kind of performance, and sets a positive tone for the playoffs. They still have to get over that hurdle in Philly, of course, but if they do, and look at all like they did against LA, then confidence may grow. One very widespread theory of just what was wrong with Dallas this year holds that it was all about their own mistakes. On Sunday, they largely cut those out, with that one big assist from the refs, and the results seem to support the contention.

As Jason Garrett himself pointed out, it’s a one-game season for the second week in a row. If this is the beginning of a trend, and not just a one-time surge, this could be a dangerous team to face in the playoffs. We still have to see if this is a team we can believe in, but for the first time in a while, we can at least have a little hope.

Should the Cowboys have some measure of success to finish this season on an up note, then remember that play that wound up not counting. It could well be the pivotal point that turned everything around.

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