The Dallas Cowboys won their second game of the season over the New York Giants by a score of 37-34. But if you ever wondered what a “Pyrrhic victory” means, this was an excellent example.
The final score is hardly important in light of a play that happened at the 6:46 point of the third quarter. That is when Dak Prescott, playing with a very unaccustomed lead, kept the ball himself and didn’t slide after a good gain, fighting to get to the first down stick. He didn’t quite make it, and in one of those nauseating moments we see too often in the NFL, his ankle just folded with what turned out to be a serious injury, requiring surgery and presumably costing him the rest of the season - at least. He was carted off, his face contorted in both emotional and physical pain, with teammates and old head coach Jason Garrett all offering their support.
The season may be in doubt for the Cowboys now that they have to rely on Andy Dalton to lead them. But the game certainly wasn’t over. Dalton took a page from Prescott and found CeeDee Lamb to keep the drive alive, and then Ezekiel Elliott ran it in from 12 yards out to give Dallas a 31-23 lead.
But Dalton is the backup, and he was lining up behind a rookie, Tyler Biadasz, who was making his first NFL start. They had likely had almost no work together in practice. After the Giants shaved three more off the lead, the next play saw Dalton lose the handle on the snap and then be unable to get the ball back. It set up the Giants at the 17, and though it took them five plays, they would get the TD and add a two point conversion using a tackle eligible play. The Cowboys trailed again 34-31, with 8:46 left in the game.
A facemask, determined runs by Elliott, a nice pickup by Tony Pollard on a dumpoff followed by his own bit of power running, and the Cowboys were in position to tie it up on a 40-yard field goal right after the two minute warning. Greg Zuerlein snuck it inside the right upright.
Then after the defense forced a punt and got the ball back with :52 left in the game, Dalton decided Michael Gallup was his new favorite receiver, as they hooked up on two fantastic, just-inside-the-sidelines receptions to move the team from their own 12 to the GIants’ 16. Zuerlein made the 34-yard field goal, and the Cowboys got their second win of the season.
It seems rather amazing that the Cowboys entered the game with a chance to take sole possession of the lead of the NFC East, but with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Football Team both dropping their games earlier, that was the exact situation. Now, with a 2-3 record, they hold that undisputed lead.
The first half was like a shortened version of how full games have gone for the Cowboys so far. After driving down the field and getting deep in the red zone, they were shoved back and had to settle for a field goal. Then the defense was once again far too soft against the run, and if they could get the Giants to third down, it seemed that there was always a wide open man for Daniel Jones to hit for the first down. They answered the opening score by getting a touchdown to take the lead on an end around to Evan Engram where Everson Griffen had a shot to stop the play for a loss, but wound up looking like he was chained to the field as Engram scampered into the end zone. Then the bugaboo that has haunted Dallas all season struck, as pressure on Dak Prescott led to a high throw to Ezekiel Elliott. It skimmed off his outstretched hand and into the arms of Kyler Fackrell, who returned it for a touchdown. Just like that, Dallas was down two scores at 14-3, and it would soon stretch to a 17-3 deficit as the Giants would get a 55-yard field goal.
That got the Cowboys right where they wanted to be, trailing by a bunch and needing to score some points in a hurry. OK, not really, but you start to feel like that is the only time this team starts to play well. And they certainly upped their game as they put together a nice looking drive where Elliott started to run well, Prescott started finding Cedrick Wilson to move the ball, and they capped it with an Elliott rushing TD from inside the 1-yard line.
Then a play that may have turned the game happened as the Cowboys actually got a takeaway on a DeMarcus Lawrence strip sack, and Anthony Brown, just returned from IR, plucked it from midair and scampered 29 yards to tie the game up at 17 all.
Still, the defense was far too porous, with the Giants driving down to the Dallas 27 before finally getting stopped. They lined up for a field goal, but a brilliantly executed and horribly defended fake led to a touchdown. Dallas was saved by an illegal procedure flag, the first of at least two crucial flags that turned TDs into eventual field goals. Down three, and with 51 seconds left before halftime, the Cowboys then put together a brilliant drive, highlighted by a long catch by CeeDee Lamb with a helmet-to-helmet penalty added on top. Then Kellen Moore responded with his own trickeration, calling a wide receiver pass from Wilson to Prescott for the touchdown. It is ironic that what is probably the last score we see this year involving Dak was as a receiver.
Throughout the game, Dallas defense just could not get off the field on third down, especially on third and long. Repeatedly they would let a receiver get wide open, and Jones did not look like a struggling quarterback on several very accurate throws. But they did seem to improve after Prescott was injured. It would have been far better if they had showed that kind of progress in support of him rather than as a possible way to try and take up the slack for the backup QB.
Now we have to wonder just how well the team can do with Dalton at quarterback. While it would seem to be questionable, that defensive improvement plus some signs that Elliott is ready to shoulder as much load as they need mean that this may not be as desolate a situation as it could be. This is the NFC East, and frankly, those two Gallup catches to get the winning field goal mean that this may not be as over as first appears.
It is not going to be easy. But this team might still be able to get to the playoffs. And the decision to sign a veteran QB to backup Prescott might be the biggest of the offseason.