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Crunching stats: Why the Cowboys season is far from over after losing Dak Prescott

It was disastrous, yet there is reason for hope for Dallas.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys
The new 88 is one big reason, and not the only one.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, it’s horrible. Dak Prescott suffered a nauseating injury. The Dallas Cowboys are likely without him for the rest of the season. The win over the New York Giants was against one of the worst teams in the league. There are still issues. Yet despite all that, we should not give up any more than the team did in coming from behind to win in what would otherwise have been a thrilling finish.

Suddenly, the decision to sign Andy Dalton to be Prescott’s backup looks brilliant. Down the stretch, with the game on the line, he overcame a botched snap with rookie center Tyler Biadasz and made a couple of outstanding throws to Michael Gallup, putting Greg Zuerlein in position to kick a game-winning, just-accurate-enough (again) field goal. And the Cowboys salvaged a win that may be the blueprint for also salvaging what could look to many like a lost season. Here are some key numbers from the game to show what I mean.

Dalton’s stat line

9 of 11 for 111 yards. Yes, he had the fumble that made it so much harder, and also was sacked on his very first play. But he was definitely clutch when he had to be, first finding CeeDee Lamb for 11 yards to put the team in position to still be able to run the ball on the next play (which turned out well) and making those two simply great throws to Gallup on the game-winning drive.

This was simply a level of play that most teams don’t get from their QB2 when they have to. Now he will have to continue, as the Arizona Cardinals are up next, coming off a win over the woeful New York Jets. (It must really suck to be an NFL fan in the Big Apple right now.) But after that, they get to play the Washington Football Team and the Philadelphia Eagles, albeit on the road. Get wins over those two, which is hardly out of the question, and this team could be sitting in much better shape that we could have dreamed in light of the loss of Prescott.

Just as important is that Dalton led the team to 13 points in the final 20:03 of the game. That would project to over 30 points a game, and that should be enough to keep them in the mix the rest of the way.

The wide receiver group

Lamb is now the leading receiver for Dallas after amassing eight catches for 124 yards. He is not just doing justice to the 88 jersey. He is off to the best start of any player to ever wear it. Gallup was the second best receiver on the day with 73 yards, including that crucial 38-yard reception to put Zuerlein in close for the game winner. Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson had quieter games, but each still contributed catches, including some key moments.

For Dalton, this is the best possible situation. He has what is likely the best receiving corps of his career. The down side is of course that patchwork offensive line. But against a Giants defense that has been far better than their dismal offense, they were just good enough. For them, and for Dalton, the more time they practice and play together, the better. Meanwhile, those receivers will be a tremendous help to all involved.

Zeke steps up

It was the best game he has had this season, with 91 yards and two touchdowns rushing, including that powerful 12-yard run on third and six just after Dalton came in and completed the pass to Lamb mentioned above. He also had a catch for 14 yards as well. Dalton needs him to continue playing at this level to take some pressure off the passing game. Being able to run the ball just got more important for the Cowboys. The pass will still probably be the key to winning, but Elliott can be a crucial complementary piece.

Tony Pollard was pretty good in relief work as well, with a nice five yard per carry average in adding 30 yards on the ground.

The defense looked like it got steadily better

It started out like the same old story, as they struggled to get off the field. Daniel Jones seemed to experience the frustrating (to us) trend of playing much better against Dallas than in his other games while making big league throws to convert on third downs, or wide receivers got so open he just had to get the ball to them to move the sticks.

But as the game went on, the stops started coming. The only touchdown they gave up in the second half came after the Dalton fumble, which gave the Giants the ball on the Dallas 17. They forced a couple of punts, including the crucial one that gave the ball back to the offense with 52 seconds left at the end of the game. And, with the help of some penalties, they also limited the damage to field goals instead of touchdowns four times during the game. Those were huge.

One big plus was the return of Anthony Brown from IR, which paid immediate dividends as he capitalized on a DeMarcus Lawrence strip sack to take the loose ball 29 yards for a touchdown. Another was the play of Jaylon Smith, who led all defenders with 14 tackles, a half sack, and a total of three tackles for a loss. He looked better in this game than he has all season. With Leighton Vander Esch getting closer to returning from IR, that could be a major development.

One thing that was reported was Mike Nolan’s move from the booth to the field for the game. It is hard to know just how much influence that had, but the way the defense seemed to improve as things went along lends some credence to the idea that his presence on the sidelines allowed him to correct and direct the defense better.

But the defense suffered its own big injury, as Trysten Hill was carted off with a reported knee injury, and looks to be lost for an extended period. He had been one of the few bright spots for the defense.

Overall, however, this seemed a positive game for the defense, and hopefully they will continue to build on it.

The terrible NFC East

Amazingly, at 2-3, the Cowboys are all alone in first place in the division, with a half game lead over the (also) struggling Eagles. They just have to win the East to get to the playoffs, even if it is with a mediocre or worse record. That absolutely looks doable even with Dalton having to fill in for Prescott.

It may not be pretty, but there is a discernable path forward for Dallas to play into the postseason. Don’t abandon hope just yet.