Trying to find positivity from the rubble of Dallas’ earthquake season up to this point can be amply equated to one of “Where’s Waldo’s” most arduous levels. The Cowboys’ gradual sink into infamy has been Titanic-esque, and the iceberg that was Dak Prescott’s leg injury marked the tipping point that sent Dallas’ ship plunging into hypothermic waters.
If you could draw out the team’s season on a plot point graph, each week would represent a constant downward-trending mark-off in a line that at this point has been decrescent past the point of no return.
That is, at least - until their shocking near-win vs. Pittsburgh at AT&T stadium last week.
The ‘Boys currently sit at 2-7 and third place in the ever-lamentable NFC East, and despite still having a chance to claw their way back into contention, things look bleak right now. Even the squad’s wins were questionably earned, and had it not been for miraculous kismet vs. New York, and the ultimate brain-fart of brain-farts on Atlanta’s part in a comical onside kick attempt, their win total would be a goose egg.
If you've read a midseason recap on Dallas’ escapades up to this point, it’s likely been rife with lambasts on their porous performance. And I can easily admit that I’ve been a fervent advocate of the same sentiment. They’ve been terrible. But while there’s much to talk about in terms of pessimism, this year hasn’t been completely fraught with negatives. There have been some bright spots, and although they’ve been rare as a two-dollar bill, to gloss over them would be an injustice to the good that has taken place.
It’s a semi-occurrent happenstance, but for my own morale’s sake (and for that of Cowboys Nation as a whole) it’s worthy of focus.
Here are the top three showings from the ‘Boys thus far.
#3. @ Los Angeles Rams. DAL: 17 LAR: 20
This was probably the most evenly-contested matchup Dallas partook in all season. And ironically, one of the ‘Boys best outings came with the least amount of preconditioning under their belts.
The team who stopped Dallas’ 2018 Super Bowl bid short was first up on their 2020 schedule, and the matchup lived up to its massive Sunday Night billing. There were stars to be recognized on both sides: Prescott, Elliott, Cooper. Donald, Ramsey, Woods.
And Mike McCarthy would get a revealing first-game test against play-calling guru Sean McVay. While he didn't quite pass, his initial offering was not foretelling of anything close to the crumple we would witness soon thereafter. His offense accounted for 380 collective yards and 24 first downs, while posting their most efficient 60-minute slate yet, surrendering no turnovers to the opposition.
Dak Prescott was serviceably comfortable in the pocket, dispersing accurate passes like free handouts to a variety of his most reliable targets. Dallas surrendered an early 7-0 lead, but regained their footing in the second on a vintage Elliott rumble out of the backfield. Elliott would finish with 96 yards on 22 carries, while raking in three big receptions, including the touchdown.
Meanwhile the defense held its own, and although they were a step slow both on-field and strategic-wise, they got momentous contributions from several key components, and forced one of their lone takeaways on the year with a Chidobe Awuzie interception as well.
The game remained a back-and-forth slobberknocker until its final minutes, and the ‘Boys secondary came up with a huge stop on a 3rd-and-3 to return the pigskin to their quarterback with just over two minutes remaining.
Then came the controversy.
Prescott willed his team forward on a few dump routes, before the dwindling clock beckoned a deep shot from #4. He acquiesced, and found Michael Gallup downfield in a one-on-one matchup with Jalen Ramsey, who jolted past his defender and reeled in a 40+ yard reception.
Except there was a flag. Which, thrown with under 20 seconds left rendered their chances for comeback dead and moot. It’s tough to see games decided by officials, especially when it’s your team that’s on the wrong end of a loss. And it was a devastating one when taking all circumstances into account.
My unbiased opinion as a Michael Gallup fantasy owner is that this was not an offensive pass interference. pic.twitter.com/LETU7WLBOb— Jeff Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) September 14, 2020
But ludicrously enough, it became one of Dallas’ superior performances on the year.
#2. vs. New York Giants. DAL: 37 NYG: 34
This was the outing in which everything collectively hit the fan.
The fact that it’s one of Dallas’ best three performances is a testament to how poorly the troupe has played all year. But it was the poise and harmonious demeanor with which Dallas responded in lieu of Dak Prescott’s trip-up that vaults this game into the #2 slot.
Unlike their usual status quo, the Cowboys actually jumped out to an early lead in the game, and writ their trademark all over its opening moments as the Giants D faltered in containment efforts. The ‘Boys defense, though, showcased more of the same ineptitude that has plummeted them to a bottom spot in league rankings.
Daniel Jones looked like Fran Tarkenton on the pitch, and the Giants QB ducked, dodged and scrambled circles around Dallas’ brigade, easily coasting back downfield for an emphatic touchdown in response.
Then the Giants defense woke up out of their slumber.
On the following possession, Kyler Fackrell picked off Prescott and found paydirt following an Elliott botched catch attempt, before another stop allowed NY to kick a field goal to increase their lead to 17-3.
This marked the emergence of Prescott-time.
Prescott willed his team back downfield like a calculative chess master-like returning drive, garnering enough field position for Elliott to smoothly slide into the end zone for his first TD. Dallas would force a turnover on New York’s ensuing try - a crunching DeMarcus Lawrence sack dislodged Jones of the football, which found Anthony Brown with ready mitts and nothing but daylight in front of him as he raced back towards the Giant lead, knotting the table at 17.
Big Blue would retort with a FG of their own, before #4 flashed his armor again - this time piercing the Giants secondary with a surprise TD reception on a throwback from Cedric Wilson.
It would be one of the last times he would have the luxury to do so.
The G-men added another three-ball as the second half got underway, and Prescott - as he’s done time and time again - began guiding his squadron towards fort NY. He’s a fearless captain that has no problem sinking with the ship, and unfortunately, that fervor became his imminent downfall.
There is no need to fully detail what happened next. It stings most of Cowboys Nation with as great a force as any injury has in the team’s storied history, and Dak’s broken ankle with just over six minutes remaining in the third quarter swiftly dashed hopes of success on the season - let alone a win in the game.
Well don’t tell Andy Dalton that. Dallas scored on that same possession after a Dalton-Lamb connection granted them adequate territory for an Elliott scamper. Elliott flashed a resounding #4 to the camera as he joined his teammates in celebration, and if his team’s message hadn’t clear been up to that point, he made sure that it was fully felt: we’re going to win for Dak.
They didn’t fail their fallen soldier.
The D was able to thwart off Jones and company’s next attempt for salvage, and while they surrendered a late score to Devonta Freeman, they unanimously rose to the game’s largest occasion - forcing a punt with close to a minute left and a 34-34 tie.
Dalton would proceed to create a career-type moment for himself, dropping off three pivotal passes in succession - the last of which found a streaking Michael Gallup on the receiving end just inside the 20-yard line.
Greg Zuerlein took care of the rest, depositing a painless game-winner as time expired to seal the victory - one that was unequivocally earned in honor of #4.
#1. vs. Pittsburgh Steelers. DAL: 24 PIT: 19
The total over-under for points this game was more likely to eclipse 43.5 than it was to tunnel the number. And this had nothing to do with Dallas. The undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers were projected to completely blow the Cowboys out of the water last Sunday.
Dallas had been reduced to their fourth QB of the season, while Big Ben has been Pro Bowl-worthy in his return from the injury shelf. And don’t even get me started on Pittsburgh’s bullish defense. Every viable piece of evidence one could use pitted the Cowboys in a dangerous line of fire as the ‘Burgh eagerly awaited kill-shot allowance upon arrival at AT&T stadium.
They’ve been most experts’ #1 seeded defense since the season’s inception, coexisting as a consolidated wrecking crew led by the likes of T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Minkah Fitzpatrick. But little did we know - Dallas’ barricade had a few tricks up their own sleeve.
They diffused Ben Roethlisberger and the ‘Burgh offense to near Sahara-like dryness as the matchup got underway, while rendering the Steelers quadruplet behemoth of Juju Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington nearly impotent.
Meanwhile, next man up Garrett Gilbert looked smooth and effortless in the pocket. He was confident from the opening snap, and fired off a beautiful pass on his initial attempt - a rainbow floater for Amari Cooper, who sped his way past midfield. They would have to settle for a field goal though after Pittsburgh bounced back to quell their momentum.
Dallas snatched it right back after a huge fourth-down stop on a risky Steelers’ gamble, and Gilbert broke off two first-down rushes before following up a dime throw to Dalton Schultz with an even better one to CeeDee Lamb for six.
Pittsburgh found themselves unable to gain traction again, and things went from bad to worse for the black and yellow on a sly trick call from John Fassel on the ensuing punt. The play: a cunning throwback design that misguided the defense to one side of the field, while a (supposedly) hobbled C.J. Goodwin masqueraded down the other - an intriguingly perfect deceit. The big breakdown allowed Goodwin to scoot to the 10-yard line, but the ‘Boys found themselves unable to capitalize, settling for another FG.
The wild Cedrick Wilson lateral on the punt to CJ Goodwin— Tom Downey (@WhatGoingDowney) November 8, 2020
(THAT WAS LIMITED BY A DARIAN THOMPSON PENALTY)pic.twitter.com/JWlWgLR7K4
Pittsburgh began to transform into their old selves near the end of the second half as Big Ben added another touchdown pass to his tremendous total. As did Dallas - CeeDee Lamb fumbled near his own end zone to allow the Steelers an extra three. Still, though, Dallas reached halftime with a lead - a sentiment that prior to the game would’ve incited hysterical laughter.
The ‘Boys added two more Greg Zuerlein kicks to increase their advantage to 10, while the defense continued their surprise dominance by holding Pittsburgh scoreless in the third quarter.
But what’s this 2020 season without a Cowboys fold? The two are one and the same, and the floodgates opened in the fourth.
Pittsburgh got a timely touchdown from James Washington, and Garrett Gilbert followed that with an interception of his own. The Steelers got a FG from the blunder, as well as the ball with just over three minutes left - which was a welcome treat for the seasoned Roethlisberger. He spearheaded his team to another game-winning drive, effectively keeping their spotless record intact along the way.
Still, though, Dallas was a worthy contender. They put up a 364 yard total - their highest since Prescott went down, and relinquished their lowest rushing number on the campaign in addition (64).
And they almost won. It will be counted as a loss nonetheless, but in a season with this much turmoil, it can’t possibly be deemed a horrid one. There were several flashes of competence, and even dominance. Flashes that, while short-lived, will still be preserved as long as possible while we eagerly await a change in tide.