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Four things we learned from the Cowboys’ improbable win over the Falcons

Some may not be what you think.

Atlanta Falcons v Dallas Cowboys
Look what I found!
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Let’s be honest. For almost the entire game, we thought the Dallas Cowboys not only were going to lose to the Atlanta Falcons, we believed they deserved to. Error after error, both by the players and the coaches, put them in not just a hole, but a deep pit early in the game. Much to our shock and absolute delight, they fooled us all by producing a game that will be talked about for a long time, especially if it is the start of something good for the Mike McCarthy era. That amazing finish to the game showed us a lot, but may mask some things we can learn as well. Here’s an attempt to sort some of the stuff out.

There was absolutely no quit in the Cowboys

As Amari Cooper observed in his Jedi-calm state after the game, these kinds of highly improbable finishes do happen from time to time. It does require one important thing, of course. The team that eventually overcomes the odds must keep pushing. Some will fight to the very end under almost any conditions, but that is not how it seems to go for many, if not most. When they get down so far so fast, some teams visibly fold. They lose confidence and any hope of coming back. Even when they keep fighting, there is a tendency to push too hard, which leads to errors that thwart them.

None of that happened with Dallas. If anything, they dialed back the intensity after the mistake filled first quarter and played more in control. It was a testament to the way the team is coached, the fiber of the players, and the talent of the roster.

More than anything, however, it was about leadership. The Cowboys had a magnificent leader step up and do the near-impossible. Dak Prescott’s positives far outweigh his negatives, and he is certainly is the quarterback the team needs.

For almost any NFL team, success is more dependent on the starting quarterback than any other player. It isn’t just how he handles the offense on the field. Whether he means to or not, he is usually who sets the tone for the entire organization. His demeanor can steady and encourage his teammates, or it can undermine their confidence and create dissention.

Prescott’s 450 yard, no interception, and combined four TDs throwing and running performance was the rallying point for the Cowboys. He made it clear he was not giving up. Not with rah-rah speeches or emotive outbursts. He did it by just going out and playing superb football even after the team was mired in a three-score deficit. As time ran down and things kept looking insurmountable, he just kept making play after play. His own mistakes, including one of the disastrous fumbles in the first quarter, did not weigh him down. As all good quarterbacks must do, he put it behind him and kept his eyes fixed firmly forward.

Indisputably, this was the high point of his career to date. And he is still growing as a player. Just imagine what may be to come.

Two big mistakes by the Falcons may have been the real keys to Dallas’ victory

It is easy for almost anyone who watched the game to point to one of them, the badly botched coverage of the onsides kick. The Falcons did not not touch the ball until it went the required ten yards; there was confusion on their hands teams as they are generally coached to let the ball pass on a high-bounce kick and let the specialist behind them handle it. That delay allowed C.J. Goodwin to get in position to hover like a starving buzzard over the ball. It seemed as if everyone but him, including his own teammates, were a bit afraid of the ball. Goodwin didn’t hesitate, and became one of the many heroes of the game - with more than a little help from the guys from Atlanta.

But can you recall the earlier one that absolutely changed the trajectory of things? It was in the third quarter. The Cowboys had come out after halftime and engineered a 74-yard touchdown drive in only 2:37 to cut the Falcons’ lead to 12 points. Atlanta came right back at them, and had a third and two on the Dallas 41-yard line. They pulled one out of their bag of tricks, direct snapping the ball to Russell Gage, who then threw an absolutely perfect ball to Julio Jones at the goal line, only to have Jones, one of the truly elite wide receivers in the game, let the ball slip harmlessly through his hands. That unforced error was followed by a penalty on Atlanta, apparently because Jones somehow failed to get off the field in time when Matt Ryan came out to try and hurry up attempting to convert the 4th & 2. It became 4th & 7, they elected to punt, and the Cowboys responded with another touchdown.

Had Jones hauled that ball in, it may indeed have been a bridge too far for Dallas.

The offense had to find a way to win, because the offense got them so far behind in the first place

We all know how bad that first quarter was. What we can learn from it is how easy it was for the Falcons as they shot to a 20-0 lead.

The barrage of points started after Dak Prescott was sacked and fumbled, turning it over to the Falcons. The ensuing three drives would also end in turnovers, either fumbles or the failed fourth-down conversion on the pass attempt by punter Chris Jones. Atlanta scored after each of those four turnovers, two touchdowns followed by two field goals. And because of where they got the ball, their offense only had to travel a total of 97 yards to get the 20 points, or just under five yards per point.

Blame has been heaped on the defense for letting the Falcons score so much, but it is rather unjustified. The defense had nothing to do with Atlanta getting the ball like that. As a matter of fact, it can be argued they rose to the occasion on the two field goals, given that the two drives started at the Dallas 29 and 40. On the first one, the Falcons only moved five yards closer to the end zone before having to kick it.

Fortunately for fans of the Star, the offense was able to get the fumbling issue under control and come back with four touchdown drives of their own. And they were a very different story. Those TDs required Prescott and company to go 75, 74, 75, and 76 yards to score 27 points (the missed two-point conversion was in there.) That means they had to cover 300 yards, or over 11 yards per point. I know the yards per point metric is not one you see tossed out a lot, but it is a pretty good indication of how much harder the Cowboys had to work to score theirs. They had to because they were so generous to the opponent.

Super subs

In only the second game of the season, the Cowboys were already beaten up.

As we know, Tyron Smith was also unable to play. Suddenly, Dallas was going to have to rely on a whole bunch of backups, including both offensive tackles. And the predictable result was . . .

Well, really not too bad. Here are the main ones from the game and how they fared.

OTs Terence Steele and Brandon Knight were by far the biggest concern, with Smith, La’el Collins, and Cameron Erving all out for the game. The fact that both entered the league as UDFAs just heightened concerns. The certainly got off to a rough start, but a bit surprisingly, settled down and got things a bit under control.

This may be a true result of the abbreviated camp and no preseason. They literally may have had to figure out things in live game action that they would normally have down in August. In any case, the final results turned out pretty good, so the panic level for the offensive line should be dialed way down.

TE Dalton Schultz had a huge game and his position mate Blake Bell was no detriment. Many were absolutely crushed when starter Blake Jarwin had his season ended by a non-contact ACL injury in game one. There was a great deal of anticipation over what he could do without the tall, lumbering shadow of Jason Witten to deal with. Schultz struggled relieving Jarwin against the Los Angeles Rams, but all he did to follow that up was catch nine passes, more than anyone else. His 9.8 yards per catch average indicates he may be most valuable as a possession receiver which is something you have to have. Bell chipped in a couple of nice catches himself, showing that there is still some depth at the position as well. (If you’re curious, Sean McKeon was on the field for three offensive plays.)

Meanwhile, Joe Thomas may have been the best linebacker on the field for the Cowboys in the absence of Leighton Vander Esch. And that is in light of Jaylon Smith having what was regarded as a good game himself. Smith was first on the team in tackles, with Thomas just one behind him, while also contributing one of the very rare QB hits for Dallas. More importantly, Thomas probably played a large part in not letting Atlanta run the ball down the Cowboys’ throat.

Disaster averted in all three situations as “next man up” was more than just a motivational thing.