It took 9,072 days, but the Dallas Cowboys have finally defeated the New England Patriots again. Even if that game took a year off your life expectancy, riding a five-game winning streak entering the bye feels pretty good.
The game can be characterized with no other word but odd. With exhilarating performances, mind-boggling decision making, and infuriating calls, this matchup had it all. So what are the storylines we should consider heading into a well-deserved week of rest?
The Cowboys are an undisciplined football team
You can point to the 12 penalties for 115 yards against Dallas in week six and insist the referees had it out for the Cowboys from the start. Sure, there were a lot of bad calls, but this is still an undisciplined team.
This has been a problem all season. Dallas is now the second most flagged team in the NFL at 7.8 penalties per game. While it reached its climax against the Patriots, the 65 yards and 2.8 first downs the Cowboys are averaging per game from penalties alone is the sign of a disorderly team.
Even putting the ball on the ground is more of a mental mistake than anything else. With the fourth most fumbles per game at 1.5, the Cowboys are beating themselves. Obviously this is not in the literal sense, as Dallas has now won five straight. But if Dallas continues to shoot themselves in the foot, there is no guarantee they will be able to consistently overcome this disadvantage.
Dak Prescott has been able to convert on long-yardage situations after penalties, and we should all be thankful for our quarterback. However, these are unnecessary mistakes that, if not fixed, will inevitably cost the Cowboys a game they should have won.
The bye week is a perfect time to sort these issues out. Yes, the Patriots game was disastrous, even if you disagree with some of the calls. But this has been happening all year, and mental mistakes cannot continue if this team wants to compete in January.
Dak is a game-changing quarterback
Here is the New England Patriots’ winning percentage at various points in the game; halfway through the second quarter it was 70%, fourth-and-four before the Cedrick Wilson catch it was 83%, and when Prescott got the ball in overtime it was 62%.
The only reason the Cowboys were able to win this game is because of number four. Dak Prescott has been an elite quarterback for a while, but what he proved on Sunday is an ability to change the outcome of a game almost single-handedly.
Since 2016, when Prescott gets the ball facing a one-possession deficit with less than five minutes remaining, he scores on 44% of those drives. Only Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Russel Wilson, and Drew Brees have scored more frequently in those scenarios over the last five years.
Highest passer rating (minimum 60 attempts) in NFL history when the game is tied in the fourth quarter or overtime:— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) October 18, 2021
5. Aaron Rodgers - 105.9
4. Andrew Luck - 108.3
3. Vinny Testaverde - 108.6
2. Rich Gannon - 111.6
1. Dak Prescott - 148.3
And the scariest aspect for opposing defenses, Dak is only getting better. In 2021, the Cowboys’ quarterback is third by DVOA, seventh by EPA per play, and trails only Kyler Murray in completion percentage.
There are very few quarterbacks in the NFL that possess the capability to take over a game. Dak now falls into that category as he enters the MVP conversation. He is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and few would suggest otherwise after Sunday’s performance.
The run defense is this teams’ Achilles heel
Don’t misinterpret this argument; the Cowboys’ run defense is drastically improved from a year ago when they allowed 159 rushing yards per game. However, in a year where it seems like Dallas has upgraded in every facet of their game, the run defense is the most glaring weakness.
This is not a takeaway from week six alone. The Cowboys are allowing a below-league-average 4.2 yards per carry, but it has not manifested itself because Dallas’ opponents were only running the ball on 30% of plays. The offense has been explosive enough to force the other team to play catch-up through the air.
However, Bill Belichick is a master at exploiting an opponent’s flaws, and he did so in week six. Despite ranking as the fifth-worst team by offensive rushing EPA per play coming into this week, the Patriots carved up the Cowboys on the ground. 23 carries and 124 rushing yards later, and New England lands as the eighth-best team by rushing EPA in week six. The Patriots’ rushing attack is in no way daunting, but they set up easy conversions for their rookie quarterback against Dallas.
Maybe the run defense improves when DeMarcus Lawrence gets back. Perhaps the Cowboys offense keeps producing points at a rate that takes away the opponent’s rushing game. But this is the Cowboys’ biggest weakness and Belichick exposed it for the entire league to see. With Dalvin Cook being the next running back on Dallas’ schedule, Dan Quinn has to find an answer soon.
The Dallas coaching staff is masterful at making halftime adjustments
This was a bad game for the Dallas coaches. If you feel like this takeaway is giving the staff too much credit, you can reread the first headline or take a glance at the final one. However, for the fourth straight week, the coaches proved their ability to adjust on the fly.
It is not a coincidence the Cowboys are dominating when they come out of halftime. Dallas is averaging nine points per game in the third quarter, second in the NFL, leading to the second-highest offensive EPA per play in this quarter. And they have been equally impressive on defense, allowing 3.3 points per game in the third quarter, resulting in the fourth-best defensive EPA per play allowed.
We discussed how McCarthy deserves more credit among other things on the latest episode of The 75O with Tony Casillas and RJ Ochoa on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Listen above and make sure to subscribe to our network wherever you get your podcasts. Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
Give credit to Mike McCarthy, Dan Quinn, and Kellen Moore for this. They have been brilliant in determining the opponent’s game plan and returning from halftime with an answer for it. There is a reason that Dallas has outscored its opponents 54-20 during the third quarter, and it is because of the people leading this team.
Again, this was not the finest showing by the coaching staff. But this is the fourth week in a row the Cowboys came out swinging in the second half. The third-quarter dominance is a testament to Quinn, Moore, and McCarthy’s coaching ability, and they deserve their fair share of praise for it.
Kellen Moore is not perfect
Outside of Dak Prescott, Kellen Moore has arguably been the MVP of the Cowboys season thus far. We just discussed his halftime adjustments, and Moore’s play-calling in the fourth quarter and overtime is a large part of the reason Dallas won this game. But this was Kellen Moore’s worst called game in 2021, which is saying something considering the Cowboys still won.
Dallas entered this game averaging 5.5 rushing yards per attempt on first down. And thus, Kellen Moore likely assumed they would be able to do more of the same against the Patriots defense, which is reasonable. However, New England had different plans. Outside of Ezekiel Elliott’s 21-yard run in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys averaged 3.1 yards per carry on first down. To put that into perspective, the worst team in the NFL this year by yards per rush attempt is still gaining 3.3 a carry.
The lack of success in the rushing game on early downs is not the issue; it is the fact that Kellen Moore called 26 running plays on first and second down despite this inefficiency. It was baffling to watch Zeke and Tony Pollard run into a wall of defenders time and time again.
We shouldn’t blame the pair of running backs for finishing with a negative EPA per play on the ground. The Patriots were selling out to stop the run on early downs, so what were they supposed to do? Instead, Moore should’ve recognized this sooner and avoided what soon became a very predictable game plan.
The entire coaching staff had its share of poor decision-making in week six, and Kellen Moore is still an offensive guru. It should be noted that Moore can put up 35 points in a poorly called game, so there is no reason to worry. But Kellen Moore is not always perfect, and we shouldn’t expect him to be.
It was an ugly game filled with mistakes, but the Cowboys left with another win. With two weeks to get healthy and fix some of the weaknesses that Belichick exposed, the ceiling for this team continues to rise.
Despite all of the takeaways listed above, there is one that stands out as the most significant; the Dallas Cowboys can win close games. We can finally have confidence in this team when the game is on the line. Rejoice in that, because something is brewing in Dallas.