“Wasn’t pretty, but when they start making the space for pretty on the scoreboard, we’ll worry about that.” This was the most repeated phrase from Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh after his Wolverines pulled out a narrow 20-13 win over Rutgers to start conference play earlier this year.
We used this quote for an earlier piece this week as well, but let’s go back to it again and add context. Michigan started this season unranked after having posted a losing record the year before. They went 3-0 in non-conference play, as most blue blood programs do, and then had to earn an ugly win over Rutgers. Harbaugh’s sentiment was that a win was all that matters, and to his credit the Wolverines kept on winning, with one exception.
Now Michigan has won their first Big Ten title since 2004 and sit at the second spot in the national rankings, and are preparing for their first ever College Football Playoff appearance. Can they win against the dominant Georgia Bulldogs or even Alabama? We’ll find out, but Michigan proved week after week just how good they are, and their ugly win over Rutgers never changed that.
Why does this matter? It’s important to remind ourselves that football games aren’t played in a vacuum. It’s easy to say “just win your matchup” every week, but making it actually happen is much more difficult. When the Broncos handled the Cowboys earlier this year, it was a reminder that even the best teams lose games. To stick with the analogy, even Alabama lost to Texas A&M this year.
Good teams lose games, and good teams also have the occasional win here and there that they probably should’ve lost. Last year’s Buccaneers team needed fourth quarter comebacks to beat the lowly Chargers, Giants, and Falcons; nobody cared about those ugly wins when Tom Brady was holding the Lombardi Trophy, though.
You could even argue that it’s the mark of a good team when they do win the ugly ones. Look no further than the Detroit Lions, who just won their first game of the year this past weekend. Six of their ten losses were by one score, and two of the other four losses were within a score at the start of the fourth quarter. Yet despite playing almost every opponent close this year, the Lions are 1-10-1 and already thinking about who they’ll use the first overall pick on.
Winning is hard in this league, especially when things don’t go your way. Few things went the Cowboys’ way leading up to their game against the Saints. Obviously, they’d lost three of their last four games, but Dallas was also without head coach Mike McCathy, offensive line coach Joe Philbin, several other coaches, and a couple players. They got Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb back, but there was no guarantee how well either would perform after missing the last two games. Oh, and Ezekiel Elliott was playing with a banged up knee.
That’s before even considering the matchup at hand. It was easy to look at the Saints offense, depleted by injuries, and assume a big win. But New Orleans has a terrific defense. Coming into the game, they were fifth in defensive DVOA and first against the run; New Orleans also ranked seventh in defensive EPA per play and second against the run. Their opportunistic secondary ranked sixth in the league in interceptions and featured top-tier cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
On top of all that, the Cowboys and their struggling, injured offense was facing this defense in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL at the end of a scheduling gauntlet that saw them playing their third game in just 12 days. None of this was easy, though it never is.
If these sound like excuses, you’re partially right. The Cowboys had all the excuses presented to them in the event they lost. And there were plenty of parts throughout the game on Thursday where it would’ve been easy to give up and say “What do you expect us to do in these circumstances?” That’s what Cowboys teams in recent years have done, after all.
But this team is different, even if they’ve lost some believers in the last month. These Cowboys got their first win of the year on the road against a tough Chargers defense that kept Dak Prescott out of the endzone. They pulled out an overtime road in Gillette Stadium against a Patriots team that’s been lights out since. And they beat the Vikings in their own noisy stadium with a backup quarterback.
Losses against the Chiefs and Raiders may have been evidence that these Cowboys can’t overcome everything, but we’ve already seen them overcome so much this year. And on Thursday night against an elite defense in a hostile environment without their head coach, the Cowboys got back to the team that can overcome most adversity.
It may not have felt like it after enduring a few losses prior to this one, but the win over the Saints was a welcome return to the Cowboys who won six straight earlier this year. They’re going to do whatever it takes to win, and they got back to those winning ways. Now, they have four divisional games and one match against the current owner of the NFL’s best record. If they can get enough critical wins over these final five games, no one will be talking about ugly wins anymore.