It was a meaningless game, so we thought.
The Dallas Cowboys had very little to gain from beating the Philadelphia Eagles Saturday night in terms of playoff positioning. Let me rephrase that, the Cowboys stood a very low chance of moving out of that dreaded no. 4 spot and were staring in the face of a tough Wild Card matchup against the NFC West runner-up.
But yet, there they were, rolling their starters on the field and subjecting them to the possibility of injury that could come back and bite them in the playoffs. It was one of those “hold your breath” games anytime you heard that double whistle or saw Dak Prescott taken to the ground. Why would Mike McCarthy put us through such a stressful ordeal?
Well, as it turns out, the Cowboys were on a mission to accomplish some things and one by one, they did just that. Here are five things we learned in the Philly beatdown.
1. Dak Prescott is still great
There has been a lot of concern about the state of the Cowboys offense over the past couple of months as they have had their struggles. Whether it’s play-calling, offensive line execution, or an inaccurate Dak Prescott, the offense just hasn’t looked like their phenomenal selves that they exhibited during the first half of the year. Well, they sure looked phenomenal on Saturday.
Sure, we know the Eagles were playing with reserves, so this isn’t a big flex, but there is still something very meaningful to take out of Prescott’s performance. Dak was taking shots down the field. Not only did Prescott throw five touchdowns for the first time in his career and break the Cowboys franchise single-season touchdown record, but Dak also did something he hasn’t done in over two years, and that was throwing for over 10 yards per attempt. His 10.9 Y/A was the third-highest mark of his career and is the highest since Week 1 of 2019.
Prescott was decisive with his reads and quick with his throws. When he’s playing with that level of confidence, the Cowboys passing arsenal is the best in the NFL.
2. They aren’t going to miss Michael Gallup
Michael Gallup is a very good wide receiver. The 25-year-old entered the season with 1,950 yards over his previous two seasons, including 1,107 yards in 2019. He also had 11 touchdowns in that span. Make no mistake about it, he’s a good player who would be useful to have on any team. But for some reason, the Cowboys' offense doesn’t miss a beat without him. Why is this?
Part of this is just simply the underutilization of Gallup in an offense that also features Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. There are just not going to be as many targets up for grabs. But the bigger part of this is how well Cedrick Wilson plays whenever he’s thrust into the WR3 role. Whether it’s an improved rapport with Prescott or just how defenses choose to defend him, Wilson has found a meaningful role on this offense and Kellen Moore is capitalizing.
3. Micah Parsons is missed
As a whole, the Cowboys' defense was so-so on Saturday. Surrendering 26 points to the Eagles reserves certainly wasn’t impressive, but the Cowboys had plenty of their own reserves out there as well. But one part of it that was less than impressive was their run defense. The Cowboys allowed 149 yards on the ground. It was the second-most rushing yards allowed this season, trailing only the Saints game where over 100 of their rushing yards came from the mobile quarterback Taysom Hill. In this game, the damage was done by the Eagles running backs Kenneth Gainwell (78 yards) and Jason Huntley (51 yards). The Cowboys have been pretty rock solid most of the year against the run, so it was disappointing to see them struggle in the finale.
Of course, the defense was missing its biggest piece in Micah Parsons, who sat out of the game because he’s on COVID/reserve. This gave us a glimpse of life without Parsons and it wasn’t pretty. Last year, the Parsons-less Cowboys defense allowed at least 150 rushing yards in half of their games. They’ve allowed one this year to the before-mentioned Saints, but as Saturday showed us, Parsons’ absence was sorely missed. That guy is pretty good.
4. Greg Zuerlein is a liability
This is something we’ve witnessed throughout the entire year, but we kept hoping it gets better. McCarthy and John Fassel believe in the leg of the veteran Zuerlein, but at some point, they have to be worried. Zuerlein missed his sixth extra point on Saturday. As a frame of reference, Zuerlein missed six extra points his entire eight-year career with the Rams. And yes, the NFL did move back PATs in 2015, but that’s not what changed it for him. It’s something more recently as he hasn’t been able to make these easy kicks during his time in Dallas.
What does this mean? Will the Cowboys scramble and try to find a replacement kicker now? They went a full 17-game season without doing it, so it seems highly unlikely they’d do it now. If nothing changes, is this setting the stage for what could be a disappointing end to the Cowboys season that could have been preventable?
5. The Cowboys own the NFC East
The Cowboys went undefeated in the NFC East for the first time since 1998 when they went 8-0 because the Arizona Cardinals were part of the division. The Cowboys beating a divisional team is nothing to brag about if you ask any outsider because the NFC East is known to be so terrible (despite sending two teams to the playoffs this year).
However, the Cowboys didn’t just take care of business, they laid the smack down. To gain some perspective on the Cowboys’ NFC East dominance this season, they:
- Had at least a two-touchdown lead in every game
- Had at least a three-touchdown lead in all but one of them
- Had a seven-touchdown lead in one of them
They finished the year with a total point differential of 133 against their division. That’s an average of over 22 points per game. Average! The Cowboys didn’t just beat NFC East teams, they annihilated them!