In reminiscing on the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving win over the Giants, in between helpings of leftover green bean casserole and such, I was reminded of a scene from the show Succession. For those unfamiliar with the Shakespearian family drama that takes place in the corporate world, at the end of the second season we see a conversation between Kendall Roy and his father, Logan.
In the scene, Kendall asks Logan if he ever really thought Kendall could (as the title suggests) succeed his father and take over his company. Logan briefly goes on about some of Kendall’s positive traits, but he’s hung up on one thing: “You’re not a killer. You have to be a killer.”
Metaphorically, of course. In the context of the show, that killer instinct is a must-have in the business world, and it’s true as well in football. For far too long, the Cowboys have been credibly accused of lacking a killer instinct, just like Kendall Roy. That’s why nobody was terribly surprised when the Cowboys blew a 14-point lead to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers: same old Cowboys, still not killers.
That’s what made the Thanksgiving game so meaningful.
Mike McCarthy has that killer instinct, and it’s part of what helped him lead the Packers to a Super Bowl win despite having a then-record 15 players on the injured reserve that year. McCarthy has been working to instill that same killer instinct into this franchise since he was hired, and it’s starting to appear.
They gutted out wins over two division rivals and each of last year’s Super Bowl teams despite missing their franchise quarterback and locker room leader. Then, once Dak Prescott returned, they blew out two inferior teams as they went into the bye week. The team dropped the ball against the Packers, but they responded in a big way by taking apart the previously 8-1 Vikings.
Then came the Giants. Let’s keep in mind that the Cowboys were playing that game just a few days after steamrolling a Vikings team that, by most accounts, are one of the best teams in the league. Not only was this a divisional game (which are always tough) on little rest, but Dallas had an illness working its way through the roster going into the game. That illness resulted in three players being made inactive who otherwise would’ve played, and several others powered through.
All of this combined for the makings of another classic Cowboys letdown. They just announced themselves to the world against the Vikings, and now with everyone watching them on the holiday they’d get beat by a division rival. Never mind that the Giants entered the game with the same record, this was the Cowboys’ to lose. And for a moment it looked like they might do just that.
We all know the Cowboys played poorly in the first half. They were sloppy, made mistakes, and it cost them. They entered the locker room at halftime trailing by a touchdown, and fans everywhere were worried that, for the fourth straight year, their Thanksgiving would be ruined by another vintage Cowboys letdown.
In the words of the legendary Lee Corso, not so fast my friend. The Cowboys got the ball to start the second half and they engineered a very long, methodical drive that ended with a touchdown, retaking the lead. In fact, they went on to score touchdowns on each of their first three possessions of the half; they only had five possessions, and one of those was a one-play kneel down. Were it not for a rare Brett Maher miss, the Cowboys would have scored on every single one of their real possessions in the second half.
Of course, the missed field goal mattered about as much as the Giants’ final touchdown with eight seconds left in the game. It did nothing but elicit strong emotions one way or the other from people out in Las Vegas. But the truth is that the Cowboys dominated the second half - the defense forced a punt and two turnovers on downs in between those touchdowns - and won this game comfortably despite the poor first half.
McCarthy will now work to make sure his team doesn’t need to overcome poor starts again, but it’s undeniably encouraging to see that the Cowboys can do so if necessary. When the playoffs come, Dallas will be playing the best of the best. The further they go in the playoffs, the truer that becomes.
It also becomes more true that they won’t be able to play their best in those games, because the opponent will be good enough to stop them on occasion. Teams don’t win Super Bowls without that killer instinct; they’re able to grind out the tough wins when things don’t go according to plan, and that extra push is what keeps their season alive.
It’s a factor the Cowboys haven’t had in a while, and they were clearly lacking it against the Packers. While many thought the Cowboys atoned for that loss by blowing out the Vikings, the Giants win may have been more impactful just due to the similarities: the Cowboys started out slow in both games and seemed to wake up by halftime. The difference is that this time around, Dallas plunged the knife in and killed (again, metaphorically) their opponent.
It may not have seemed like it, but that was a big step and a lesson well learned for this Cowboys team. McCarthy knows that to win a ring, you have to be a killer. And right now, it looks like the coach has a team full of them.