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5 key lessons from the Cowboys’ squeaker over the Texans

Thankfully there was no huge upset, but the nail-biting nature of the game is a warning for the Cowboys.

Houston Texans v Dallas Cowboys
There was almost dejection instead of celebration.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The unexpected nail-biting win by the Dallas Cowboys over the Houston Texans was revealing, and mostly not in a good way. This was supposed to be a laugher, a 40-burger at least, and an easy cover of the point spread for Dallas. Instead, Houston played undoubtedly their best game of a very dismal season. The Cowboys were definitely not at the top of theirs. The result was a narrowly averted disaster. Here are the things concerning Dallas that are, well, concerning.

No slow start, but a big slump

One of clearest trends this season has been the slow start. This game wasn’t part of that. The Cowboys came out with a crisp, efficient drive that went 76 yards in nine plays and took just 3:40 off the clock. The early indications were pointing to that blowout.

Then things went south with KaVontae Turpin’s fumbled fair catch. But it looked like the team was ready to get back into the flow of things with another long drive, this one in only seven plays largely due to the 51-yard completion by Dak Prescott to Noah Brown.

But that would be the last time the Cowboys would look efficient until the dramatic 98-yard touchdown drive at the end of the game. Prescott would be intercepted twice, and a big fumble recovery and return by Trevon Diggs was wasted by a failed fourth and goal from the one. Prescott finished the day with a pretty miserable stat line, only completing 24 of 39 throws with the two interceptions and a lone touchdown, that a catch and run by Tony Pollard. It was a problem for both the passer and his receivers. Prescott was just off on several throws and he had two touchdowns that were knocked loose from his targets. His 70.9 passer rating was far below his average this year. He was also under a good bit of pressure. This was an all around struggle. Credit must be given to the Texans for a strong defensive effort, but if Dallas is to do anything in the playoffs, they have to do a lot more in the passing game.

And the running game

Elliott had a smashing 25-yard run and the game-winning score. Pollard had one of 18. But too often, running plays were stopped for a loss or no gain, including the fourth-down attempt that squandered that Diggs fumble return. The Cowboys would only finish with 127 yards on the ground averaging just 4.1 a carry, a real drop off from the past two 200+ yard outputs. Far too often the Houston defense was ready for whatever Kellen Moore was calling, or Prescott changing the play.

While the issues were throughout most of the game, it certainly didn’t help matters when Terrance Steele was injured and left the game. Josh Ball initially came in to replace him, and he was not very good. On the final drive of the game, Jason Peters came in at right tackle, and it may have made all the difference.

The defense was also having its problems

Lovie Smith and his staff trotted out something different. They used both both Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel at quarterback, with Driskel mostly being used to execute an option running attack. It certainly seemed to catch Dan Quinn badly off balance, as Driskel would average 5.1 yards a carry while getting some good results when he did hand it off. He also had four completions, including a very well thrown 28-yard TD pass, the lone one for Houston. It didn’t always work, but at times it did well, and the broadcast showed a couple of times where a better decision by Driskel might have led to bigger gains.

Most disturbingly, the vaunted Dallas pass rush was MIA. They did not have a single sack and only one QB hit. This may have been due to trying to find a way to stop that creative if gimmicky run game with Driskel, but most of the passing plays came with Mills in. He was nine of eleven in the first half and finished the day eleven of sixteen. Driskel was four of six on his limited attempts.

This is two games in a row when that pass rush has not lived up to its reputation against offensive lines that were not exactly outstanding. They have a much more formidable task coming up in two games when they face the Philadelphia Eagles. And the intervening opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars, just beat the Tennessee Titans 36-22. That may be a more challenging matchup than we were thinking just a couple of days ago.

The defense has been a strength of the team all season. This is hardly the time to suddenly forget how to play.

Everyone gets up for the Cowboys

Last week’s blowout fourth quarter obscures how the Indianapolis Colts, another out-manned opponent, were down just two points at the start of the fourth quarter. Now a team that has only mustered one win and a tie this season just took Dallas to the wire, with only a nearly flawless drive led by Prescott at the end pulling things out. You can be sure every team they face the rest of the way will be out to prove themselves against the Cowboys. While the chance of overtaking the still red-hot Eagles is shrinking rapidly, they are now have the second-best record in the NFC due to the head-to-head win over the Minnesota Vikings, whose loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday ties them with the Cowboys at 10-3. They look more and more like they will be locked into playing the fourth seed of the Wild Card round, expected to be whoever comes out of the NFC South, likely with a losing record for the season after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost badly to the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners are a team Dallas should not look forward to meeting in the playoffs, as they were absolutely dominant against the Bucs, even with last-man-taken-in-the-draft Brock Purdy forced into action at QB. This is not going to be an easy run the last four games. Against anyone.

But they did overcome real adversity

Whether you put the bulk of the blame on their own mistakes or give due credit to the way the Texans played, the Cowboys did come through in the end with that masterful touchdown drive almost the entire length of the field that got them the badly needed win. That could be important as they prepare this week. It was a confidence restorer, if you will. They had plenty of things they definitely have to improve, but had they lost this game, it would have been a much more severe blow to the team. Knowing how they came back to win it is reason for them to never think they are out of a game unless they wind up on the wrong end of a blowout. That could be important mentally as the season and postseason play out.

Also worth watching are the accumulating injuries. In addition to Steele, Jake Ferguson and Johnathan Hankins both left the game and did not return. Trevon Diggs was fighting through his own injuries. Dorance Armstrong reportedly sprained his ankle on the interception of the Hail Mary that ended the last threat from Houston. And there was a scare before the game even started when Jayron Kearse had to be helped to the locker room after landing awkwardly in pre-game warmups. He managed to work through the problem, but this is the time when injuries can suddenly derail things. The team can only hope for better luck, because there is no real way to protect themselves from those.

Still, this game was far more discouraging than encouraging. It casts some doubt on just how good their chances are in the playoffs. Mike McCarthy and their staff have plenty of work to do if they want this to be more than a near-miss.

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