First things first: in the National Football League, a win is a win is a win. This isn’t college football where a committee can bump you down in the standings because your win didn’t look good enough. To that end, the Cowboys’ win over the Texans on Sunday counted just as much as their win over the Vikings.
That being said, it doesn’t quite feel right to celebrate this one, does it? The Cowboys were favored by 17 whole points - the largest point spread of any game all year - over the one-win Texans. Dallas trailed at halftime and didn’t take the lead again until the final minute. They played down to their very lowly competition for 58 minutes before finally stepping up at the last possible moment.
After a week of build up where Mike McCarthy talked about not eating the cheese, a reference to not getting too high on themselves, the Cowboys came out and gobbled up all of the cheese. McCarthy would’ve been forgiven for thinking he was coaching for the Packers again with how much cheese there was on Sunday.
So where do we go from here? Are the Cowboys frauds or did they just have a moment of weakness against a team that everybody expected them to beat easily? The gut reaction is to accuse them of being frauds, and that’s a fair and understandable take. But at the risk of being a homer, every team has games like this, and especially this year.
The Eagles are the only team to not have multiple losses on the year, but their lone loss came to the Washington Commanders. They also trailed the Colts until the final minute of that game and only led the Texans by four points at the start of the fourth quarter before pulling it out. In fact, all five of the Eagles’ one-score wins this year have come against teams with a losing record. But they’re the odds-on favorite to win the top seed in the NFC, and all those near losses haven’t changed that one bit.
The course of an NFL season is rife with adversity. Some teams handle it better than others, and it’s usually the teams that respond well to adversity that go far in the playoffs. McCarthy knows this well, winning a Super Bowl in Green Bay when 15 players were on the injured reserve. And he’s tried to instill a sense of resiliency into this Cowboys team.
Well, the adversity is here. The Cowboys have been managing an illness that’s swept through the locker room the past month. They’ve dealt with the media circus that was the courtship of Odell Beckham Jr. Last week, they lost their second starting cornerback for the year when Anthony Brown tore his Achilles. On Sunday against Houston, they lost Terence Steele for the year as well, while Jake Ferguson and Johnathan Hankins both left the game with injuries of their own.
Oh, and they almost became just the second team all year to lose to the Texans. That’s a lot of adversity to handle, especially after the Cowboys had already persevered through the temporary loss of their quarterback at the start of the year. Things had been going much better since Dak Prescott returned from injury, and may have even felt easy, but the Houston game was a stark reminder that nothing is easy in the NFL.
The last time the Cowboys were reminded of this - after blowing a 14-point lead in Green Bay - they responded with a thrashing of the red-hot Vikings that kicked off their current four-game win streak. At the time, we discussed how the most important thing for the Cowboys would be how they responded to it, and they aced that test. The Cowboys are now facing another test, even though they’re coming off a win.
Dallas gets one more game before the pivotal Christmas Eve game against the Eagles, so that sets them up for one shot at taking out their frustrations from the Texans game before getting down to business against their bitter rival. As big as that Eagles game will be, the way the Cowboys respond against the Jaguars this week will be almost as important. It will set the stage for this team’s mindset as they prepare for the playoffs.
This is the first real bout of adversity the Cowboys have been dealt since Prescott’s return. It’s fortunate for Dallas that it didn’t cost them a win, but the lesson must be learned all the same. McCarthy has done a good job all season of leading his team to a strong rebound following a performance like this. He’ll need these Cowboys to do it at least one more time.