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Cowboys at Titans: Turnovers keep game close, but Dallas escapes with 12th win

The Cowboys still have everything to play for in front of them, but plenty to clean up after Thursday’s win on the road.

Dallas Cowboys v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys knew they were heading to the playoffs for the second straight season before their Thursday night kickoff at the Tennessee Titans. Their opponent was still fighting for a spot atop the AFC South. Nothing the Titans did against the Cowboys affected their shot at winning the division in Week 18, and playing with backups all over the field took a lot of shine off this game.

The Cowboys could use all the reps they’ll get before looking to make something of their playoff berth, and played this as mostly a normal game to keep NFC East hopes alive. The Cowboys need help from the Saints on Sunday at the Eagles, but for now still have their own concerns coming off this Titans game to address. Dallas’ three turnovers on offense led to six of Tennessee’s 13 points, again holding them back from the type of dominating performance on both sides they’ve been searching for.

The Cowboys also didn’t escape Nashville without a significant injury as center Tyler Biadasz left the game and returned to the sideline in a walking boot. Connor McGovern slid from left guard to center, Tyler Smith from left tackle to guard, and Jason Peters filled in at left tackle.

Here are a few notes on the Cowboys’ second win in six days:

  • The Cowboys have found something in rookie linebacker Damone Clark. The linebacker position has been a flex spot in Dan Quinn’s defense, with converted safeties and even Dorance Armstrong lining up here, but their best play this season has come from traditional stand up backers. Still without Leighton Vander Esch, Clark has stepped up at the perfect time, playing with great range and physicality against the run.

With their pass rush at it’s best when players like Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence can get up field quickly, the Cowboys ask a lot from players like Clark to fill gaps against the run, and that’s exactly what he did consistently in this game. The defensive line came alive against a banged up Titans’ offensive line, allowing Quinn to play coverage and force a QB making his first career start to read coverage.

This is something the Cowboys defense has been doing more of in recent weeks too, getting away from aggressive blitzes and working around a secondary still shuffling players around. Nahshon Wright ended his night with an interception, but was still targeted in coverage regularly and benefited from a few dropped passes. As the Cowboys prepare for better QB play in the postseason, they’ll need a more consistent answer opposite Trevon Diggs to take away opponent’s secondary receivers.

  • If ever there was a game to trust that Kellen Moore was sticking with his base concepts and holding back on a short week on the road, it was this Thursday night. The simplicity of Moore’s route concepts can work heavily in the Cowboys favor, when Dak Prescott has an easy read to CeeDee Lamb, T.Y. Hilton, or two-touchdown scorer Dalton Schultz. Running back Tony Pollard was missed in this game though, and the stark difference in throws to players like Michael Gallup or Noah Brown can hold this offense back. Prescott has to fit comeback routes much tighter to receivers outside of Lamb or Hilton, increasing the likelihood of turnovers that allow any opponent to hang around.

Prescott has now thrown an interception in six straight games, easily the longest streak of his career, with many this season coming off tip drills on passes that should have been caught. The Cowboys average yards-to-go on 15 third down attempts was just shy of seven yards, with better early down efficiency being one of the biggest areas for improvement between the Cowboys regular season finale and Wild Card weekend.

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