The Cowboys certainly didn’t make it pretty - they rarely do - but they managed to overcome their self-inflicted wounds and beat a Titans team that was resting most of their starters. And while it may not have felt like a dominant win, the Cowboys did cover their 13.5 point spread - the second largest spread of the week - and picked up their 12th win of the year.
There were quite a few moments that defined this game, explaining both how the Cowboys pulled off the win and why they didn’t win by a larger score. These five plays were the most impactful of the bunch.
T.Y. Hilton’s first catch of the day is big third-down conversion
The Cowboys came out and punted on their first drive, but their second drive saw the offense get into a groove. They moved the chains a couple of times, reaching Titans territory, before a third and five came up. That’s when Dak Prescott looked the way of T.Y. Hilton. Prescott fired the ball to Hilton on an out route, and the veteran receiver was in perfect position - and, more importantly, had created plenty of space - to make the catch and easily pick up the first down.
Six plays later, the Cowboys were handing it off to Ezekiel Elliott for a touchdown. Hilton’s clutch catch on third down kept the drive alive and saved the Cowboys from having to settle for a field goal.
Peyton Hendershot hands an interception to the Titans
After another patented Cowboys Slow Start™, the offense started to wake up. A funky exchange between Prescott and Tyler Biadasz led to a fumble that obscured the groove the unit was in. But with six and a half minutes left in the second quarter, Prescott was moving the ball with ease once again.
A couple of big throws to CeeDee Lamb, complete with a toe drag catch from Michael Gallup, had Dallas right at midfield after starting the drive at their own eight. That’s when Prescott found Peyton Hendershot wide open for a deep shot, and he put it right on the rookie tight end’s chest. Of course, we all know what happened next. Hendershot bobbled the easiest catch of his young career and practically handed it to safety Kevin Byard.
Had Hendershot secured the pass, the Cowboys would’ve had first down at the Tennessee 34. Instead, the Titans gained possession and stayed alive just a little longer.
Dak Prescott’s bad interception before halftime keeps Titans alive
Dak Prescott has been arguably playing the best football of his career this season, but his lone downfall has been a ton of interceptions. Most of those have happened like the first one against Tennessee, meaning not Prescott’s fault. But Prescott also had one that was firmly on him in this game.
After Byard’s interception yielded a field goal, the Cowboys got the ball back with a minute left. That was just enough to score again before halftime, and before long the offense had first down at the Tennessee 39-yard line. Prescott targeted Dalton Schultz on an out route and tried to squeeze the ball between two defenders. It’s a throw that Prescott has made with regularity all year, but not this time.
Once again, it was Byard on the spot for the interception. This time, he returned it for 28 yards, which aided the Titans offense in netting a field goal right before halftime. In a season filled with fluky interceptions for Prescott, this one was squarely on him and it cost the Cowboys points. It also helped the Titans hang around that much longer.
Yet another pass interference on Titans saves Cowboys drive
In a bit of a twist of fates, the Cowboys’ opponent was getting heavily penalized for pass interference all night long while Dallas was staying clean for the most part. After a pass interference penalty against Noah Brown extended the Cowboys’ first drive of the second half, they got another one just a few plays later.
Backed up by a holding penalty - just the Cowboys’ third of the night - Dallas had third and 19 from their own 43-yard line. Pressure flushed Prescott out of the pocket and he launched a prayer deep down the sideline to Gallup. By the time the ball got to him, though, Gallup was being taken out of the play by rookie cornerback Roger McCreary. A yellow flag quickly came out.
Thanks to that penalty, the Cowboys went from very likely having to punt the ball to suddenly looking at first and goal at the Tennessee six. A quick play-action play created an easy touchdown pass to Dalton Schultz, and the Cowboys were up 17-6.
T.Y. Hilton gets another third-down conversion, flips the field with YAC
The Titans responded with a touchdown of their own, trimming the lead to 17-13, but just about everyone knew that Tennessee likely wouldn’t be able to replicate the scoring drive with their current setup. The Cowboys’ ensuing drive ran the clock into the fourth quarter, and it felt like a score here would put things out of reach.
But before the drive entered the fourth quarter, Dallas needed to convert a third and 10 at their own 25-yard line. Prescott stepped up into the pocket, seemingly about to take off and run, before he found Hilton coming open on a long drag route. Hilton secured the pass and turned it up the field, reeling off a total of 28 yards.
Hilton easily gained the first down and also flipped the field, moving the offense into Titans territory. Dallas took their time, grinding the clock down as much as possible, and Prescott found Schultz for a beautiful touchdown pass seven plays later. The score would never be answered by Tennessee, as expected, but it also never would’ve happened without Hilton’s clutch catch-and-run on third and long.