Sunday night was starting to feel like a very familiar type of Cowboys game. Heavily favored against the lowly Colts, the Cowboys were expected to win my a wide margin, but there was a mild undercurrent of concern leading up to the game. Would they have a big letdown against a terrible team on prime time television?
That existential dread may have been slightly amplified by the news that the Cowboys would wear their red stripe helmets, which were last featured a season ago when the Cowboys had a major letdown loss to a similarly bad Broncos team. The bad vibes were beginning to percolate.
Then the game began, and those bad vibes manifested into something tangible. The Colts led after the first quarter and trailed by just one score at halftime. By the time the fourth quarter began, they had trimmed the lead to just two points. Someone, somewhere, was probably drafting a petition to ban all red stripes from the state of Texas.
Less than 15 minutes of game time later, the Cowboys earned a historic blowout win. Not only was the final score of 54-19 the first such score in NFL history (SCORIGAMI!!!) but the Cowboys’ 33 fourth-quarter points set a new franchise record. Things may have been touch and go for much of the game, but when push came to shove Dallas dominated the Colts and put the game on ice.
That’s been a recurring theme all year for the Cowboys, and especially as of late. Five of their last six games (the Vikings game being the lone exception) the Cowboys have gotten off to uneven starts in the first half before pulling away and establishing their dominance in the second half.
That hasn’t always been the case for the Cowboys, and far too often than not we’ve become accustomed to this franchise digging themselves a hole they were unable to climb out of. But that’s steadily changed since Mike McCarthy took over, and it’s deserving of some credit.
Going back to 2019, Jason Garrett’s last year as head coach, the Cowboys were 3-8 in games where they either led by one score or were trailing at halftime. In other words, Garrett’s Cowboys were very likely to lose if they didn’t have a comfortable halftime lead. In McCarthy’s first year in Dallas, they were slightly worse in those situations, going 3-10.
Things turned around last year for McCarthy, though, and the Cowboys were 7-4 in such situations. They started to show an ability to turn things around if they didn’t get off to a hot start. This year, they’re already 7-2 in such games, with an opportunity to do better.
Now, it’s easy to say that the Cowboys shouldn’t be in so many of these close games in the first place, and that they need to start games off better if they want to be contenders. That’s fair, but it’s also worth considering how parity has generally increased across the board this season; in fact, the average point differential for the whole league is down from previous years. In short, teams are playing more close games on average than they usually do.
Generally speaking, that’s even more true in the playoffs. In fact, seven of the 13 playoff games last year were within a score at halftime, while nine of them had final scores that were within one score. Furthermore, every game from the divisional round on was decided by a touchdown or less.
In other words, blowout wins in the playoffs don’t really happen. So it’s a valuable trait for a team to enter the playoffs with experience winning those tight games, and especially being able to overcome mistakes in the first half. The Cowboys, then, are pretty knowledgeable by now. They actually lead the league in second half scoring with 15 second half points per game. Last year, they finished fourth with 14.3 second half points per game.
It’s also not like the Cowboys have been bad in the first half either; they’re 11th in first half scoring and are fifth in first half scoring since Dak Prescott came back from injury. But McCarthy and his staff have clearly mastered the art of halftime adjustments, and the Cowboys have consistently come out in the second half and been better than they were at the start.
For longtime Cowboys fans, that feels foreign. The Cowboys have not been known for their halftime adjustments being the thing that gets them a win, but it’s true under McCarthy. They’ve still had games where Dallas has controlled things from the start (see: Commanders, Rams, and Vikings games), but McCarthy is showing that this team is capable of overcoming slow starts and winning games in spite of their mistakes. That’s a good recipe for a playoff run.