As the playoff picture becomes clearer, it also reveals just how important the Dallas Cowboys victory over the Tennessee Titans was. With the outcome of the games on Sunday, the Cowboys still have hope to overtake the slumping Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC East crown and perhaps even the number one seed. Many Dallas fans came away from the game disappointed. There are certainly some negatives to take from the statistics, but those numbers also paint a picture of a game that the Cowboys controlled almost from start to finish.
Leading all the way
Dallas never trailed. They held double-digit leads three times during the game and won by 14, which just covered the Vegas spread. It was not the blowout that many fans expected. But the Titans still came into the game as a playoff contender, even with their starting quarterback out. They have been on a horrible losing streak that the Cowboys extended. Still, they are not yet dead in the water even after the loss, although their boat is leaking badly.
Dallas didn’t put them away early, but they had their foot on their necks applying steady and eventually crushing pressure.
Other signs of control
The Cowboys outgained the Titans 361 to 317, but other things were much more tilted in their direction. They had 26 first downs to just 17 for Tennessee, and converted 61.5% of their third downs versus 42.8%. Red zone was even more heavily weighted in their favor, 75% vs 33.3%. Dallas was clearly better when it counted.
So why the sense of unease?
Some problems have been cropping up for a few weeks. Turnovers were the biggest thing. The Cowboys lost three, two interceptions and a fumble, while only taking the ball away twice. All the giveaways came in the first half and were what prevented them from building a more commanding lead then and really putting the game away early.
While Dak Prescott was involved in all three giveaways, only one was really on him. The first interception was a perfectly placed ball that Peyton Hendershot bobbled to Kevin Byard. On the fumble, the ball never got to Prescott’s hands in a bad exchange from Tyler Biadasz. The second pick, also by Byard, was a poor throw. It just contributed to a worry that the team was risking the game by being sloppy with the ball.
However, the Cowboys would get those two takeaways, the last one largely sealing the win. It just felt worse than it was.
Another issue was the running game, which has really sputtered of late. Tony Pollard was held out of this game to allow him to recover from injury, and he may have been sorely missed. Ezekiel Elliott and Malik Davis were only able to combine for 76 yards on the ground. There was a lot of discussion about whether they might be able to hold Pollard out in week 18 for further healing, but now the Cowboys need a win to keep alive those hopes of taking the division away from the Eagles. Expect Pollard to be back on the field against the Washington Commanders in the regular season finale.
Another stubborn problem was the scarcity of sacks for Dallas. They only had two of backup Joshua Dobbs, who had barely had time to find his locker before getting the start. Tennessee also had a banged up offensive line. They need to get better at things for the playoffs.
While the offensive line, which had to make a major reshuffle when Biadasz was hurt, did not open many holes in the running game, they were surprisingly effective at protecting Prescott, who was only sacked once. That is partly a tribute to how good the quarterback is at evading pressure, but they deserve some credit.
Run defense would seem to be another plus for the Cowboys as they held the Titans under 100 yards. But Derrick Henry was out for this game, and that made a huge difference. In context, this is not necessarily a good sign.
Dak’s targets came through
Outside of Hendershot’s miscue, the receiving corps had a very good day. CeeDee Lamb led the way with exactly 100 yards, while Dalton Shultz contributed 56 yards and two touchdowns. The best part is how T.Y. Hilton continues to have a positive impact and provide Prescott with a great option. He caught four of five passes thrown at him for 50 yards. Three of those catches were third-down conversions. And despite Mike McCarthy saying his ramp-up was over, he only played 28% of the offensive downs. He is making an outsized contribution that could be critical in the postseason.
Michael Gallup has not yet returned to how he was playing before his injury last season, but he still had three catches for 39 yards, including one third-down conversion. And he also drew a pass interference call for what was the biggest gain of the game. We may not like those heave it up and hope for a flag plays. Unless, of course, they work out in our favor.
It is understandable that the win left a bit of a sour taste in the mouths of many Dallas fans, but sometimes it is necessary to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. This was more of a grind it out game against a team that was dealing with many injuries, but in the end the Cowboys did just what was expected with a two touchdown win that kept their hopes to improve their playoff seeding alive. They absolutely have things they badly need to improve, but some players like Pollard and Leighton Vander Esch becoming available may help. In context, the win over Tennessee was what they needed, and more easily done than you might have thought.