The NFL is a strange lady. Last week, the Dallas Cowboys scored 20 points, the last of which came on a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown to Brandin Cooks, but lost on a last second field goal 22-20 at the Miami Dolphins. This caused panic as the team dropped two straight games for the first time all season. On Saturday, they again saw Cooks score a fourth quarter touchdown to put them ahead 17-13 in the fourth quarter while finishing with a season low 20 points in home games, but held off the NFC North champion Detroit Lions. They matched Detroit’s record at 11-5 and kept their home winning streak alive. The 20-19 victory was the Cowboys’ 16th straight at AT&T Stadium, and while hosting another game here this season is mostly out of their control, the resilient win in primetime can still be a small step towards this team finding their best form when the playoffs begin in two weeks.
Both of these teams have known they’ll be in the playoffs for some time now, but there was still plenty at stake in this matchup of Mike McCarthy versus Dan Campbell. Campbell’s aggressive style gave the Lions a great chance to snap a four-game losing streak to the Cowboys and win in Dallas for the first time since New Year’s Eve on 2006. Campbell was a tight end on that team, and now as the head coach responsible for Detroit’s first division title in 30 years, he had a chance to drastically change the direction of this Cowboys season while landing another signature win after an Amon-Ra St. Brown touchdown with 23 seconds left made the score 20-19 Dallas.
The Lions played all night with full respect for how explosive the Cowboys offense has been at home this season, even though this was a 7-3 game at halftime, and decided to play for the win instead of overtime after St. Brown’s touchdown. Taylor Decker caught what could have been the winning conversion if not for an illegal touching penalty that moved the ball back to the seven. The Lions left Jared Goff and the offense on the field for another try to win, and got a free play with Micah Parsons offsides on an intercepted pass. The wild sequence that had Joe Buck and Troy Aikman losing their minds in the booth, right along with a home crowd that included Jimmy Johnson watching from the box after going in the Cowboys Ring of Honor at halftime, finally ended on an incomplete pass short of the goal line to preserve Dallas’ one point lead.
The Lions were the team to bounce Jimmy Johnson’s 1991 team from the playoffs in his first appearance as a third-year head coach for the Cowboys, the only playoff loss he would take over his tenure in Dallas as the Cowboys went on to win the Super Bowl in 1992 and 1993.
CeeDee Lamb, who did it all on this night for the Cowboys, recovered the onside kick that would serve as the Lions’ last roar to steal this game. Lamb’s 13 catches for 227 yards and a 92-yard touchdown were both season highs that saw him break the team’s single season records for catches and yards - with Michael Irvin in attendance for Johnson’s halftime ceremony.
The Cowboys would much rather deal with questions about how they move the ball when Lamb isn’t targeted, where the ground game can improve, and what happened to the defense on the final drive from the point of view of their 11th win compared to a third straight loss. They can finish division play 5-1 with a win at the Commanders to end the regular season next Sunday, and will need an Eagles loss in one of their final two games to win the NFC East and play a home playoff game. That Week 18 game may not go very far at all in showing the Cowboys are ready for tougher teams on the road, but they passed a tough home test on Saturday night and pulled out a close win that had the fingerprints of their veteran leaders and captains all over it.
Here are the post-game notes on the Cowboys win over the Lions:
- The Lions struck first in this game with a field goal and had a chance to really gain momentum after picking off Dak Prescott on the next series, but the Cowboys defense got a stop that led to Lamb’s longest touchdown in his career and it became an early turning point. The Cowboys defense failed to force a turnover in road losses to the Bills and Dolphins coming into this game. While the Bills rarely had to put the ball in harm’s way in the rain and wind thanks to their ground game racking up 266 yards, the Cowboys secondary held up as well as they could against the Dolphins dynamic receivers, but didn’t get their normal support from the pass rush. The Cowboys stuck with a similar plan on the back end against the Lions, with DaRon Bland matching up against St. Brown, and Jayron Kearse handling star rookie tight end Sam Laporta. Laporta did get the best of Kearse on a third and ten on the opening field goal drive for the Lions, and Goff was at his best throwing over the middle in this game, but the adjustment came up front for Dan Quinn’s defense to pressure Goff and force two interceptions.
In an aggressive but calculated move by Quinn, the Cowboys rode with their best pass rushers up front even on medium to short down and distances, and saw this move pay off in run defense as well. Micah Parsons made the second down stop that led to Dorance Armstrong’s third down sack to force Detroit’s first punt of the game. Armstrong was lined up inside on this play and found himself in position to finish after Goff climbed the pocket to avoid edge pressure from Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys may still get run-stopping defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins back for the playoffs, but found a way to play their smaller nickel and dime sets with extra defensive backs on the field without getting scorched on the ground thanks to a relentless pass rush and turn-back-the-clock performance from Lawrence who lined up all over the defense. It was Lawrence and Osa Odighizuwa lined up at the defensive tackle spots when Dante Fowler flew off the edge to stop another third and short for the Lions right after Lamb’s long touchdown.
The Cowboys defense may have only been credited with one Armstrong sack on the night, but their ability to get pressure and set the tone up front went a long way in winning this one-point game.
- Prescott playing with the best efficiency and mechanics of his career has been well documented in the first year for the Cowboys under Mike McCarthy’s offense, but his ability to make something out of broken plays on scramble drills is what has the QB in MVP discussions. His first scramble drill throw of the game to Lamb resulted in an interception, but the second became the highlight of the night with Lamb breaking over the top for the second longest touchdown catch in team history.
CeeDee's touchdown is the second longest TD reception in team history behind this one from Alvin Harper:pic.twitter.com/SOZML1HPkO— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) December 31, 2023
The Cowboys offense went quiet last week at the Dolphins when not targeting Lamb through the middle portion of that game, making reestablishing their WR1 in a big way one of the most important qualities of this win. Any defense that can take away Lamb and Jake Ferguson consistently may still give this Cowboys offense trouble, but Lamb averaging 17.5 yards per catch as he matched the total number of receptions the six other Cowboys that caught a pass combined for showed how hard of a task that will be. The attention Lamb draws in coverage has allowed Brandin Cooks to make clutch plays like his corner route touchdown, a play that’s become a staple of this Dallas offense at home.
Cooks also had the clutch third-down conversion on this drive, finding space between the sideline and Brian Branch in coverage to haul in a vintage fade throw from Prescott.
This game had all the makings of a shootout, and in a weird way it played like one when it comes to the respect both teams had for the opposing offenses. Lamb was mere inches from making this a 14-3 game before fumbling into the end zone on a drive that started after a Jourdan Lewis interception, and despite the score remaining 7-3, the Lions took the ball and played like a team that wasn’t expecting to slow the Cowboys offense down much. A fake punt extended the possession from Detroit’s own 28-yard line, but seven plays later the Lions still came away with no points after failing to convert on fourth and goal from the four. Parsons had the pressure that forced Goff to throw high and incomplete on the play, with the Cowboys defense having to take matters into their own hands throughout the night in a close game between NFC playoff teams.
- Donovan Wilson’s first interception of the season could have been the game-sealing play, but instead a blown Peyton Hendershot tripping penalty was followed by questionable play calls to pass and leave time on the clock for the Lions that allowed them to get the ball back down just seven. Wilson had inside help from Kearse on the short out route to Laporta, allowing him to jump it and undercut a slightly late throw from Goff.
Dallas got away from this aggressive defense on the final drive before eventually making the clinching play on the two-point try, but can absolutely use this game as one to build on for upcoming playoff meetings against teams like the Buccaneers, 49ers, or Eagles, as the defensive line and secondary worked in tandem all night to hold Goff to his lowest completion percentage of the season.