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Crunching Cowboys stats for the razor thin win over Lions

A performance for the record books on Saturday night was just barely enough for the Cowboys.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys
Of course, we have to relish his stat line.
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Winning games in the NFL is hard. It is especially hard when you make a ton of mistakes. That is why the Dallas Cowboys will take their one-point victory over the Detroit Lions as they head for the playoffs. It was a strange game, with one magnificent performance that was completely necessary to overcome the many flaws of the game, and a bizarre sequence at the end involving those guys in black and white stripes.

Let’s get into the numbers, starring with that magnificence.

CeeDee Lamb stormed into the record books

Take a moment to absorb this line:

13 catches on 17 targets for 227 yards and a touchdown that went for 92 yards.

Lamb came into the game with the opportunity to eclipse Michael Irvin’s team record for both catches and yards in a season. He blew past both of them, and did it in the same 16 games Irvin had. Even if you take out the long touchdown play, he still would have broken both records. It also was his personal best game, and he is just in the fourth year of a career that has seen his totals increase each one, including touchdowns.

But there is one other stat for him that should not be overlooked. That is one fumble. The ball he lost that went through the corner of the end zone for a touchback kept it a one-score game. Had he hung onto that one, the Cowboys would have likely have gotten a touchdown and gone up by two scores. That would have changed things significantly. Ironically, that was the catch that broke the receptions record. Had this wound up a loss, as it almost did, it would have been an unfortunate stain on the records. But the admittedly peculiar ending prevented that, and Lamb can fully enjoy his accomplishments.

Don’t forget the guy throwing the ball

Dak Prescott put his name back in the MVP conversation with his performance, or should have if viewed objectively. His line: 26 completions on 38 attempts, 345 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick. His passing was the only thing the offense had most of the game. That 92-yard strike was a remarkable example of just how special he is. He somehow evaded being sacked for a safety in the end zone, then scrambled out and spotted Lamb getting free and put the ball where his receiver could haul it in and reach paydirt.

Once again, he managed this under a lot of pressure, getting sacked three times and enduring a total of seven hits. Prescott is the engine that truly powers the offense.

Run futility

Prescott is forced into that role as the ground game continues to sputter for Dallas. They only managed 61 yards and an average of 2.9 yards per attempt. Outside of a handful of good carries, including one 18-yard gain, Tony Pollard was again unable to get the job done, and Rico Dowdle was missed.

That is not just a factor of the performance of the personnel on the field, however.

The play-calling was suspect at best

This was not a good day at the office for Mike McCarthy. It was obvious that the passing game was clicking while the running game just was not. Still, McCarthy insisted on maintaining “balance” on first down.

This looks like stubbornness in the face of events that should dictate a change in the approach. It’s not like he has no choice. He has one of the best quarterbacks in the league throwing to one of the best receivers, and some other good targets as well like Jake Ferguson and Brandin Cooks.

That is not the only evidence of McCarthy’s strange decisions. On the final Cowboys drive of the game, he showed highly questionable clock management. While Dallas had been pushed back by a penalty that will come up later in this article, the game had hit the two-minute warning. Had they run the ball, they would have forced Dan Campbell to use up his timeouts and even with how they had struggled running, Brandon Aubrey didn’t need much more yardage to get in range for a field goal. But McCarthy called three consecutive passes, and the second fell incomplete, saving the last timeout and preventing Dallas from running the clock down. Once they got the first completion, the argument for running was even greater, but McCarthy chose to be aggressive in trying to get a touchdown that would have sealed the game.

McCarthy has done some things well, but his late-game decisions are at times baffling. Fortunately for his team, Campbell also made some significant errors himself. That still excuses nothing for McCarthy.

Penalties were, well, something

First, let’s just look at the big picture. The Cowboys only had five penalties accepted against them for 34 yards, which on the face of things is not that bad. The Lions were a bit worse, getting hit for six flags and 35 yards.

But two weird calls had an unfortunately significant effect on the course of things at the end of the game. The first was that bizarre call mentioned just above. Peyton Hendershot was called for tripping. Replay showed something entirely different.

Hendershot clearly did nothing wrong, and it looks like Aiden Hutchinson was the one trying to trip or kick Hendershot. Maybe Hutchinson thought he was held, but it looked like a good job by the tight end. Had the referees just picked that one up, the game would almost certainly have been over with a Dallas win.

But the referees taketh away, and the referees giveth. Or perhaps it was Detroit that gaveth, on the much discussed and debated penalty that helped prevent the two-point conversion that would have given the win to the Lions. The referees insist that Dan Skipper, number 70, reported as eligible, but it was supposed to be 68, Taylor Decker, who wound up catching the two-point pass that was overturned. But the Lions sent both, plus another lineman, to the refs. That would make any confusion about who was reporting on them. And the referees announced that 70 was eligible, which meant that the Cowboys did not look for Decker to be the target. It is never a good thing for the zebras to have so much input on who wins an NFL game. This was a case where that was forced on them by the team that wound up paying the price.

While Dallas has had a penalty problem all year, this one was not really a case of that. The officiating across the league has been rather abysmal all season, and this was just one of the most watched examples.

A mixed bag for the defense

Again, looking at the overall numbers does not look that bad. The Cowboys held the Lions to 50% in the red zone, had a big fourth-down stop, and did very well on third down, allowing Detroit to convert only 30.8%. They also had two very timely interceptions by Jourdan Lewis and Donovan Wilson. The Lions did not score a touchdown until there was 4:34 left in the third quarter.

But on the final Detroit drive, they suddenly turned into Swiss cheese again. On that possession, trying to protect a seven point lead and starting with just 1:41 left in regulation, the plays were this:

  • 10 yard pass
  • 25 yard pass
  • Spike
  • 14 yard pass
  • Spike
  • Incomplete pass
  • 15 yard pass
  • Spike
  • Touchdown

That is frankly pitiful. They knew the Lions had to pass, but they were unable to stop Jared Goff from just shredding them and getting the score that almost led to their defeat. While we may complain about how Micah Parsons has not drawn a holding call since before the leaves changed color this fall, this was still an abject failure. The prevent defense just does not work.

The stats don’t reveal how much of this is on Dan Quinn and how much was poor execution, or if Goff just got into an unstoppable zone. In any case, this is not the first time we have seen the defense become incompetent, either late in a game or for the entire contest. An honest appraisal has to consider whether Quinn’s reputation has become overblown.

The streak

Brandon Aubrey has now made 35 of 35 field goal attempts in his first year in the NFL. I just wanted to include this, because it is simply amazing.

This is a decidedly mixed bag of statistics for the Cowboys. But the most important one is that it wound up a win. That is the one stat that always matters the most.

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