Things are good for the Dallas Cowboys. They took care of business in a rather emphatic manner with the 38-10 pounding of the Washington Commanders. Most obviously this made them the two seed in the NFC, ensuring a home game to start the playoffs, and at least one more if they get through the wild card round against the Green Bay Packers. Less apparent, though, are some things that could carry through and help them advance in the postseason. Here’s a look beyond raw stats at some more subtle inferences from the season finale.
The head coach got it almost perfect
Mike McCarthy has made his share of blunders this season, but this may have been his best coaching job all year. While we always focus on what happens during games, the job of the head coach covers the entire week. Preparation is perhaps the most important thing in his job description. This was a major task for the Washington game. While the previous week had put Dallas in great position, the narrow, controversial win over the Detroit Lions was not really enough to inspire great confidence in the team’s recovery from the back-to-back losses the preceding weeks. It was important to have the team focused on playing well and setting the tone entering the playoffs.
There was also the fact that the Cowboys could back into the NFC East title even if they lost. That could have happened as the Philadelphia Eagles continued their tailspin, not even coming close to winning their game over the New York Giants. McCarthy deserves a ton of credit for having his team primed and pumped for the last game. That is something he will need to continue.
Then he conducted something of a master class calling the offense. Playing outdoors in dicey weather is something that has often gone poorly for Dallas. It was a windy, cold game, but that hardly hindered the Cowboys. They not only put up a big score, they moved the ball with great efficiency. They had 31 first downs. In a lot of games, they have had to rely on converting third downs, but they only faced ten the entire game, with a 60% success rate. They also had one fourth-down conversion. Nine of their first downs were the initial plays of drives. A little quick math shows that they got the other fifteen first downs on early downs, which is a great showing. Things were going so well, Bryan Anger never had to punt.
It helps to have your offensive players really cooking, but give McCarthy credit for how he put them in position to succeed. The only criticism that might be made is he could have safely put Cooper Rush and the other backups in earlier. He was probably wanting to make sure Dak Prescott and the rest of the starters were fully prepared for what is to come. It was a judgment call, and given how well protected Prescott was all game, it may have been justified.
Offensive line depth
It is great news that the starters will all be back together for the wild card game against the Packers.
The #Cowboys starting offensive line will be back "in full force" for their playoff matchup against the Packers — per SJ to @1053thefan.— Patrik [No C] Walker (@VoiceOfTheStar) January 8, 2024
Tyler Smith (foot), Zack Martin (illness) were sidelined in the open-handed slap against the Commanders in Week 18.
All hands on deck vs. GB
That should not overshadow the impressive job done by T.J. Bass and Brock Hoffman against the Commanders. Prescott never came close to being sacked, and Washington did not even register a single hit on him. There were also some very good holes opened up for the running backs. Coming into the season, offensive line depth was a concern. That looks a lot better now. The other offensive line backups also got some valuable reps once the starters went to the sidelines, including Matt Waletzko. Advancing in the playoffs often depends on quality depth, and it is starting to look like that may actually exist for the line.
QB1 was on fire
McCarthy called a masterful game, including the two-minute drill to score just before halftime, but the other half of that was a truly stellar game by Prescott. He completed over 80% of his passes for the fourth time this season, a new NFL record (although it did take the seventeen game season to get there.)
He also carried out the game plan for the windy conditions to perfection. He took almost no deep shots all game. He didn’t need to.
While the offensive line deserves praise for his protection, Prescott also did a superb job protecting himself with quick, accurate throws. This is really a great example of how the various elements all work together. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have your quarterback playing the best season of his career.
The running game is showing up at the right time
This has been a sorely needed element of the offense. While things are going to be harder against other playoff teams, we hope this is a sign of things to come. Dallas averaged 4.5 yards per carry, and there were far fewer failed early down rushing attempts in the game. Tony Pollard’s running chart is for once enjoyable.
Only four of his rushing attempts were failed ones. That is far better than we are accustomed to seeing. Pollard’s best series was the one he capped with a one-yard touchdown run. He had a run of nine yards early in the 71-yard drive, and the two plays preceding his score were for nine and twelve yards. Rico Dowdle added 46 yards in the game as well. Just as notable was that Prescott did not run the ball once. Again, the defenses are going to be a lot tougher going forward, but this gives opposing teams something more to account for.
Speaking of defenses...
Washington only scored on the short fields following a blocked field goal that was returned deep into Dallas territory and the deflection interception. Outside of those two series, the Cowboys’ defense completely shut them down, only allowing them to convert two of ten third downs. They did allow three of four fourth-down conversions, but overall limited the Commanders to just 180 yards. That was domination. They won the turnover battle three to one and got four sacks.
While this was another case of flexing on a truly inferior opponent, it is what you expect from a good defense. The only negative was the injury to Stephon Gilmore, but reports are that the MRI on Monday showed no real problems and he is expected to be ready to play against the Green Bay Packers.
The streak ended
Brandon Aubrey didn’t just see his string of made field goals end, he failed twice. Once was a block he couldn’t have prevented, but the other was a clank off the upright. So why is this included in a list of good signs?
Well, he came back out in the waning moments of the game to nail a 50-yard attempt to show the clear miss was not in his head. Aubrey has not shown any indication that he is susceptible to the kind of mental letdown that seemed to plague Brett Maher last year, but any possible pressure to keep up a streak is now gone. It is a small, even tiny thing, but he should have a completely clear head if the team needs him to make a field goal late in a playoff game. There is still no kicker I’d rather have lining up in that case.
All indications from the season finale are that Dallas is going to be confident and playing well in the playoffs. Against Washington, there were really no negative things to discuss. Add in they will be at home for at least two playoff games (if they win the first, of course) and the signs are very good indeed.