Usually, the Cowboys' opponent is the team smiling after a game like Sunday's. Not this year. Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Football

Are the Cowboys Finally Exorcising Their Demons?

Sunday felt like a prototypical Cowboys loss in the making. Maybe things are finally changing.

On Sunday, the Cowboys did things an entire generation of fans hadn’t seen. The Cowboys finally beat Bill Belichick; they hadn’t done that since 1991, when Belichick coached the Cleveland Browns. The Cowboys finally beat the Patriots; they hadn’t done that since 1996. The Cowboys finally beat the Patriots on the road; they hadn’t done that since 1987—so long ago that Herschel Walker was on that team running for touchdowns instead of for a Senate seat in Georgia. Tom Landry was still coaching the team, a job he presumably thought he’d have as long as he kept coming to work.

No, the Patriots aren’t who they once were. They’re that dreaded stage of the rebuilding process where they think they might have a quarterback but won’t know for sure until a couple of years from now. They aren’t the team that played in nine Super Bowls in 17 years and won six of them. They are a team that’s now 2-4. 

But, at the very least, the Cowboys beating them feels symbolically important. Like, with this win, it might mean that perhaps this is the year they’ll exorcise some of their demons.

You don’t have to be a Cowboys fan to know what these beasts are. Besides the Super Bowl drought, there are the countless midseason games Dallas should have won but lost instead. Games that ultimately cost them at the end of the season. There are the few seasons when it felt like they were close to returning to their glory years before that feeling got squashed with an absurd loss when it counted the most.

While all this happened, the Patriots and Belichick built and maintained their dynasty, reducing Cowboys fans to the Arthur meme where D.W. stands behind a chain-link fence as if looking at something she can’t have. Or maybe it’s the meme of the man with his eyes tightly closed and, according to the caption, says, “Jesus, I’ve seen what you’ve done for other people, and I want that for me.”

That’s why this was a great win. Because—and I hesitate to say this since I don’t consider myself superstitious—although the Cowboys were once as close to the Patriots as any franchise has ever been, it feels like they’ve been cursed for the last quarter-century. And this past game, against an inferior opponent, is the type they’d often lose.

Against the Patriots, the Cowboys turned the ball over twice in the red zone, missed a field goal, had more than 100 yards in penalties, and misplayed a pass that cost them a 75-yard touchdown during the last couple of minutes of the game. If ever there was a quintessential Cowboys loss—in overtime no less, with half the country watching—this would have been it. Except, even if they did everything to lose, the Cowboys won. And it felt like a complete team win.

The defense, again, forced turnovers, including a Randy Gregory sack-fumble that helped turn momentum when the Patriots scored on their first two possessions and were already in field-goal range. (He was really good yesterday.) The offense did what it normally does, with Dak Prescott throwing for more passing yards than anyone had ever done against a Belichick-coached team. And besides scoring a field goal to send the game into overtime, the special teams blocked a punt, something the Cowboys hadn’t done since 2015. You know what the Cowboys were doing that season, a year after Dez Bryant caught the ball in the playoffs and referees said he hadn’t? Losing to the Patriots during a disaster of a season that made you think the Cowboys’ hex had somehow gotten on Antonio Ramiro Romo, whose career effectively ended in that infamous Dez playoff game in Green Bay.

I yelled loud, out of anger, at the television that day. I hadn’t yelled that loud during a game until yesterday—this time from excitement when Trevon Diggs returned an interception for a touchdown. I thought the game was over. Then, the next Patriots play, the Cowboys again gave up the lead. That familiar doubt returned. It felt like those one or two games each season that can only be described as weird because there are no other words. And then the Cowboys won, in a game that not only builds confidence but sometimes a stronger bond within the team, too.

There are still a lot of games left in the season, too many to think there isn’t still a chance for this version of the Cowboys to disappoint. But right now, after winning five consecutive games going into their bye week, this team has as good a chance to win the Super Bowl as any other team in the league. Right now, with Dak and Diggs, they have legitimate MVP candidates on both sides of the ball.

I suppose in theory, in hope, this was bound to happen. That if you watch enough Cowboys football, there would eventually be a season when things fell into place. When losses that ruined weekends and then seasons would turn into games full of adversity that are won and help build resilience. Every Super Bowl-winning team has at least one game during the season that they should have lost like the one Dallas just played. Even the 2007 Patriots, who finished the regular season undefeated. You know what the Cowboys did that season, a year after Antonio Ramiro Romo fumbled a field-goal snap during a playoff game in Seattle? Lost to the Pats in Week 7 before getting bounced by the Giants—the team that would ruin New England’s perfect season in the Super Bowl—in the first round of the playoffs. Cue Terrell Owens crying, defending his quarterback. 

This time, the Cowboys won. They finally beat the Patriots, and it feels good. So good that, when it comes to the team, I’m struggling against my natural pessimism, expecting the worst to happen. It’s probably an emotional self-defense mechanism built from a quarter-century of watching the Cowboys and thinking that if I can imagine the sucker punch coming, it somehow won’t hurt as much.

I guess this was bound to happen. That if one watched enough Cowboys football, there would eventually come a season when they’d begin to cast out their devils. Maybe this one is finally it.

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