If you watched the Cowboys’ 35-29 overtime, walk-off win against the New England Patriots, then you grasp how loaded those two words are — with confusion and bewilderment and exhaustion and frustration and laughter and, finally, elation. Holy hell.
This was a game of moments, big, loud, sometimes incredibly stupid moments, with precious little in the way of sound football in between. Very often, it appeared the Cowboys weren’t too interested in winning it.
But they did, and now they head into the bye week at 5-1, with their lone loss coming against the defending Super Bowl champions on the road.
Here’s what else got accomplished.
Brought their C- game and won anyway
Last week, the Cowboys sleepwalked their way to a 24-point smackdown of the New York Giants. I characterized it as their B game in last week’s checklist: hardly their best ball but not their worst, either. Beyond that gaudy margin of victory, Dallas won the turnover battle and put up a season-high in points. The shortcomings were about imprecision more than any larger failure, a matter of playing well instead of really good, the way we’ve grown accustomed to seeing this team play this year.
This week, they played badly.
The Cowboys dominated possession only to be utterly wasteful with it, converting a measly three of their 13 third-down attempts and scoring on just two of their five red-zone chances (and just one being a touchdown). Their 3.9 average yards per carry was tied for the lowest number since the season opener at Tampa Bay, when Kellen Moore mostly hand waved the idea of running altogether against the Buccaneers’ monster front. Both their number of penalties (12) and the resulting penalty yards (115) were far and away season highs; the former matched their total from the past two games — Carolina and New York, which until today were the sloppiest performances of the season — and the latter exceeded it.
On a micro level, there were backbreaking mistakes, from Connor Williams’ getting penalized three times in the fourth quarter to Greg Zuerlein’s blasting his first attempt at a game-tying field goal wide left to Dak Prescott’s fourth-and-goal touchback (even though he may well have been in the end zone on third down) to whatever was going on here with Trevon Diggs but mostly Damontae Kazee:
Damontae Kazee what are you doing bropic.twitter.com/PQ2u50AzXx
— Tom Downey (@WhatGoingDowney) October 17, 2021
This was attempted self-immolation, from the first-quarter turnovers to the fourth-quarter touchdown bomb and oh so many things in between.
And, still, the Cowboys won.
Leaned on Dak Prescott
Ever since the Tampa Bay game, when Prescott shredded the pass defense, Dallas’ opponents have preferred to try their luck with the ground game, daring Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard to do them in rather than Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, and the like. The Cowboys ripped off four straight wins in response, which perhaps informs the Patriots’ zagging the other way and taking their chances against Prescott’s arm.
It would be trite to say, “It didn’t work,” and point to Prescott’s 445 passing yards and 71 percent completion percentage, because this was hard-earned. It didn’t figure to be that way at the onset, when he opened the game with 10 straight completions for the first time in his career and ended the first quarter with 161 passing yards, the most by any quarterback in a first quarter this year.
The middle quarters were a grind, however, which underscored how monumental he was down the stretch.
From the 6:23 mark of the fourth quarter onward, the Cowboys looked to Prescott on three separate occasions to march them into scoring range to save or win the game. All three times, he delivered.
The walk-off bomb to Lamb was the trademark moment, of course, the best moment of the second-year receiver’s young career, which in turn makes it the best connection to date between the quarterback and pass catcher who, if all goes according to plan, will be this offense’s bellwether for the rest of the decade.
CeeDee Lamb waved bye to him 😭
— PFF (@PFF) October 17, 2021
But don’t ignore the smaller ones, from Prescott’s 10-yard scamper to set up Zuerlein’s field-goal miss to the do-or-die 4th-and-4 to Cedrick Wilson to the borderline incomprehensible 24-yard rainbow to Lamb on 3rd-and-25 to set up Zuerlein’s overtime-clinching field goal. He has reached the rarefied air of quarterbacks whom a team can, should, and will trust to do anything in the pressure situations — because, more often than not, he delivers whatever’s needed.
— SportzStew Ⓥ (@sportzstewcom) October 17, 2021
You just watched the Cowboys’ 2,500th touchdown — the highest total of any NFL franchise since the team was established, in 1960.
Further proof that, for all the many things this team is, “boring” is rarely among them.
Showcased Mike McCarthy’s questionable decision-making (again)
Way back in Week 2, I started my analysis of the win over the Chargers by discussing how Dallas did it: McCarthy’s opting to run down the clock and trot Zuerlein out to boot a 56-yarder instead of play more aggressively with an offense that was racking up yards and a quarterback among the league’s most capable in late-game situations.
Gregory The Legory — again, we’re making this a thing — drilled it, giving the Cowboys their best win of the season to date. But, as our Dan Morse wrote a week prior, after Zuerlein left seven points on the board, the process was flawed from the jump.
Which led me to write the following after the game in Los Angeles:
This probably shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and so today, the Cowboys celebrate. As they should. The NFL is a brutally difficult league, kickers are people, too, and Zuerlein performed admirably. But it’s hard not to wonder whether this reaffirms a flawed line of thinking that costs Dallas down the line versus taking it for what it was: a great result that could have been achieved via a smarter strategy.
Sunday should have been that day, as McCarthy again leaned on Zuerlein instead of going for it on 4th-and-1, and Zuerlein missed the kick. It almost certainly would have been a loss were Trevon Diggs not a late-model android from the Terminator movies sent back in time to intercept footballs. It wasn’t a loss, but don’t let the outcome distract from how dangerous the idea was (we’ll save the odd timeout usage for another day, but, suffice to say: not great, Bob!).
McCarthy does a lot of things well, perhaps the most important of which I detailed last week. But his game management is already undermining a lot of public goodwill and, far more important, will eventually lead to a bad outcome if he keeps going back to the well.
Confirmed that Trevon Diggs is, in fact, a late-model android from the Terminator movies sent back in time to intercept footballs
I mean, come on.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) October 17, 2021
Diggs joins Hall of Famer Rod Woodson as the second player since the AFL-NFL merger, in 1970, with seven interceptions through the first six games of the season. Per NFL research, he’s the only one to do it with multiple interceptions returned for a touchdown.
As our Wings correspondent, Dorothy J. Gentry, has grown fond of telling me, Trevon Diggs is that dude. I’ll go ahead and take it one step further: that dude is the early favorite for NFL defensive player of the year.
If Diggs does win it, Woodson will be one of his contemporaries. He took home the award in 1993 — the same season he began with those seven interceptions in six games.
Got saucy with the challenge flag
There are challenges and then there are challenges. McCarthy delivered the latter on the Cowboys’ first drive of the game after Ezekiel Elliott was stopped on fourth-and-short.
Mike McCarthy with an Hall of Fame challenge flag toss.pic.twitter.com/xzwVUMZJxs
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 17, 2021
The man took five full steps before the challenge flag landed, which must be some sort of record.
Should McCarthy have called for the review? Nah. Your mileage may vary on whether Dallas should have gone for it on 4th-and-1 on their own 34-yard-line; personally, I’m of the mind that, when an offense is this lethal, you bet on it to earn one yard when you need it, a strategy that bore fruit later in the quarter when Elliott converted the same down and distance.
Which is what made the challenge call so vexing. Elliott’s spot on the initial drive was hardly obvious enough to bank on overturning the ruling on the field. Rather than make the challenge and burn a timeout in the process, McCarthy instead should have dug in on trusting that same offense he boldly left on the field in the first place to make up the points as the game went on.
Still, he gets points for gusto … even though it set New England up to open the scoring by giving them the ball inside their 40-yard-line. It was only the Patriots’ second first-quarter TD in their last 14 home games, the first of many oddities on the afternoon.
Treated us to Randy Gregory at his most destructive
Wanna see a dead body?
Mac Jones just got absolutely crunched by Randy Gregory pic.twitter.com/sqaeGtAnPP
— Ben Brown (@BenBrownPL) October 17, 2021
That’s full Roman Reigns status from Gregory, who would tack on another sack in the third quarter to take over the team lead at four. The Cowboys have plenty of work to do to get under the salary cap in 2022, but if and when they clear the requisite space to take care of their free agents, the first check should go his way.
Dan will have much more on him this morning on StrongSide.
Somehow, someway, got it done
They do not want to win this way every week, of course, because better teams — let alone fellow Super Bowl contenders, which is what the Cowboys must now be considered at 5-1 — will expose them if they do this when the games matter most.
It worked yesterday, though. And if this win amounted to an exaggerated version of last week’s, then much like last week, one takeaway supersedes everything else: they’re legit.
Really good teams beat other teams even when they're trying to beat themselves. That's what just happened.
— Mike Piellucci (@mikelikessports) October 17, 2021