The Cowboys closed out the regular season in style, blowing out the Eagles 51-26. It was hardly Dallas’ most consequential win of the season, but plenty got accomplished nonetheless:
Took things seriously ✓
Such is life in Week 18 that this is an achievement, but it is—especially considering the competition. The Eagles mailed this one in, benching their starting quarterback, running back, tight end, two starting offensive linemen, three starting defensive linemen, and half of their secondary. Jason Kelce, the five-time Pro Bowl center, played precisely one snap to maintain his games-started streak before hopping on the bench. Wide receiver DeVonta Smith stayed in just long enough to set Philadelphia’s rookie receiving record and then join him on the sideline.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys tried. In keeping with Jerry Jones’ pregame disclaimer, Dak Prescott played into the fourth quarter. So did the starting offensive line and receiving corps. Ezekiel Elliott likely would have, too, had he not reached 1,000 yards on the season late in the third quarter.
Your mileage on this probably varies, and for good reason. On the one hand, the Cowboys are almost certainly ticketed for the fourth seed in the NFC playoff bracket, so why not take a cue from Philadelphia and rest their valuable players? On the other, no one needed the reminders from Jones or Mike McCarthy that the offense has looked far from playoff-ready in the second half of the season.
To Dallas’ credit, things worked out. There is the obvious caveat that these 51 points largely came against backups, but the highest-scoring offense in the NFL deserves some measure of credit for shredding those second- and third-stringers as they ought to. Prescott played one of his most efficient halves of the season, completing 16 of 21 passes for 240 yards and four touchdowns in the first two quarters. Ezekiel Elliott looked spryer than he’s been in weeks, racking up 87 yards on 18 carries, his highest yards-per-carry average in a game since Week 9, and his most rushing yards since Week 5. Amari Cooper, after calling for more work in the passing game, added 79 receiving yards—his fourth-highest total of the season—while Dalton Schultz scored a pair of touchdowns to continue his climb up the Cowboys’ list of offseason priorities in free agency. Once the starters took a seat in the fourth quarter, Cooper Rush led a pair of touchdown drives to get Dallas past the half-century mark. And Greg Zuerlein … missed another extra point.
Not everything was perfect, in other words, but it was close enough. The Cowboys won, the offense gained some confidence, and nobody got hurt. It was the best possible tune-up heading into the postseason.
Bucked a key trend ✓
This Cedrick Wilson touchdown reception was the Cowboys’ first score of the night, but it wasn’t the first of the game.
Why am I mentioning this?
Make that 3-5. I can’t tell you why this is a thing, and I go back and forth about whether it’s a good one. But something tells me everyone’s collective blood pressure will be a lot lower if Dallas gets on the board first next weekend, even if it didn’t matter Saturday.
Busted out the brooms ✓
The Cowboys won all six games against their NFC East rivals, and if you’re inclined to “Well, actually” that stat by glaring at the collective mediocrity of Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, allow me to counter by pointing out that the Cowboys had done this only two other times in franchise history.
This matters, in other words, as does the Cowboys not letting inferior opponents punch above their weight. That won’t win them a Super Bowl. But it does play a large part in making the postseason and having an opportunity to chase one.
Made a famous judge very happy (probably) ✓
Let’s take a moment to discuss third-string running back Ito Smith, who crashed into the end zone early in the fourth quarter. Ito, it should be noted, is not Smith’s given name. Nor is it a terribly intuitive nickname for a guy whose birth certificate reads “Romarius.”
How did this happen, you might wonder? Because—and I swear I am not making this up—when Smith’s 4-year-old cousin came to visit him in the hospital as a newborn, she remarked that he bore a striking resemblance to Lance Ito, the judge in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Really. There’s an article about it and everything, in which Judge Ito told the late Vaughn McClure, “[H]aving looked [Smith] up and discovering he is a handsome and talented fellow, certainly not a bad thing.”
You can read about it here, whereupon you can judge—get it? Yeah? Why aren’t you laughing?—just how uncanny the resemblance between baby Smith and fully grown Ito truly is. Personally, I think the jury’s out. But there’s no denying Smith’s execution on this play (OK, I’ll stop).
Made history ✓
Dallas entered this game having scored 479 points on the season and exited it with 530—a new franchise record. That’s largely due to Prescott, who broke Tony Romo’s franchise record for touchdown passes in a season with 37. After Prescott and the starters sat down for the evening, fourth-string running back JaQuan Hardy, star of the dumbest moment of this year’s Hard Knocks, became the 22nd Cowboy this season to score a touchdown, an NFL record for one team.
All told, when the night was over, the 2021 Cowboys became the first team in league history to have players with 4,000 passing yards (Prescott), 1,000 rushing yards (Elliott), 1,000 receiving yards (CeeDee Lamb), double-digit sacks (Micah Parsons), and double-digit interceptions (Trevon Diggs). And, for funsies, Pro Bowl punter Bryan Anger’s 44.6 net average this season set a Cowboys record and tied for fourth in NFL history.
Those were the last of many, many milestones the Cowboys set in 2021. They helped make this regular season worth remembering and celebrating irrespective of how the postseason plays out.
There are plenty of ways to win in the NFL, many of them boring, some of them downright cynical. More often than not, the Cowboys delivered exciting ones, through Diggs flying around the secondary and Parsons prowling every level of the defense, Lamb’s jaunts after the catch and Tony Pollard’s burst in both the run and return games, Prescott spreading the ball around and Randy Gregory zooming off the edge.
Dallas has been very good this year, and they’ve also been spectacular: the game’s best scoring offense paired with its most opportunistic defense. Some weeks, the Cowboys were amazing; others, they were mediocre. But they were always worth watching on at least one side of the ball, which is a bona fide achievement for a group tasked with entertaining us for four and a half months. That’s a success on par with their dozen wins.