The Cowboys are now 4-1 on the season after defeating the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams 22-10 in a game they led bell to bell. Yes, it’s OK to be surprised. Here’s what got accomplished in their biggest win of the season:
Rinsed and repeated ✔
Last week in this space, I boiled down the formula that won Dallas three consecutive games in Dak Prescott’s absence to the following ingredients: exerting pressure up front, being opportunistic in the passing game, making kicks, and not screwing things up on offense.
Then I issued a disclaimer:
“Los Angeles is the acid test. You can “well, actually” Dallas’ success when it comes against these Commanders, a Giants team much worse than its 3-1 record, and the Bengals team at what should be their nadir this season. There are no such caveats if they defeat the best team in the NFL in their building.”
We must now conclude that the Cowboys have iron hearts and tungsten stomachs. Because, for all the reasons this shouldn’t work—anyone testifying at the start of the season that this team could beat the Super Bowl champions on the road with their backup quarterback throwing for 102 yards would have been found incompetent to stand trial—it has four times in a row.
It’s worked on the road, and it’s worked at home. It’s worked in nailbiters, and it’s worked in routs. It’s worked in the division—twice. It’s worked against a team that made it all the way to the Super Bowl. And today it worked against the team that won the whole thing.
Once again, the pass rush dominated, as the Cowboys sacked Highland Park alum Matthew Stafford five times to go with 11 quarterback hits. Micah Parsons turned in nine quarterback pressures plus a game-sealing strip sack by himself despite nursing a groin injury, because he may be impervious to pain and other forms of human weakness. Rush, held in check more than ever, still found a way to hit Michael Gallup for a gorgeous 27-yard sideline completion. Brett Maher, the apparent paragon of dependability, drilled all three of his field goal attempts. And the Rush-led offense once again avoided turnovers.
The longer Prescott sits out, the more Dallas will lean on this game plan. And the more it does, the greater the chances of running into an opponent that will have an answer. But should that day come, it will be because the Cowboys ran into a better opponent, not that their luck ran out.
This is no fluke. They are no fluke.
Played (another) home game in Los Angeles ✔
Take it from someone who lived there for a decade: Los Angeles isn’t Cowboys country so much as it is minimally pro football country. But when a marquee franchise like Dallas comes to SoFi Stadium, the latter paves the way for the former. Such was the case in Week 2 last year, when Dallas upset the Chargers. So it went again against the Rams.
Everyone could hear it, Parsons very much included. So much so that the Rams had to resort to extreme road game measures in their own building:
It wasn’t hard to spot, either, as friend of the program and Los Angeles Times Rams beat writer Gary Klein shows us:
As was the case in 2021, the Cowboys won’t get this cushy a road environment the rest of the season. But at least they took full advantage of those unusually friendly confines.
Channeled their inner Han Solo ✔
Never tell them the odds, apparently:
Gave Bones Fassel a spoonful of his own medicine ✔
Fassel, the Cowboys’ special teams coach, has kept a lid on his more exotic tendencies this season given his reputation as one of the NFL’s most creative (and aggressive) men in his position. But Fassel made his … [pulls on sunglasses, David Caruso-style] … bones … in Los Angeles by running semi-regular fake punts with four-time All-Pro Johnny Hekker, who racked up 186 career passing yards on 14 of 23 passing as the Rams’ punter.
Hekker is now in Carolina and Fassel in Dallas, but that didn’t stop their old boss, Sean McVay, from doing an homage to his old charges with new punter Riley Dixon—on the Rams’ 25-yard-line, no less.
It was the capper to an eventful special teams half, which also included a blocked punt by Dorance Armstrong and a muffed Cowboys extra point thanks to overexuberant new snapper Matt Overton. Which, all told, delivered the Cowboys six points to the Rams’ zero.
McVay and Co. may have won the battle on this play, but Fassel won the war.
Hung their rookie out to dry ✔
Twenty-one-year-old Tyler Smith has exceeded every reasonable expectation thus far in his first NFL season, which perhaps informs the Cowboys’ extremely unreasonable decision to task him with blocking Aaron Donald, the best defensive player alive, without help when the future Hall of Famer moved out to the edge.
Narratively, this added up. The story of Smith’s young Cowboys career is the organization seeing the very best in him at every turn, from drafting the North Crowley product higher than consensus to handing one of the NFL’s rookies a starting job at left guard to barely flinching (at least publicly) when they shifted him outside to replace the injured Tyron Smith at left tackle. We probably should have expected that even Donald wouldn’t be enough to dim the organization’s faith in the left tackle of the future-turned-present.
But this was pretty reckless. As I wrote Monday, the goal is always to contain Donald, never stop him, and asking a rookie—any rookie—to do it solo is unfair. Lo and behold, Smith had a nightmare of a first half, drawing two penalties and allowing a pair of sacks. A particularly brutal play in the first quarter featured one of each:
The Cowboys did a much better job of keeping Donald in check in the second half, probably because he spent more time on the interior than out wide. But they’re smart. They’ll take this as a reminder of how every rookie has limitations. Even one as gifted and surprising as Smith.
Got ready for a fight to keep what’s theirs ✔
The Cowboys have done far more than stay afloat in the month since Prescott’s seemingly catastrophic thumb injury. They’ve resurrected their season, transforming themselves from hopeless to hardened along the way. What will that get them against the NFL’s only unbeaten team?
The Eagles represent a challenge one tier higher than anything else Dallas has seen in this unbeaten run. Offensively, they lack the quarterback issues plaguing the Giants and Commanders, and while Philadelphia’s banged-up offensive line could be ripe for the Cowboys to exploit as they did the Bengals’ and Rams’, Jalen Hurts’ mobility vastly outstrips that of Joe Burrow and Matt Stafford. Defensively, the Eagles entered Sunday as one of only five teams allowing fewer yards per game than Dallas.
So while the Cowboys are the defending NFC East champions, it’s hard not to see Philadelphia as the favorite next Sunday night. If the Eagles win, the Cowboys will face an uphill climb to make up a two-game divisional deficit as they enter the NFC North slate of the schedule.
For the second week in a row, then, the Cowboys will have little margin for error in a key road game that they’ll likely enter as the underdog. Luckily for them, they now have some pretty important experience navigating that sort of thing.