The Cowboys got back in the win column with a comfortable 24-6 win over the visiting Detroit Lions. Here’s what got accomplished in Dak Prescott’s return to action:
Brought Dak back
Prescott’s first series since early September began by rifling a throw too high for a wide-open Noah Brown to reel in. It ended two plays later with a three-and-out after being sacked by Aidan Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Narratively, this would go a whole lot better if I told you that it was all upward from there in this resounding win, that Prescott tore apart the NFL’s worst passing defense precisely as anticipated.
That’s not what happened.
Prescott was there. He was fine. By his own admission, he was a touch reckless, although it didn’t stop him from completing nearly 80 percent of his throws without turning the ball over. And when the dust settled, the Cowboys won in much the same way they have been winning all year. The defense stacked up big plays on a Detroit offense down its two best playmakers, forcing five turnovers and sacking Jared Goff five times. KaVontae Turpin edged closer to what feels like an inevitable touchdown in the return game via a spectacular 52-yard punt return. The Tony Pollard-Ezekiel Elliot duo dashed and smashed its way to 140 rushing yards on 5.2 yards per carry.
But at halftime, after Dallas played a sluggish 30 minutes, it clung to a three-point lead (on just two field goals) over a one-win team. So it wasn’t terribly surprising to see social-media chatter wondering whether Cooper Rush could do the same thing.
Allow me to dispel that notion: Rush can’t. All you need to see is this beauty of a throw to a double-covered CeeDee Lamb to understand what Prescott offers:
As Austin Ngaruiya wrote Friday, Prescott’s appeal lies not only in what he does but what he might do. It’s the breadth of options his skill set opens up for Kellen Moore—and, by extension, the range of threats a defense is forced to monitor. You saw it plays like that pass to Lamb, a pinpoint-accurate throw downfield on a designed rollout. Same goes for the long-awaited flickers of life from Dalton Schultz, who increased his season reception total by more than 50 percent in one game. Most of all, it shone through in the second half, when Prescott calmly marshaled three touchdown drives (with no small amount of help from that opportunistic defense).
If today is as good as it gets, then the Cowboys’ ceiling is limited. But we have seen enough from Prescott to know it won’t be, not by a longshot. Better days are coming, which is saying something. Because Sunday was pretty damn good, even if it wasn’t great.
Authored the latest chapter in Donovan Wilson’s breakout story
The safeties are among the most important factors in this defense’s rise under Dan Quinn. While the pass rush may be incredible and Micah Parsons transcendent, no unit has leveled up more dramatically than this one, which is now a team stalwart after more than a decade of being suspect.
Jayron Kearse, the jumbo-size journeyman, was the face of last year’s group. This year’s frontman is Wilson, the 6-foot stick of dynamite from Texas A&M. He is the secondary’s answer to Dorance Armstrong: a day-three draft pick who has clawed his way into prominence through incremental annual improvement.
His significance was obvious in warmups …
… but it was even more evident late in the second quarter, when Wilson screamed around the corner and dipped under a Jamaal Williams block to sack Jared Goff.
Notice Goff’s head tilted upward? As Tony Romo pointed out on the game broadcast, Lions receiver Kalif Raymond was streaking open downfield for what seemed like a touchdown in waiting if Wilson couldn’t get home.
But he did. Because, increasingly often, that’s what Wilson does: per Cowboys PR, no defensive back has more sacks this season.
He is not the biggest man in his position group nor the one with the best ball skills. He’s definitely not the one with the glossiest pedigree. Wilson is its moment maker, the one who finds ways to barge into the highlight reel with a splash play each week. It’s been a long time since this team has had a safety like that. It’s been even longer since that player is only one of several pluses in that position group.
Made good choices
Hey, decision-making always has been one of Prescott’s strong suits.
Delivered a Mike McCarthy special
You may have noticed a lack of criticism of the Cowboys’ head coach in this space lately. There’s a reason for that. Yes, there were the occasional situational brain farts, and, no, the penalties hadn’t stamped themselves out as promised (far from it). But the Cowboys succeeded in the face of what appeared to be disastrous circumstances, and McCarthy deserves a lot of credit for instilling the sort of resilience that enabled the season to remain on track. You earn some rope when your football team wins four straight—including over both Super Bowl teams—with Cooper Rush at the controls.
No such grace gets extended in moments like this one early in the second quarter, with the Cowboys trailing 3-0 and facing fourth-and-goal from Detroit’s 3-yard-line. Let Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith walk you through what transpired:
No matter your feelings about fourth-down aggression—I’m with Smith here—understand that there isn’t a gridiron debate to be had. In no way, shape, or form did McCarthy make a good choice.
Dallas’ second-half dominance precluded any of this from mattering. Same goes for the seven flags the Cowboys racked up. But as the 49ers reminded Dallas, bad process has a way of undoing good regular-season results once the postseason rolls around. Consider this a glaring reminder plenty of work can still be done on the margins.
Watched Zeke reject pain
What went through your mind when you saw this hit on Ezekiel Elliott’s knee?
For me, it was that we just watched the end of his season. As Tim Rogers put it via text, “It bent in a way God didn’t intend.”
But if Zeke got to where he is due to a startling blend of physical gifts, he’s remained there through even more unusual durability. Entering Sunday, only New Orleans’ Mark Ingram had more regular-season carries among active players than Elliott’s 1,759, and Ingram is five years older with 58 more games under his belt. Elliott being who he is, how many hundreds of those were violent and defender-bludgeoning?
Yet Elliott has never missed more than two games in a non-suspension-shortened season. He gets hit, and he gets up, and that dependability is a major reason why he remains such a focal point even as that workload has sapped so much of his explosiveness.
So, of course, he didn’t even require a trip to the injury tent before returning to the field. Less than one quarter later, he was hurdling a defender at full stride.
There’s no telling whether we’ll see a back with Elliott’s running style come around again. But if we do, I doubt we’ll see one as impervious to the effects of it.