Wednesday, September 27, 2023 Sep 27, 2023
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Dallas Cowboys Checklist

The Cowboys Played Like a Great Team. That Doesn’t Mean They Are One Yet.

After taking one step back in Green Bay, Dallas took three forward in Minnesota. What does that mean, exactly?
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Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys spent plenty of time in the end zone in Minnesota. Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys played their best game of the season in a 40-3 humiliation of the Vikings in Minnesota. Here’s what happened in one of the most impressive games an NFL team has played all season:

Went above and beyond … and beyond … and beyond

This is what great teams do after an egregious loss: unleash hell and consequences on whatever poor saps they line up against next.

We cannot say for certain that the Cowboys are a great team, mind you. They certainly didn’t look the part in last week’s tragicomic meltdown at Lambeau Field, and one victory, however resounding, doesn’t make their shallow wide receiver depth or generous run defense nonissues.

There’s also the matter of the Vikings being the flimsiest of paper tigers: an 8-1 team that had defeated only one opponent with a record above .500 and now boasts a negative point differential on the season. So there is a good reason why, per the CBS broadcast, Minnesota was the first home underdog since 1976 with an 8-1 record and its primary starting quarterback available.

Yet it is one thing to play to expectations and quite another to blow them to smithereens in the largest road win in franchise history. This was as close to a flawless performance as teams play in professional football, from Dak Prescott completing 88 percent of his passes to Dallas converting a ludicrous eight of its first 10 downs to the defense recording 13 quarterback hits and seven sacks of Kirk Cousins, the latter being more than the 11-year veteran has ever taken in an NFL game.

Trevon Diggs begged Dan Quinn to let him shadow Justin Jefferson, the league’s best receiver. Then he backed it up for the second year in a row by dominating the player who has more receiving yards in his first two NFL seasons than anyone in history and third-most in his first three.

Tony Pollard, meanwhile, put on his Christian McCaffrey costume, catching six passes for 109 receiving yards and two scores. The second of those, a 68-yard bomb on a wheel route, was Dallas’ longest play from scrimmage all season, Prescott’s longest pass, and the longest play of Pollard’s career.

Brett Maher, once the least reliable kicker in football, is now 19 for 21 on field-goal attempts this season after being the first man in Cowboys history to make three 50-plus-yard field goals in a game. That doesn’t include the 60-yarder he snaked through the right upright just before halftime, which was called back due to a belated review of a CeeDee Lamb catch on the play prior. Maher responded by kicking an even straighter 60-yarder on the redo, because Autumn 2022 is the season of Brett Maher and Taylor Swift, in that order. (And you, too, if you had him in fantasy football.)

Dallas’ 20-point halftime lead? Already the largest deficit Minnesota had faced up to that point all season.

Cousins’ league-high 39-game stretch of touchdown passes? Finished.

Should I keep going? Nah, you get the idea. This was an annihilation, and it came against a team that, while overrated, nevertheless arrived with the second-best record in the NFC and an undefeated home record.

Again, do not take this as proof positive of what these Cowboys are. For now, the truth probably lies somewhere between the outfit that blew it against Green Bay and the one that blew the doors off Minnesota. But even if they’re not truly great yet, they’re good enough to model greatness for four quarters. And most of the rest of the NFL would gladly try that on for size.

Kept on streaking

The Cowboys came in as the only team not to allow a first-quarter touchdown all season. They exit Minneapolis with that mark intact, albeit after a glaring near-miss when a beautifully lofted Kirk Cousins pass sailed through the outstretched arms of Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson.

This matters less now than it did six weeks ago, when so much of Dallas’ game plan hinged on sticking Cooper Rush with a lead and leaning on the ground game so a limited backup quarterback didn’t need to carry the offense through the air. But you don’t have to strain hard to grasp the benefits no matter who is under center. Sure, keeping the opponent off the scoreboard ups the chances of Dallas getting ahead—that’s the hard-hitting analysis we bring you here at StrongSide!—but, more crucially, playing with the lead forces the opponent into passing situations to keep pace. That plays into the hands of this Cowboy defense, whose specialty is defending the pass and getting to the quarterback. And, sure enough, Dallas limited Cousins to a measly 105 passing yards to go with those seven sacks.

Add in Dallas improving to 15-0 when leading at halftime over the last two seasons compared to 4-9 when not, and the longer this first-quarter run lasts, the more games shift in Dallas’ favor irrespective of how the offense performs. And the more ways the Cowboys can win, the better their chances get come playoff time.  

Got Micah Parsons back to doing what he does best

Parsons’ usage was a major talking point after the Green Bay loss thanks to the 23-year-old playing 47 snaps at linebacker compared to just 10 at defensive end. The logic underpinning it—Dallas is deep at defensive end and even more shallow than usual at linebacker with key reserve Anthony Barr sidelined—was sound in theory, but as I wrote in last week’s Checklist, great teams tend to win by accentuating their strengths more than hiding their weaknesses. And the Cowboys’ greatest strength of all is empowering the NFL’s best pass rusher to go after the quarterback.

Dan Quinn got the memo, lining Parsons up on the edge on each of the Cowboys’ first three defensive snaps. This happened on the third one:

That’s impressive work no matter who lined up opposite him. But as USA Today’s Doug Farrar notes, Vikings left tackle Christian Darrisaw is arguably the game’s best left tackle this season and hadn’t allowed a sack—much less a play that led to a forced fumble—all season until this snap.

The lesson, as ever: even elite NFL linemen struggle against the league’s next transcendent pass rusher. Parsons finished the day with five quarterback hits and a pair of sacks, and that sack total should be one higher, too, after Parsons wrapped Cousins up late in the second quarter only to let go after mistakenly assuming the quarterback had let go of the ball. His versatility, wonderful as it is, should be a changeup, not the primary plan of attack. Sunday gives us cause to believe Dallas will operate accordingly going forward.

Planned ahead

Garbage time only matters as much as NFL teams make it matter, so give Dallas credit for maximizing the 20-plus minutes they earned in this one.  

We got almost a full quarter’s worth of Malik Davis, the bouncy third-string running back who could move up the depth chart next year if Pollard departs in free agency or Ezekiel Elliott gets to free up cap space. Damone Clark, the high-ceiling fifth-round linebacker (as Jeff Cavanaugh and I each wrote back in the spring, the LSU Tiger would have been selected on Day 2 had he not required spinal fusion surgery) played more than that as he positions himself for a more prominent role in 2023.

Most importantly, there was this bit of foreshadowing of Dallas’ offensive line once Tyron Smith returns from his preseason knee injury.

All told, a productive afternoon for reasons that transcend the box score and the standings, too.  

Made CBS tap out

How do you know your game is going well? When this happens:

Jerry Jones’ priorities being what they are, one wonders whether he’d have traded a smaller lead for the country watching his football team even a few minutes longer. But the network suits recognized what everyone else did: that the story was told well before it ended, and it was already time to look ahead elsewhere.

In the Cowboys’ case, that means the crucial Thanksgiving game against the Giants for control of second place in the NFC East. What should a great team do? Contain standout running back Saquon Barkley and shore up that pesky mobile-quarterback problem during a second date with Daniel Jones. We’ll see if Dallas continues to look the part.


Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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