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Dallas Cowboys Checklist

The Cowboys Showed Us Who They Are—And What They Aren’t—Against Houston

Yes, they won. But great teams don’t win like that.
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Ezekiel Elliott's touchdown saved Dallas from a disastrous loss. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys improved to 10-3 with an ugly-as-can-be 27-23 win over the lowly Houston Texans. Here’s what got accomplished in an underwhelming victory:

Provided clarity

They won.

It’s important to lead with that. Despite the best efforts of the worst team in the NFL, the Cowboys did not suffer what FOX play-by-play man Kevin Kugler said would be “the upset of the year … in the National Football League” heading into the fourth quarter, when Dallas trailed 23-17 against a Texans team that hadn’t cracked 20 points since late October. The Cowboys could have lost this game, and they probably should have once Houston picked off Dak Prescott with 5:45 remaining and returned the ball to Dallas’ 4-yard line.

And yet, Dallas did not. The Cowboys made their toughest defensive stand of the season and followed it up with their most important offensive drive of the year, too. In so doing, they secured their first back-to-back double-digit-win seasons since 1995-96. The NFC East remains in play, provided they defeat Philadelphia on Christmas Eve and get some help along the way. All of this is well and good. It’s further confirmation that Dallas remains a pretty solid football team.

But that’s never been the question with this bunch, has it? Beginning with the letdown in Lambeau four weeks ago, the question is whether these Cowboys can be great in more than fits and starts.

Now we have our answer.

To be clear, great teams can have their secondaries diced by castoffs like Chris Moore and Amari Rodgers, who were forced into prominent roles because Houston’s top two receivers missed this game. They can turn Jeff Driskel, the 29-year-old journeyman signed off the Texans practice squad this morning, into a playmaker.

Even after losing a piece as important as Terence Steele, their offensive line depth can be so suspect that it takes a 40-year-old to come off the bench to save them from getting bulled by a cellar dweller. Their pass catchers can drop multiple touchdowns, their return specialist can have a punt clank off his chest, and their star quarterback can develop a weird penchant for late first-half turnovers (more on that in a bit). They can run the ball on 10 straight plays, the last four of which feed their second-best running back from inside the opponent’s 10-yard line and end with getting stuffed at the 1. They can even play down to a bad team.

But great teams cannot do all of those things, and they definitely cannot do them all in the same game, one stacking atop another in the NFL’s most precarious game of Jenga. The tower didn’t topple over this time, largely because Prescott and Tank Lawrence refused to let it. That’s what great players do, and Dallas has a number of them.

But great players don’t necessarily make a great team. That axiom holds. Because if that were all it took, Dallas wouldn’t have let Aaron Rodgers traumatize them yet again with his most depleted roster in years. As our Mark Godich points out, a bad Indianapolis team wouldn’t have been a two-point conversion away from tying last week’s game in the third quarter before that historic deluge of turnovers rolled in.

And if these Cowboys were so great, they wouldn’t have wheezed and gasped their way past the very worst team this league has to offer while playing on their home turf.

Again: they won. Dallas, despite everything, was good enough to get the job done.

Let’s just stop pretending the Cowboys are ready for greatness.

Continued a concerning trend

The Cowboys’ offense has thrived since Prescott’s return to the field, entering Sunday ranking first in points per game, points per drive, and third-down percentage since Week 7, along with second in total yards per game. But there has been one curious—and concerning—trend: for the third week in a row and fourth out of five, Prescott tossed a second-quarter interception.

And, just like Dallas’ previous three opponents, Houston got points off the turnover via a Rodgers touchdown:

While it wasn’t Prescott’s most harmful throw of the day—that honor belongs to the howler late in the fourth quarter—the ensuing score vaulted the Texans into a lead they’d hold until Dallas’ go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minute. Dak would end the day with nine picks in his first eight games, which is a high-water mark in his career and the sort of thing you may not be surprised to learn pisses him off.   

Dallas has won three of these four games, which makes this a middle-of-the-road concern for now. But Philadelphia can exploit those mistakes far better than Houston, Indianapolis, or New York ever could.

Took on the longest neck in the NFL

The embattled Davis Mills was reinstated as Houston’s starter for this one, which makes me legally obligated to remind you that his DNA might be spliced with a giraffe’s:

It would be a serious stretch to argue this makes him a better quarterback. Mills had as many touchdowns as interceptions on the season coming into the game, and any quarterback getting outshined by Jeff Driskel faces long odds to land a starting job next season.

Are these half-hearted neck jokes underwhelming? I assume so. Just trying to match the vibe of today’s game.

Provided a bit of Trevon Diggs magic

Diggs has become a more well-rounded cover corner in his third season despite his interception total plummeting, which is a deal the Cowboys will gladly make. The cost, however, is fewer moments of brilliance for the rest of us to gawk at.

So while this fumble recovery didn’t result in any Dallas points—you can thank the aforementioned 10 consecutive running plays for that—and it involved a bit of, um, circuitous running by Diggs on the return, it also was the most exciting play of the day. Special things happen when he gets his hands on the football.

Indulged Matt Goodman’s cynicism

This has been a bummer of a column—aside from the neck jokes, which, come on—on the heels of a vexing win, and we shouldn’t end this week’s time together on a sour note.

Instead, let’s go out with some perspective. Win or lose, it always could be worse, my friends. You could be from Houston. Not only that: you could be a Texans fan.

You could, in other words, be Matt Goodman, our online editorial director. Because while you (justifiably) were fretting about the Cowboys losing this game, Matt had already sunk into the deep, hollow certainty that his Texans would find a way to blow it.

We have four regular-season games remaining before a playoff campaign that will almost certainly end in crippling disappointment. Take comfort in the knowledge that, however bad it gets for the Cowboys, it can’t be worse than what their southern neighbors—and their fans—have endured all season.


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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