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An index card was the Cowboys’ 12th man last Sunday.

Under the scrutiny of a national primetime audience, a dramatic last-minute play finally ended with heartache for a Cowboys opponent instead of their fans. No doubt t-shirts with a picture of an index card with “MVP” written across it will soon be available for purchase online. Visiting the vaulting open-air Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the Cowboys managed to stave off a desperate Raiders team and notch a hard-fought 20-17 win, bringing their current win streak to three. The victory, which effectively ended Oakland’s own playoff hopes, keeps the ’Boys very much in the hunt. 

Although one of the more entertaining Cowboys games this season, at least from the standpoint of some actual drama heading into the final minutes, it was anything but pretty. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw an interception, one of two on the night, to stunt the Cowboys’ opening possession — one in which running back Alfred Morris was biting off yards in chunks — and kill the offense’s momentum. All night, receivers would have the ball hit their hands and fail to come up with it. The defense routinely gave up big plays in the middle of the field, allowing the Raiders to convert on third and long situations. To their credit, after these plays, they tended to dig in, limiting the damage caused by the coverage mistakes. 

This tenacity became a theme of sorts for the Cowboys throughout the game. You could say the team started playing playoff football three weeks ago, knowing they’d have to win every game to have a chance at the postseason. When it counted, they played like a team facing elimination. An industrious football-minded computer programmer must have hacked Coach Garrett-Bot’s operating system and slipped in some code designed to take some actual chances and make tough real-time coaching decisions. He even called a fake punt on fourth and 11, which the Cowboys converted, thanks to a 24-yard run by Chris “The Puntisher” Jones. They then followed up that gutsy play with a flea-flicker. Finally, in what would be the offense’s last possession, the coaching staff called a quarterback sneak on fourth and 1. After a lengthy delay, in what will likely be considered a legendarily controversial move, it took referee Gene Steratore (he of the famous Dez Bryant catch-no-catch call) sliding an index card between the ball and the first-down marker to determine if Prescott had managed enough of a lunge to convert. 

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All of these very un-Garrett-like dramatics would have been in vain if not for a staggering athletic play by safety Jeff Heath that negated a sure touchdown by a scrambling Raiders’ QB Derek Carr, with less than 40 seconds left. Heath hit a  Flash-level gear and forced Carr out of bounds as he leapt toward the pylon, forcing him to fumble the ball out of the end zone, resulting in a touchback and ending the Raiders comeback. 

The gutsy win keeps Garrett’s team in contention but does little to clear a fuzzy NFC playoff picture. Aside from needing to win their two remaining games, the Cowboys need other teams to lose. Assuming the return of Ezekiel Elliott from suspension next week gives an otherwise fairly impotent offense the boost it needs; that the defense continues its new-life, bend-but-don’t-break fortitude; and the Cowboys actually run the table, they then need two of five crazy scenarios to play out to take one of the two wild-card berths. They need the Detroit Lions to lose one of their two remaining games, either against the Bengals (unlikely) or the Packers (more likely, assuming Green Bay doesn’t shut down Aaron Rodgers now that they’re out of the playoff chase). Then they need either the Falcons, the Panthers, or the Saints to lose two more games. Currently, according to fancy algorithms programmed to suss out such nonsense, this puts the likelihood of one of these potential paths unfolding at a paltry 8 percent. Cowboys fans should rejoice at the doubling of the 4 percent odds the team faced last week, so there’s that. As Jim Carrey would say, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”

The defeatist Cowboys fan in me sees them on the outside looking in come playoff time. However, if Sunday’s game against the Raiders is an indication of the type of drama we can expect from the remaining games against the Seahawks and the Eagles, I’ll do my best to keep my Lloyd Christmas optimism in mind. 

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