It was an unnecessarily pulse-raising finish, but mostly thanks to their surging defense, the Dallas Cowboys were just able to hold off the Washington Football Team — who entered the contest riding a four-game win streak — and escape the rapidly deteriorating FedEx Field in Landover with a 27-20 win, all but sealing the NFC East title. The ugly penalty-/injury-/turnover-riddled affair was a second consecutive victory in which dominant defensive play was somehow able to bail out Dallas’ extremely alarming offensive struggles of late.
This is the NFL, however, and you never apologize for a win, no matter how unconvincing it may be. Sure, by streaking out to a 24-nothing lead in the first half only to let your opponent pull within one score in the last five minutes is deflating, but the only thing that matters is who gets to add a 1 to the win column when time runs out.
An over-quoted, yet no-less salient, Bill Parcells-ism is, “You are what your record says you are.” At 9-4, the Cowboys’ record says they’re a pretty damn good football team. Despite recent hiccups, the maxim holds just as true now as it did earlier in the year when many perhaps overzealous fans, hopped-up on a 6-1 record and prodded by plenty of bias-confirming football media, had Jerry Jones’ team making its first trip to the Super Bowl in 25 years, though the context of the statement is undeniably different. The league-best offense that QB Dak Prescott helmed over the first seven weeks has gone uncomfortably quiet, and a new hero has picked up the slack: the continuously surprising defense.
The mantra of the Cowboys’ preseason, parroted near unanimously among blowhard football media types both locally and nationally (this intrepid reporter included), was some basic iteration of “With the offensive juggernaut Dallas has, if they can manage an even middle-of-the-pack defense, it should be enough to make them a legitimate contender,” and through the first six games of the season, this analysis seemed to be playing out just as predicted. Dallas’ 34 points per game on offense was second only to Buffalo, and the 22 points per game allowed on defense had them tied for 14th (in other words, right smack in the middle). Through these stats, the Cowboys amassed a 5-1 record (and, could be argued, a missed field goal shy of 6-0) and were rubbing elbows with the Bucs, Cardinals, and Packers atop the NFC.
Then something happened, something I don’t think we fully appreciated the significance of at the time. As he threw the game-winning overtime touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb in Week 6 against the Patriots, Dak came down awkwardly and strained his right calf muscle. Due to his lights-out play up to and including that clutch TD toss, Prescott was rightly square in the middle of the MVP conversation. Through those first six games, No. 4 carried a completion percentage of 73.5, had 16 passing touchdowns to just four interceptions, and boasted a very respectable 114.7 passer rating. In his six games since the injury, his completion percentage has dropped a full 10 points to 63.4, his TD passes have been cut in half to eight, and he’s suffered an uptick in picks with six. His passer rating plunged to a very Brian Hoyer-esque 83.9. Something is obviously wrong with Dak.
Thanks to the defense, led by a rookie (!) who weekly seems to be adding another letter of his name to the Defensive Player of the Year trophy in the completely unblockable Micah Parsons, and a suddenly fully healthy defensive line, backed by a secondary that features the likely Defensive Player of the Year runner-up in cornerback Travon Diggs, Dak’s recent struggles don’t really matter.
Don’t get me wrong. They’re concerning, but the playoffs are still a month away. There’s plenty of time for Prescott to right the ship.
Re-finding the running game that helped create an unstoppable, pick-your-poison, balanced offensive attack over the first chunk of the season would likely help immensely, though the solution to this confounding equation looks to be very elusive. Zeke is hobbled with a knee injury that’s plagued him for several weeks. “Backup” RB Tony Pollard is battling a torn plantar fascia that kept him out of the tilt against Washington altogether, and the offensive line seems to be square-dancing with the amount of in-and-out and do-si-doing they’re doing because of their own injury troubles. With the division crown all but wrapped up, it might not be a bad idea to sit some guys that would otherwise play through their bang-ups and give them a chance to fully heal.
I refuse to join the knee-jerkers who focus on the details of these recent games rather than their outcomes. Wins are freaking wins, and Dallas currently has three more than the next team down in Football Team® and another chance at a head-to-head with the same. So quit your crying. The Dak of the last six weeks is still the same person as the Dak of the first six. He’s got plenty of time to regain that level of performance, and this insane turnover/sack-machine defense is proving they can hold the line until he does.