Friday, December 05, 2014

The Morning After: Cowboys 41, Bears 28 (9-4)

The Cowboys went north in the final month of the NFL season and delivered a performance of rather dominating proportions on Thursday, with a 41-28 stomping of the hapless Chicago Bears.
The final score may not properly encapsulate the contrast of the two teams on display, but the game was being decided at the end of three quarters. Anyone who witnessed this demolition saw the Cowboys administer a pounding that went from competitive to academic quickly after halftime.
At that point, the field was badly slanted, and the same Bears offense that humiliated the Cowboys at this very location 12 months ago could not accomplish a thing. he Bears crossed midfield just once in their first seven drives -- a far cry from their effort in 2013, when they scored on a cold, defenseless Cowboys team on every drive except the last, when they took a knee to end the slaughter.
Through three quarters, the Bears had seven points, were down four touchdowns and had gained a measly 118 yards as the game transitioned into garbage time.  From there, the fantasy owners racked up some empty numbers, but the damage had been completed.
And that damage was administered by the Cowboys offense in dynamic and impressive fashion.
It wasn't simple at first. The first two Cowboys drives did not result in points, but they moved the chains with first downs. It was rather clear early on that Dallas was going to shake off the disappointments of Thanksgiving and go back to what this team has built its entire identity on -- physical domination.
The Cowboys elected to offer a steady diet of power runs -- Romo under center, multiple tight ends, and zone blocking -- on just about every occasion, mixed in with play-action passes to make sure that every drive was physically taxing and productive. Many may not recall that this was actually much of what Dallas was able to do in the last meeting 12 months ago in Chicago, but the game situation was compromised because the defense was leaking like a sieve. But early last year and throughout this contest, the Bears defense had no success slowing down the powerful Dallas front -- nor have they stopped much of anything in the post-Lovie Smith era.
The damage, of course, was the production -- again and again -- from DeMarco Murray.  Murray's career year might be considered the very top reason why this year appears to be unlike any season the Cowboys have played in this current generation.
Murray's previous high for carries in a season was 217. With 3 games remaining (at least), he sits already at 320. His previous high for catches in a season was 53, and he caught his 53rd pass last night. His previous high for yardage on the ground in a season was 1,121 yards, which he passed back in Week 9, against Arizona on Nov. 2. Now he sits at 1,606 yards and has at least an outside chance at the elusive 2,000-yard mark. There are many surprises packed into the Cowboys 2014 season, but having someone threaten 2,000 yards rushing might very well take the cake.
But because of that offensive line, which no doubt spent the last seven days annoyed at its performance against the Eagles, the Cowboys were determined to attack the Bears right smack in their faces. If the Bears wanted to rumble in the trenches and fight for every inch, the game would be a battle. But if the Bears were going through the motions, as teams who are not in the race often do this time of year, the Cowboys would grind them down into a fine powder.
It didn't take too long to see that happening, especially by that third possession, a 12-play drive where the Cowboys fed Murray on 10 occasions as they marched down the field without Tony Romo ever throwing the ball more than a few yards.
We likely will never know the extent of Romo's physical state this season. This type of information generally is never completely uncovered in the media, and it often becomes the subject of speculative discussions conducted in uncertain terms.  But again last night, it appeared that Romo was trying to usher this season further down the line in less-than-ideal physical shape.
He told the NFL Network after the game that he had elected to forgo the usual pain-killing injection against the Eagles and had realized that was a very poor decision. He also seemed to indicate that he was pretty beat up and also dealing with broken ribs. There is some dispute about whether he was referencing injuries suffered in previous years or revealing another level of pain that he is dealing with this year. Either way, it wouldn't be too surprising if Bobby Wagner's hit in Seattle or the knee to the back against Washington broke some ribs.
But again yesterday, while appearing to not have his best fastball, he effectively used his off-speed arsenal and feel for timing and trajectory to fit some beautiful throws into tight spaces, complementing the ground game with a very efficient night through the air.
Maybe the best in the first half was a vital third-and-15 conversion, where he tried to muscle a throw down the middle to Witten against the Bears' Cover 2 for 19 yards. That was the play that we can look back at as a key turning point. If they don't move the chains there, the Cowboys likely punt it back to Chicago in a 7-7 tie with a minute to go in the half. But move the chains they did, and a few plays later, Cole Beasley was able to out-wrestle safety Chris Conte to put the Cowboys in the end zone with 8 seconds on the clock.
That was a beautiful half of road football. You enter a game like that feeling nervous about what could go wrong, then see the Cowboys methodically exchange blows with Chicago, starting to physically take over the game without Romo ever demonstrating that he could consistently beat them with his arm.
Meanwhile, the defense was mixing in enough blitzes and competitive coverage to help the Bears' offensive woes continue. Chicago just cannot get out of its own way when it has the ball, despite a lineup that turns heads and was actually quite devastating (with or without Jay Cutler) in 2013.  But this year, they look poorly coordinated and unable to consistently march the ball as one would expect. Honestly, any hope they would have before garbage time evaporated quickly once Brandon Marshall's night ended with an inadvertent knee to the back from Barry Church.
Surely at halftime, the message to the Cowboys was to take that 14-7 lead and begin to open up a margin while taking the air out of the stadium.  A good team would not let the Bears back into this game in the second half. A good team would show no mercy and crush any hopes as quickly as possible.
That's where the defense got the first of its two takeaways, when Anthony Spencer stripped Matt Forte. Going in, it was clear that someone up front for the Cowboys was going to have to start making plays to turn games, and the veteran Spencer did what he has done so many times in years gone by. Getting the ball back for the offense on a play where Forte already had the first down near midfield was a gigantic swing, and a few plays later, Romo pulled off his signature play of the game.
On third-and-3, and the Cowboys come out in shotgun with an empty backfield that surely caused many observers to yell at their televisions. The Bears see that the Cowboys have nobody next to Romo to pick up pressure. They send a 5-on-5 rush to try to get a free man, and defensive end Willie Young is indeed unaccounted for as Doug Free has to take the inside threat, Sam Linebacker Christian Jones.
Young -- who already has a sack in the game and leads the Bears in that category -- has a free run at Romo, who we know is not at his best at eluding pressure these days. But he's able to quickly outmaneuver Young and roll to his right while directing Beasley to redirect his route toward the end zone as he is matched up again with the safety Conte (who might as well wear a bull's eye on his chest).  Romo again throws a wobbly but perfectly placed pass, which Beasley catches before twisting and reaching just inside the pylon for the touchdown that opened up some breathing room. Again, Romo was not at peak form last night. But he made some very important third-down throws that were right on the money.
The Beasley TD capped the third of five consecutive drives in the second and third quarters that looked like this on the drive sheet: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. The final two drives of that sequence were almost exclusively of the ground-and-pound variety, with the interior of the offensive line (LG Ron Leary, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin) looking like the dominating trio they have generally been all season.
They work so well together at the snap with combo blocks, where one assists the other with leverage before leaving to smash a linebacker who wants to fill a gap. It's a small detail that can deliver massive results, and the Cowboys continued to demonstrate the kind of performance that has unexpectedly put them at or near the top of every rushing category this season.
From there, the Cowboys let off the gas at 35-7 and started gearing up for the challenges in front of them. Chicago saw the change in the Dallas offensive posture and attempted to save some self-respect with a bushel of garbage-time stats to make things look more respectable.
The Cowboys defense flipped into a more accommodating and preventive mode, and as the Bears racked up 258 fourth-quarter yards,  it became clear that this Dallas team desperately needs some pass rushers as soon as they can be acquired. It was another night with zero sacks as Jay Cutler attempted 46 passes virtually unmolested. That's certainly a potential achilles heel that the team is just going to have to scheme around because there don't seem to be any solutions on the current roster. Only four teams have fewer sacks than the Cowboys' 19. The league average is 27.5. Only three teams have a worse sack percentage than the Cowboys, who have recorded sacks on 4.1 percent of opponents' passing plays. The league average is 6.1 percent.
But despite the anxiety triggered in the fans back home, the Cowboys were never in real danger and left a depressed Soldier Field with a rather easy 13-point win when Murray ripped off a few more big runs to elevate his yards from scrimmage total to 228 for the night. His 41 touches were the most in any NFL game by any player since 2004 (Nick Goings), and the second-highest total of any player in Cowboys' history (Emmitt Smith).
As someone who expected a win by a "skin of their teeth" margin last night, it must be said that this Dallas victory was most impressive.  It assured them of a winning record for the first time since 2009 and puts them back in a very good spot for their return battle with Philadelphia. The Eagles have Seattle on Sunday while the Cowboys rest ahead of their Dec. 14 rematch in Philadelphia, where the stakes could be massive.
But the larger point for now is that the Cowboys won another game on the road -- and a game in December -- to maybe convince you that 2014 should be judged on its own merits, not the ghosts of winters past. They are still squarely in the hunt with three games to play.
Style points count for nothing, and this one was a sound and thorough defeat of a team that is starting to pack up its locker room.  The Bears are going nowhere.
The Cowboys still have a chance.  And that is all you can ask for with three weeks to go.

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