Monday, January 05, 2015

The Morning After: Cowboys 24, Lions 20 (Wildcard Round)

That is a win to remember.
In beating the Lions in front of the playoff world, the Dallas Cowboys win for the 13th time in their unlikely 2014 season and now press to within 2 wins of returning to the Super Bowl. It was the furthest thing from easy, but the win demonstrated again a few things about this version of your Cowboys:
1) - This team possesses a mental resolve and an intestinal fortitude that has seemed to be non-existent for many years by too many rosters in Dallas.  When this group of guys are asked to dig a little deeper and fight a little harder, it often seems they are quite capable of doing just that.
2) - This is a team.  There are some pieces that are more value-weighted than others, but as a whole, we saw yesterday in Arlington that it takes a roster of players each doing their jobs at very high levels to survive the meat-grinder of the NFL Playoffs.  Either a lot of players bring top performances to the stadium on Sunday or an entire roster goes home with regrets and hopes for next year.  The Cowboys are advancing and it needed every yard and every point to do so.  The Lions are discussing ifs and buts and off-season planning has begun.
Let's start with the most amazing story of them all, DeMarcus Lawrence.  Until Sunday, he had been one of the young prospects on this roster that the team heavily invested in, yet the payoffs and promises that he will be worth it appeared to be completely postdated for 2015 and beyond.
Lawrence hurt himself to start training camp, did not appear in a game until Week 9 versus Arizona, and did not make a memorable play in the entire regular season.  But, on Sunday, he had two moments in the final minutes of the game that will be remembered in Cowboys lore for a long time to come.
First, with 2:05 to go in the game and the Cowboys guarding a 24-20 lead, Matthew Stafford is smashed by Anthony Spencer as he is trying to wait for a receiver to get open and the ball bounces free right to the feet of Lawrence who was a rather innocent bystander.  Lawrence couldn't believe his good fortune and as opposed to just falling on it to secure the game (at the Lions 23 yard line), he decides to scoop and attempt to score.  But as so many linemen have learned over the years, protecting the ball is not as easy as it looks and Garrett Reynolds was able to knock the ball free from Lawrence and back into Detroit's possession.
In a moment of instantaneous and instinctual bad judgement, Lawrence had a chance to be the hero and it quickly diminished into a real chance to be the goat.  Fox hurried to find Leon Lett on the sideline to hammer home the point and the irony of a position coach who is remembered for a similar moment or two was too much to pass up.  You couldn't help but fear the final 2 minutes just because this poor rookie was going to be held responsible for years if the defense could not dig in and stop Stafford and Megatron one more time.
And that is where the story turned around for the young Boise State pass rusher.  If he was saving his best down of his rookie year for when he and the Cowboys needed it most,  then we must credit him for an amazing flair for the dramatic.  On 4th and 3, with only a minute left and the Lions in Cowboys territory - and only 1 minute since his momentary lapse of reason, he burst by Lions' 1st round left tackle Riley Reiff with an explosive burst and performed the sack/strip/recovery triple play to secure the ball and end the game all in one move.  DeMarcus Lawrence saved the day in a way that a certain other pass rusher named DeMarcus had done before.  What a glorious moment of instant redemption for the talented young defender.
But, the day included many other notable moments to remember as well.  For me, knowing what I know about Jason Garrett, the one that sticks with me is the 4th and 6 decision from the head coach. There is 6 minutes to go in the game and the Cowboys are down by just a field goal.  They face a 4th and 6 from the Detroit 42 and still owned all of their timeouts.  They also just witnessed a spot where Jim Caldwell, almost in the same spot on the field, decided to punt on a 4th and 1.  All of Garrett's tendencies from his 72 games as Cowboys coach said he was never going for it in that situation.  Statistics show that there is no head coach in the sport who enjoys risks of this magnitude less than Garrett.  He almost never decides to "go for it" in situations like this. Yet, he seemed to understand the rarity of the opportunity and said after the game,  "What kept going through my mind was if you get a chance to go play at the Masters, you don't lay up.  You go after it a little bit.  (I have) a lot of confidence in the guys to execute it.  They play football better than I swing a golf club."
The Cowboys called a timeout and discussed their options and decided to push their chips in on one play.  The Lions were in 2-deep, man under and the Cowboys had 3 receivers to the right (Williams wide, Beasley middle, and Witten in tight) and Dez Bryant on his own to the left.  At the snap, Williams and Beasley both ran deeper routes, leaving Witten in a 1-on-1 coverage situation underneath with Lions' veteran safety, James Ihedigbo.  Witten, at the top of his stem faked the outside route with perfection and Ihedigbo bought it, leaving #9 and #82 with a throw and catch that looked easy as can be. The 21-yard gain saved the day for the Cowboys with the two veterans who are trying to grab this unpredicted opportunity at post-season glory with both hands.
Forgive me, but Jason Garrett has come a long way as head coach for him to believe in his guys in that situation, and then for them to deliver on that particular play was just perfect.
Six plays later, Romo stayed alive for 5.1 seconds in the pocket waiting for something to open up before he fired his hardest dart of the season into a small window to Terrance Williams for the touchdown that ended up giving the Cowboys the lead they would need to advance to next week.  The play had broken down to a point of "just get open" and therefore replays seem to show that the pass may have actually been intended for Bryant on the back level of the end zone, but Williams secured the ball and the victory (once Lawrence did his part a few moments later).
They needed that throw or they are kicking a field goal to send it into over-time.  There was nothing easy about this victory.  Nothing at all.
The Lions game plan against the Cowboys offense was actually quite perfect.  They were going to make the Cowboys do something different.  They were going to blow up first down run plays to the point where the Cowboys did not want to run on 2nd down.  Of course, it is one thing to say that, but something totally different to actually do it.  Detroit enjoyed the prospect of power vs power, and seemed more ready for the battle than the Cowboys, since Dallas tried to pass on all 8 2nd downs in the 1st half.  That is way out of character, and the Lions then sent pressure on those 2nd down passes as if they were sitting on the Cowboys game-plan.  Dallas walked right into Detroit traps and the longer it went, the less energy was left in the stadium and the more it looked like the Lions were following the recipe of Washington back in October to bring the Cowboys offense to its knees.
The difference, however, is Romo kept getting back up in this game and the adjustments the Cowboys made were just what was needed.
We will never know what would have happened in the game if Romo doesn't stand tall against a blitz and throw a strike to Williams on 3rd and 12 back in the 2nd Quarter with 1:45 to play.  The score was 14-0 and the opportunity was quickly getting away from the team.  The blitz was ruining everything and if they have to punt at 14-0, the Lions could score before halftime and then will receive the ball to start the 2nd half and the game might be over.
Instead, the Lions send 5 again (as their blitz rate at the time was near a stunning 40%), and fits the ball right on the money to Williams who beats Cassius Vaughn on a dig route and then the safety Ihedigbo on a bad angle and runs 76 yards for the touchdown.  They absolutely had to burn the blitz to slow it down and on a 3rd and 12, the degree of difficulty was quite high.  But, once the burn marks were on the Lions defense, they went from blitzing continuously in the 1st half to rarely in the 2nd half.  It was just what had to happen for the Cowboys to get their traction in the game.
From there, Scott Linehan opted out of the Cowboys usual "12" personnel looks with multiple tight ends and the usual balance, to go for a more finesse "11" personnel that would force the Lions to spread out defensively and into more nickel.  This adjustment was pretty clear as the Cowboys used "12" 8 times in the first 4 drives (which the Lions blitzed continuously) and then just twice the rest of the day - both on the final drive in the 4th Quarter and both out of shotgun.
It takes that effort, though, this time of year.  Coaches on their games, players stepping up at the most important moments, and the good fortune of a couple bounces of the ball and a call that goes in just the right direction.
And yes, about that suspicious call on 3rd and 1 with 8:18 to play where Anthony Hitchens seems to be clearly making contact with Brandon Pettigrew which drew a flag that was later picked up; that was handled very poorly by the officiating crew and people in Detroit and across the league sympathize with the Lions for that butchered scenario.  The play is awfully complex and Pettigrew is caught on video pulling Hitchens into him by the facemask (thus causing most of the contact), but it absolutely appears the Cowboys were on the right side of a very odd and fortuitous decision.  It might help if the officials were clear on the scene because their post-game statements only served to confuse.
Bullet dodged, to say the least.  One would have to guess if that play happens in Detroit, the Lions surely get a fresh set of downs and their win probability increases substantially.
That said, why Jim Caldwell doesn't consider 4th and 1 to extend the drive and instead punts from Dallas territory in that situation is beyond befuddling to me.  If fortune favors the bold, then Garrett won over Caldwell there as well.
It did not look very promising as Golden Tate is streaking home or as broken tackles were stacking up even though the Lions were without key offensive linemen, but to the credit of this team, the Cowboys seemed like a team that is familiar with playoff football and the idea that a game is a long afternoon where you don't have to panic down 13 in the 3rd Quarter (although you would prefer to avoid it next time).
The good news for this team is that there will be a next time.  They now take that experience and those bruises to yet another huge game on a bigger stage.  They take their undefeated road record to a Green Bay, where they boast an undefeated home record.
Something absolutely, positively has to give.
But, for now, enjoy the very impressive victory that showed the character, resolve, and ability of the NFC East Division Champions who will not go "one and done".

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