It is difficult to articulate how far the reality of the 2016 season has strayed from the projections of the summer -- especially once the veteran quarterback was injured in Seattle (which was after the veteran backup was injured in Oxnard). But, know this: the premise of owning one defeat as the calendar turns to December seemed about as far-fetched as it gets.
And yet, here we are.
The Cowboys no longer are a surprise this season. They now are squarely on the radar of teams that could play in Houston on February 5. As insane as that idea seemed four months ago, we may as well admit the reality. The Cowboys are one of the very rare teams in the league right now that look like they may be very difficult to take down.
It once again played out before our eyes on Thanksgiving Day, when the Washington Redskins had to feel pretty good about the effort they were able to produce, yet always looked like the second-best team on the field. In losing 31-26, the Redskins can take solace in the fact that they traded body blows with Dallas for much of the afternoon, but most every close viewer of the proceedings would leave with the same conclusion: Dallas was always going to leave with the "W."
They are simply that good.
Not on defense, mind you. For the third straight week, the Cowboys' defense looked like a side running out of steam. They are starting to suffer from more focused attacks on portions of their defense that look vulnerable and, frankly, are proving to be just that. This time, it was Kirk Cousins continuing his fantastic statistical season with another gem, 449 yards through the air and three touchdowns. That was the most yards allowed since Matthew Stafford lit up the Cowboys' secondary for 488 in that forgettable Monte Kiffin season of 2013. That day, Megatron had 300 yards receiving himself. But, on this afternoon, it was a rotation of several different Redskins targets who found space -- even against eight defenders in the secondary (thanks to another three-man rush) -- with four different receivers logging at least 68 yards.
Surely there will come a point when the offense cannot save the bacon of a defense that has now gone a full month without a takeaway. On Thursday, they did something truly rare and historic:
The Redskins lost this game in which they had over 500 yards and no turnovers. According to our friends at ProFootballReference.com, the all-time record for teams to pull off the double of 500 and no turnovers is 89-5. The somewhat ironic add-on to the fact that they are only the fifth team to do it would be that another one of those losses also happened on a Thanksgiving Day in Dallas. It was 1998, when the Cowboys had 500 yards (mostly from Troy Aikman slinging the ball around the field for a record day) and still lost by 10 points to the Minnesota Vikings' aerial attack that was unstoppable.
Added: The above stat sorted another way: 500 yards, zero turnovers and zero sacks mean the all-time record is 32-2. The only two times an offense hit all three of those markers and lost were Thanksgiving 1998 and Thanksgiving 2016, both in Dallas. In NFL history. And both winners, the 1998 Vikings and the 2016 Cowboys, were then 11-1 and 10-1, respectively.
This game had a similar feel to that one.
When neither defense looks particularly powerful, sometimes a great offensive day isn't enough to be victorious. Ask Washington this morning.
The 1998 Vikings did eventually stall out. They were a 15-1 team that fell short of the Lombardi Trophy by losing in the NFC Championship Game on a missed kick. The 2007 New England Patriots and 2013 Denver Broncos both lost in the Super Bowl after seasons when their offenses appeared to have no equals.
The fact that this sport decides its outcomes on a series of one-game showdowns demonstrates that there is no room for errors when the stakes are raised. But, to be mentioned in that group requires an offense that will be remembered and can make its rivals beg for mercy by the end of a day. The 2016 Dallas Cowboys offense seems to have similarities. For when they get the ball, it seems like they are always going to get points soon thereafter.
Yesterday, there were no overly gaudy statistics. In fact, they fell short of 400 yards of total offense for the first time since the week after they were last defeated (Sept. 18). Washington did a nice job of attempting to keep the Dallas offense off the field as much as possible. For instance, the Cowboys only had about 13 minutes of possession in each half. There were but seven Dallas snaps in the third quarter.
But, throughout the day, it was another dominant and efficient offensive performance. The Cowboys balanced their offense with 5.4 yards per run and 7.6 yards per pass. They converted third downs at 50 percent but also played well enough that they hardly ever encountered third downs. On their first three touchdown drives, they never had a single third-down situation. Not one!
The line protected their quarterback and Dak Prescott continued to do what he does best -- move the offense up and down the field and keep the ball out of danger. Does he miss a few opportunities in doing so? Yes. He missed Dez Bryant streaking down the field for a touchdown and he missed Brice Butler in the end zone. He doesn't throw perfect games.
But what he does do with great routine is extend plays, which then extend drives. He moves the chains and takes the team down the field. He seldom misses throws when he must have them. And most importantly, the ball is almost never risked. There are many quarterbacks -- including those we have enjoyed in Dallas -- who are great at what they do but risk giving the opposition a chance to take the ball away. This quarterback has now thrown 340 passes in his 11 professional starts and has had two intercepted.
The number of throws that have been close to becoming interceptions also has been near zero. There was one yesterday that had a chance to get picked off, but even that one first bounced off Bryant's hands. In other words, Prescott did his job. Either he hits his target or he misses safely. And that means, over the course of time, he can win games for you without offering the equal opportunity of losing games for you.
And that leads to a frustrated defense. They already know there is very little to be done against the Cowboys' running game as Ezekiel Elliott, behind this offensive line, is going to be a load to defend in any situation. But now you have a perfect complement at quarterback, in that he can beat you with throws or his feet. Add to that this Aikman-like ability to never flirt with an interception, it seems, and you come up with the recipe that had Washington rolling the dice.
They try a field goal from deep because they feel they must. Once it missed, the Cowboys get a short field.
They try an onside kick because they feel they must. They don't get it, and the Cowboys get another short field.
They feel compelled to do these things because they know they are behind and find it difficult to imagine getting a stop. This is the same reason opponents quickly abandon a running game.
The noose keeps tightening. Prescott and Elliott show no mercy. Bryant, Jason Witten, Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams take turns moving the chains. The scoreboard keeps going up and the clock keeps running out.
I don't know how many more ways to describe these games, because at times, it is exactly what we have been calling it in this space for weeks.
"Repeatable and sustainable."
There is nothing fluky about this offensive power. There is something familiar about it, though. It has opponents looking as flustered as they used to appear against the old "Triplets" 25 years back.
They have a long ways to go to get into that conversation, but they definitely seem to be standing on the gas and going as fast as they can to get there.