On Sunday night, the Cowboys needed a performance that could quiet the fears of the masses who couldn't help but be rattled through the first two showings in December. Something more like the kind of performance that more closely resembled what this football team has been all about in 2016 was on order. And by the time the three-hour test was finished, the Cowboys had done just that.
They took a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that had owned the longest winning streak in the NFL at game-time and were able to follow the recipe that they have used all season to put their opponents in a football crock pot and slowly cook them until done. It is often not a show of shock and awe, but rather a long and slow process that uses 6-yard gains more than 60, but the results have been similar this season on their way to a league-best 12-2 record (tied with New England).
They returned to a ball-control offense that could beat you in a number of ways with a rookie quarterback who looked in control of his surroundings and a rookie running back who is relentless in his punishment. Not often has the NFL ever seen a combination like this, and it shows - given how quickly people are to think that their time as a dynamic duo has expired.
Apparently, based on their performances on Sunday, they disagree. Dak Prescott put out roughly 3 consecutive months of strong performances followed by a solitary night where he looked rattled, causing his own fanbase to get caught up in debates over who needs to be the QB of this team - the guy who put them in this spot this season or the established #1 who had been running this offense since 2006, but had not finished consecutive games in some 23 months. One week ago in this very spot, I suggested that this would tell us a lot about what Prescott is all about as a QB. To wonder about himself internally all week and begin to allow doubters - even his own boss - to zap his self-belief and chip away at performance would have been an authentic reaction to the noise around him. But, it also might reveal that he is not that man for this job, long-term. This job requires a steely self-belief that blocks out the noise and just goes about his business. And from this spot, while it might not have been a perfect performance, it was close.
The ball barely touched the ground all day. He completed nearly nine of every 10 passes that left his right hand, including some deeper, incisive passes that proved he was not reluctant to let the ball fly when necessary. But, for the most part, he was the Dak Prescott we have seen all year - mostly bleeding you to death with small cuts, rather than attempting to risk it all to go for it all. He is no gun-slinger, which is given as a compliment. This franchise doesn't need irrational throws into traffic that get you beat right now. They have assembled a high probability team of offensive bulldozers who should be allowed to street-fight for three hours and to ground their opponents into a fine powder, not have it all ripped away because QB1 had a sudden rush of blood to his head at the wrong time and cost everyone the game on a bad decision.
That doesn't mean Prescott is a bus-driver, either. For bus-drivers don't engineer nine 400-yard days in a season. In fact, no QB in Dallas Cowboys history has engineered nine different games of 400 yards -- until this one just did it last night.
Which brings us to the other rookie, who unlike his QB buddy who is exceeding all expectations by a thousand-fold, Elliott is actually just living up to his incredibly lofty expectations. Zeke runs the ball with authority and toughness that seems to buckle opponents on most nights with the pure ferocity of it all. But, he does it with that infectious grin and overall jovial attitude that when combined with game-breaking ability seems to indicate that he is the stuff that franchise building blocks are made of. After limiting his monster days since the Green Bay game over two months ago to probably just the big night in Pittsburgh, Elliott broke off a career-high of 159 yards on the ground and another 29 in the air to put him near a number of rookie records and accomplishments. And then he jumped in the Salvation Army pot after a touchdown and secured another week of dominating the internet with his enjoyable approach (occasionally testing the boundaries of the celebration rules) to NFL life.
But, lest we get caught up in merely adoring the stars of this thing, we would be wrong to overlook how the game was put on the defense. In fact, Tampa Bay looked dangerous all night long as a team that was a throw to Mike Evans from a "smash and grab" theft of the win. In fact, on 3rd and 18 with 2:24 to play, the only thing that was missing was a more accurate throw as Evans appeared to have a step on everyone to put Tampa Bay ahead late in the game. This proves to demonstrate that even when you are a good team, you need some luck along the way. The defense had played so well all night, but at the moment of truth when Tampa's intentions should have been plenty clear, the Cowboys deepest guy still allowed the opponent's most dangerous weapon to have nothing between him and the goal-line. But, a poor effort of a difficult throw let them off the hook.
This is why Jason Garrett's decision-making is under scrutiny again in this space today, despite a fine win. I found last night to be a return to the game-plan that the Cowboys have been successful with, but perhaps without as much cold and merciless ruling from the head coach. When you are in a spot to end a game in this league - as the Cowboys appeared to be moments before that miss to Evans as the Cowboys offense faced a 4th and 1 from the Buccaneers 20, you have to run a sword through their heart. Instead, the Cowboys decided to kick and make a three-point lead into a six-point lead that doesn't really do much in securing victory. When the franchise has built its identity on spending all assets on replicating the early 1990s Cowboys and their ability to get a yard when they want to get a yard, then I say you line up all of those first-round picks and you go get that 4th and 1. There, you end the game and end up taking knees moments later. Instead, the Bucs received two more possessions after that moment and the Cowboys put the game back into the middle of the table.
Thankfully, from there, David Irving decided to take over another game. It had been a few weeks for the young man who is one of the best stories on the roster. He had dominated the second half of the Green Bay game and had quite a impact on the Baltimore game, but he is one of a deep rotation of linemen who have their playing time rationed quite a bit based on the opinions of Rod Marinelli and his staff. It certainly seems that if everyone is healthy, Irving seldom gets to eat first. But, on this day, with DeMarcus Lawrence unavailable, Irving was given plenty of looks as the game went along, and just like Green Bay, Tampa Bay will not soon forget its dose of the kid from Iowa State who went completely undrafted in 2015.
His performance exposed the weak right flank of the Tampa offensive line by tossing around former first-round pick Gosder Cherilus on his way to Jameis Winston's lap again and again. He was credited with two sacks, five QB hits, and he batted down another pass, emerging as a guy who must not be on the sidelines when a team like this is looking to put its 4 best pass rushers on the field at the same time. Quite a tremendous effort from an emerging monster.
All in all, it wasn't easy and it wasn't comfortable, but the Cowboys earned their 12th win against a nice squad. They can now lock things up with another home performance the night after Christmas and receive the reward for their fine results, a top seed into the playoffs.
The Cowboys were challenged to put up a big night, and led by three guys who were in college the last time the Cowboys were playing meaningful games in January led by Tony Romo, they each answered the challenge emphatically.