Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Morning After - Cowboys 42, Lions 21 (13-2)


Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) celebrates with wide receiver Terrance Williams (83) and quarterback Dak Prescott (4) after throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions at AT&T Stadium on Monday, Dec. 26, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)
Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) celebrates with wide receiver Terrance Williams (83) and quarterback Dak Prescott (4) after throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions at AT&T Stadium on Monday, Dec. 26, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)

The Morning After

There is no reasonable way to know where this journey will take the Dallas Cowboys. Too many variables -- many of which the team has no control of -- are going to randomize in ways that will create smiles and frowns. In the end, the Cowboys will attempt to control what they can control and hope that is good enough.

That is the reality where right now, there is a sense of real accomplishment with the 12 "soon-to-be" playoff teams that are going to participate in the postseason, the goal of every team that tapes ankles in July. Everyone just wants to get into the playoffs and then receive a smile or two from Lady Luck. But the reality remains that of the 12 to earn postseason berths, 11 (or 91.6 percent) of them will have their seasons end in pain and agony.
The 2016 Dallas Cowboys may be one of those teams. There is no escaping this.
But when it comes to checking all of the boxes and answering all of the questions on their way to this unpredictable January, this team has passed those tests with flying colors.
Last night, against a Detroit team that was awfully incentivized to play some inspired football and came out with its guns blazing, the Cowboys took some real punches early before stepping on the gas, and then their opponent, with ease on their way to their 13th victory of the year. It was a win that included all of the normal trimmings of Cowboys victory. It starts with an offense that seems to be able to score every time it touches the ball and fret more about who gets to score each time, rather than whether they actually can punch the ball in.
From there, it takes us to a defense that is able to build energy as the game goes on, along with pieces that are far from household names. But in a way that reminds us of the Giants teams of a decade ago, the high-energy players up front seem to get fresher as the game goes along. Most weeks we assume that is a deep rotation, but on this occasion, the Cowboys only had five defensive linemen available for much of the evening. This put some of those players -- including the incredible David Irving -- at 67 snaps. This type of work slows most explosive line players to a crawl, but his energy level (as well as those of his mates) continues to impress late in games, when they may pin their ears back and go get the quarterback again.
And, lest we forget when they do something positive, let's mention this coaching staff -- one that has hit the right notes on many occasions this year. About 13 days ago, in this space, I mentioned we were going to learn plenty about what they (and the front office) are all about when it comes to a steady hand on the helm of a very promising season. Would they panic under the duress of the Vikings-Giants road trip and overreact with nonsensical decision-making, or retreat to a position of risk aversion?
They would not, it turns out. They would not settle for field goals when touchdowns were waiting for them if they were willing to roll the dice on third-and-14. They would not start playing into tendencies and allowing defenses to key against them. They would not dumb down the offense for a rookie quarterback who might have been hitting a wall or, at least, showing the effects of being questioned publicly by his own boss.
Instead, Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan asked Dak Prescott to step up and play his best football during this mini-homestand against two teams that would likely be in the playoffs if they could beat the Cowboys in AT&T Stadium. The results are pretty clear. Now, because the Cowboys' offensive machine handled them both, neither may play past next week.
Prescott has put up some of his best numbers in the past two weeks, including hitting on 47 of the 56 pass attempts that left his hands. His credentials have been questioned by countless voices for a myriad of reasons, and all he has done is play his best football when the noise got the loudest. Allow me again to do something I have done time after time this season, and ask who this guy is, and how did this all happen? His story was already crazy back in September. To not collapse under the noise in the past 14 days was something. But to seem him put his best football out there, where he seems to be seeing blitzes and understanding the best audibles to punish opponents without mercy, is just mind-boggling.
Whether people see it or not, the verdict is in. This kid is the real deal. And while he may not be holding a huge trophy in a month, he appears to give this franchise the hope that they have found a diamond at the most important position to lead their team for years to come.
But that is just the thing: he may be holding a trophy in the next month. It has taken him just one season to help (considerably) put this franchise in a spot where it hasn't been since 2007. And if they can pull off a win in three weekends -- just one, in which they will likely be a heavy favorite -- Prescott can raise Dallas to the heights of an NFC Championship Game. This is a place the Cowboys have avoided since 1995, and because of the results from September through December, they now are just able to rest and recuperate, and wait to see which lowest surviving seed is charged with coming to North Texas to tangle with this machine in its own building.
His play is enough to make us think this is the story of a rookie quarterback, but in reality, it is the story of a roster that has been built from within -- at last check, of all of the NFC teams, only Green Bay has more "homegrown" players on its roster. This means the Cowboys have turned their back on the "get rich quick" schemes of free agency and vagabonds from elsewhere. They have developed their own talent from within and built a wealth of talent that has only ever called Dallas home and grown into a group with resolve and unified agendas.
The offensive line is the calling card of this operation, and when one looks around the league, it is easy to see that Prescott has a massive advantage over the countless teams that have assembled skill-position talent but forgot how to protect it. Dallas has no such problem, so the quarterback can stand back there and feel comfortable that he will seldom get blindsided into a fumble. Heck, when bored, they can even allow the franchise wide receiver to throw for a touchdown.
Now, maybe the biggest surprise is the oncoming defense. For reasons that remain somewhat unclear, the athletic monsters on the defensive front are all being unleashed simultaneously in December. Irving showed signs earlier in the season but now appears to be a week-to-week force.  Benson Mayowa was signed in March but took the scenic route through the doghouse before becoming a guy who now creates havoc each weekend. And, lo and behold, they are joined by yet another physical marvel in the Cowboys' second-round pick in 2015 who was all but gone, as Randy Gregory looks shot out of a cannon and is making a difference.
Everything isn't all about smiles. Left tackle Tyron Smith looks like he may have a knee situation that won't help his dominance, which, admittedly, has not quite been as dominant as it has been in previous seasons. And the road to Houston may include some very daunting opponents, depending on how things shake out this upcoming weekend.
But regardless, that can wait a day or week. This team has earned the right to insult the Philadelphia game with a list of healthy scratches that includes any and all Pro Bowlers. They have literally done everything they can to stack the odds in their favor for January.
It has been a tremendous year and now, the second season awaits. This is a test that only requires two wins at home to end up in the Super Bowl, but that is a much larger task than it sounds this morning.
The job they did last night just continues to serve as an example of what this team is all about. Take care of business and move on to the next one. The Lions came out breathing fire. The Cowboys felt the challenge, stomped on it, and then enjoyed another casual fourth quarter.
This is some team.

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