From the beginning, this felt like it would be a frustrating game to evaluate, and the Cowboys were all too happy to make that thought a reality.
It was a weird place to be — on the road, in the rain against a team that (shockingly) had even less to play for than they did. Despite the Tennessee Titans‘ lesser record, the do-or-die nature of their Week 18 game in Jacksonville led them to sit several of their starters. As a result, a 27-13 win wound up feeling a lot more perplexing than they’d prefer — not that they’re giving it back. “A win’s a win, any day of the week,” said Dak Prescott.
The reasoning should be obvious, because it’s become a familiar refrain. For starters, they continue to struggle with turnovers, an issue that is becoming harder to explain — and apparently even harder to stop.
It looked exactly like you’d expect from watching most other Cowboy games. A perfect Dak Prescott pass was juggled and popped up to the opposing defense for an interception. Moments later, a questionable Dak Prescott decision was picked off by All-Pro safety Kevin Byard. “One was a drop, one was a minus decision,” echoed. Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy.
Throw in a botched snap, and the Cowboys managed three turnovers in one quarter of football.
“I don’t like them,” McCarthy said. “Unfortunately, you go through ups and downs in this league. Whether we don’t get any style points, that’s OK. We’re still at 12 wins.”
You can’t argue with the result, even if the miscues provide pause. For those keeping score at home, Dallas has committed 12 turnovers in the last six games. They’ve turned the ball over multiple times in three of their last four games. It’s ironic to note that their cleanest game in that regard, last week’s 40-34 win against Philadelphia, saw Prescott throw a pick-six that put them into an early 10-0 hole.
Remarkably, the issue still hasn’t hurt them as much as you might expect. True, turnovers played a big role in road losses to Green Bay and Jacksonville. And yet, the Cowboys have only been held below 27 points once since Prescott’s return. They’re averaging 35 points per game over the course of the last 10, and they’re 8-2 over that same stretch.
It bore out again on Thursday night, as they rebounded from that sloppy second quarter to outscore the Titans 17-7 down the stretch.
“This is a resilient team,” Prescott said. “Coach McCarthy made that our mantra at the beginning of the year. Honestly, just taking on pain we had from last year and using that to move forward this year.”
Does any of that make you, the discerning fan, feel better? Likely not. Those sorts of miscues are often magnified in the postseason, and it’s hard to imagine them beating an NFC contender with that style of play.
Then, there’s the injury factor. The Cowboys seemed to escape this evening with little in the way of true problems, but the most notable loss of the night could have serious ramifications. Tyler Biadasz left the game late in the third quarter with an apparent ankle injury. The issue forced some serious line shuffling, as Connor McGovern moved from left guard to center, with Jason Peters entering the game at left tackle and Tyler Smith shifting to left guard.
Fortunately, the Cowboys find themselves in an advantageous situation. While there is still slim hope of stealing the division title from Philadelphia, the Cowboys’ Week 18 game in Washington is hardly a do-or-die scenario, given that their playoff spot is secure. Still, with this group’s defensive losses showing themselves on a weekly basis, it’s disconcerting to imagine going up against a playoff pass rush with an offensive line that’s not as healthy as possible. At this point, it’s worth remembering that the Cowboys put up 361 yards, 27 points and converted 62% of their third downs against a team that just might win the AFC South next weekend.
This is the bemusing conundrum the Cowboys find themselves in. Thursday night’s road win boosted their record to 12-4. They have now achieved consecutive 12-win seasons for the first time since 1994-95, when they were the unquestioned lords of the sport.
At the same time, last year’s 12-win season evaporated into thin air in the first round of the playoffs. As a franchise, they have not strung together a true playoff run since that 1995 season — a fact that gnaws away at the mind after any intercepted throw or twisted ankle. Is it fair? Probably not. That doesn’t make it any less true, and that doesn’t mean it will change until the Cowboys make it happen. It’s just another part of the charm of playing for America’s Team — a challenge Prescott and his teammates know all too well and might as well embrace.
“When you play for this organization, there’s a lot of noise and a lot of things around that really don’t matter when it comes to winning football games,” Prescott said. “So the brotherhood and the culture that we’ve built is something we have to lean on, something we have to dial into and double down. I think that’s what’s going to allow us to make this run.”
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David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter @davidhelman_.
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