Less than three weeks after falling to 3-5, the Dallas Cowboys have emerged as the front-runners and clear-cut best team in the NFC East.
On Thursday, the Cowboys turned away the Alex Smith-less Redskins with a comfortable 31-23 win, avoided both falling into a two-game hole in the division and surrendering the head-to-head tiebreaker to Washington, and pulled even with them atop the NFC East. In the process, their decision to give up a first-round pick for Amari Cooper at the trade deadline is starting to look like the catalyst of their surge. Coupled with Smith’s season-ending injury, the acquisition of Cooper might be what ends up deciding the fate of the division.
The Cowboys needed Cooper to win the biggest game of their season. Trailing 13-10 midway through the third quarter, Cooper powered the Cowboys to victory by scoring two long-range touchdowns on consecutive drives.
The first touchdown — a 40-yard catch and run — put the Cowboys ahead by four points. From there, the Cowboys cruised to a comfortable win in a game that started as a slog before morphing into a blowout that the Redskins adorned with a couple of late garbage-time scores.
The Cowboys began the game with a touchdown on their opening series, during which Cooper converted two key third downs with some slick routes, but points were hard to come by in the first half. At halftime, the Cowboys led 10-7. On the other side of the break, the Redskins took the lead via an unlikely source in Trey Quinn, who set up his team with excellent field position with a 30-yard punt return before he hauled in a touchdown three plays later. The Redskins led 13-10 after a missed extra point. Then it all unraveled. Cooper scored those two touchdowns. Colt McCoy promptly turned the ball over. And Dak Prescott made the blowout official with a five-yard touchdown run.
As a result, the Redskins and Cowboys are neck and neck atop the NFC East at 6-5. But the Cowboys are the only team equipped to pull away. The Redskins, after two straight losses and a devastating injury, are sinking like a stone in the sea. The Cowboys, after three straight wins and the addition of Cooper, are on the mend.
Make no mistake about it, the Cowboys are the new front-runners in the NFC East — in part because the division stinks, but also because they’re getting hot at the exact right moment. And the Cowboys are heating up partly because they finally have a WR1 on their offense.
It’s not just about his catches and touchdowns, though those have undoubtedly fueled the Cowboys. Cooper’s impact extends beyond that. His mere presence allows the Cowboys to spread out their offense, to modernize their personnel groupings, to create more space for Ezekiel Elliott, and to give Prescott an explosive downfield target.
That doesn’t mean the Cowboys won’t eventually come to regret the price they paid to acquire Cooper, but for now, they’re more than happy riding him to the promised land. As of now, Cooper appears to be the prince that was promised.
Zeke keeps on eating
Entering Thursday, Elliott was on an absolute tear with 500 yards from scrimmage over his past three outings. He didn’t slow down against the Redskins, picking up 143 yards on 31 touches.
He got the party started with a touchdown on the opening series of the game. A year after he jumped into a Salvation Army kettle, Elliott made a $21 donation to celebrate his score.
Later on that drive, though, Prescott underthrew a wide-open touchdown as he backpedaled away from pressure before taking an unnecessary sack on the next play, resulting in the Cowboys settling for a field goal. At the same time, it’s fair to question the Cowboys’ play-calling. Why weren’t they running Zeke on at least one of those plays above? But that doesn’t absolve Dak of missing an open man and taking a sack.
It didn’t help that the Redskins’ pass rush penetrated the pocket with ease for much of the first half, leading to less than ideal passing conditions. They sacked him four times in the first half.
But the offensive line shored up protection in the second half, allowing zero sacks over the final 30 minutes of gameplay. And Dak made a few big-time plays down the stretch. You already saw his pair of touchdowns to Cooper. He also scored a touchdown with his legs that turned a 11-point game into an 18-point advantage.
McCoy’s turnovers prove costly
To no one’s surprise, Colt McCoy didn’t look like a starting-caliber quarterback for most of the evening’s events.
He nearly got picked on his first pass of the game. He fumbled on his third drop-back, but his own team fell on the loose football. On the Redskins’ second series — after he made a few nice plays to escape pressure — McCoy gifted the Cowboys this free interception.
Adrian Peterson shut down
McCoy didn’t get much help, though. Entering Thursday night, Peterson had experienced a resurgent season on the field with 891 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage. But the Cowboys slowed down Peterson, who fought through an early shoulder injury.
Peterson finished with 44 yards on 14 touches, seldom finding any room against a Cowboys defense that came into the game allowing only 95 rushing yards per game. They held the Redskins to 80 yards on the ground.
Tyron Smith absent
The Cowboys’ left tackle was active for the game, but when the Cowboys took the field to begin the game, he was on the sidelines.