By Dwain Price
After suffering through so much misery and suffering through so many injuries to so many key players this season, it has come to this for the Dallas Cowboys.
If the Cowboys win their Thanksgiving Day game against the Washington Football Team on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, they will miraculously be in sole possession of first place in the NFC East. And who saw that coming back on Oct. 11 when quarterback Dak Prescott sustained a gruesome season-ending compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle during a win over the New York Giants?
Behind three touchdown passes from Andy Dalton and Ezekiel Elliott’s first 100-yard rushing day of the season, the Cowboys advanced to within a hair of the top spot in their division with Sunday’s pulsating 31-28 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. It was the first road win of the season for the Cowboys, who snapped a four-game losing streak and also put a halt to the Vikings’ three-game winning streak.
“It took us a little longer to get here (Sunday), but I clearly think the journey will make us stronger,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “We need to do something with this win. We need to build off this win. It needs to mean something.
“Obviously, coming off this win it’s going to be a quick turnaround for the Thanksgiving game against Washington. We definitely took a big step in the right direction.”
Dalton certainly took a big step in the right direction, too. The game against the Vikings was his first since he suffered a concussion after Washington linebacker Jon Bostic launched himself at him and violently hit him in the head while Dalton slid at the end of a running play.
And while Dalton was recovering from that unfortunate injury, he also tested positive for the coronavirus. So, Dalton was just elated to be back on the football field, and he eventually tossed a game-winning two-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Schultz with 1:37 remaining in the game.
“I missed the game of football while I was out for the three weeks,” said Dalton, who was 22-of-32 for 203 yards against Minnesota. “To have to sit at home and watch our guys play, that was tough.
“But I’m very thankful to be back out here, thankful to be healthy and help this team win.”
One of Dalton’s three touchdown passes went to rookie CeeDee Lamb, who twisted his body like a pretzel and made a mind-boggling spectacular reception in the end zone to give the Cowboys a 13-7 lead with 4:55 remaining in the second quarter.
“My first competitive catch for a touchdown in the NFL,” Lamb said. “I saw the ball up in the air, they gave me a chance and I definitely didn’t want it to hit the ground, so I came up and made a competitive play.”
Lamb wound up with four receptions for 34 yards and now has 48 catches on the season. That broke the Cowboys’ rookie record for receptions of 46 set by Hall of Famer “Bullet” Bob Hayes in 1965.
“I’m so glad he’s a Dallas Cowboy,” McCarthy said of Lamb. “I think we’re all seeing the beginnings of a tremendous career.”
Elliott showed everyone a sample size of the tremendous career he’s had to date. The five-year veteran rushed 21 times for 103 yards, caught two passes – one for a touchdown — and also tossed a two-point conversion to Lamb.
The all-round performance by Elliott offset the 60 yards rushing produced by backup running back Tony Pollard, who also ran 42 yards for a touchdown. In all, the Cowboys rushed for a season-high 180 yards against the Vikings.
“I play as hard as I can and then (Pollard) comes in and plays as hard as he can, and then I go back in,” Elliott said. “We don’t really have a strategy about it at all, but it’s definitely working out.
“I can’t remember how long it’s been since our last win. We been struggling, but (Sunday) we put it together, we played four quarters of good football and we pulled it out.”
One reason the Cowboys pulled out the win over the Vikings is because safety Donovan Wilson caused two fumbles that led to nine points for Dallas.
“He’s a stud,” McCarthy said. “I just love the way he plays. I’m just proud of him. He’s probably one of our best players. He’s always on the football.”
The Cowboys know they’ll have to be on the football on Thursday if they plan on exacting revenge from last month’s 25-3 loss to Washington.
“The whole way that we played the game (against Minnesota) and kept fighting, I think that’s the ultimate thing that we can hang our hat on and that we can gain confidence off of and just keep it rolling,” linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said. “We can celebrate this week, but it’s a short week.
“So we’ve got to put this behind us quick and move on to Washington. We know what they did to us the last time.”
The 31 points the Cowboys tallied against the Vikings represent the most points they’ve scored in a game since they defeated the Giants, 37-34, in the game when Prescott was injured.
In fact, until the matchup against Minnesota, the Cowboys had scored a total of only 41 points in the four games since Prescott’s injury.
For now, the Cowboys are hoping the win over Minnesota means they’re rounding the corner in what has been a topsy-turvy season.
“It was huge for us and a confidence boost for us going into the game on Thursday,” Lamb said. “It’s a division game, so we’re looking forward to putting our best foot forward and coming out and fighting and being prepared to get ready for Washington.”
The Philadelphia Eagles lead the NFC East with a 3-6-1 record, while the Cowboys, Giants and Washington are each snuggled together and nursing a 3-7 worksheet. Thus, with six games remaining this season, the division is totally up for grabs.
“We never thought that we were out of it,” Elliott said. “We know our division is struggling this year and we know we’re right there where we need to be.
“We’ve got to build on this success so we can come out and assure we take a step forward, especially against a divisional opponent.”