By Dwain Price
Ten days after being the goat during a frustrating two-point loss to the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Greg Zuerlein booted the game-winning field goal as time expired to lead the Dallas Cowboys to a pulsating 20-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers this past Sunday.
Zuerlein’s dramatic 56-yard field goal moved the Cowboys into a first-place tie with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Football team as they each sport a 1-1 record. And it came one game after Zuerlein, who had offseason back surgery and a quad injury in preseason, missed a 31-yard field goal and an extra point pick during the Cowboys’ 31-29 season-opening loss to the Bucs.
“Especially after what Greg went through last week, you see why we have confidence in him,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think he’s definitely a Super Bowl-caliber champion type kicker.”
The win won’t get any style points from the Cowboys, who saw two touchdowns by the Chargers get wiped out by penalties. Also, on their game-winning drive, awful clock management by the Cowboys cost them a chance at attempting a more favorable field goal.
With the game tied at 17, the Cowboys got the ball for the final time at their own 13 with just 3:49 remaining. And after Michael Pollard ran a second-down play to the Chargers’ 39 with 29 seconds left, the Cowboys inexplicably allowed 25 seconds to run off the clock before finally calling timeout with just four seconds to go.
McCarthy said he couldn’t see the stadium clock. But in the end, it all worked out in the Cowboys’ favor.
“We talked about it all week long and now we’ve got the game in a position that we want it,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “So it’s on us to go capitalize and go finish this game off, and we were able to get it in field goal range and let special teams go out there and do their job.
“Obviously I believe in (Zuerlein) making it, and he went and did that, and it was just a relief.”
It marked the first time in 34 games – since December of 2018 – that the Cowboys won a game where they didn’t need at least 30 points. That spoke volumes about how much they’ve improved on defense, which was without defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence (fractured foot) and Randy Gregory (COVID-19), and safety Donovan Wilson (groin injury).
Rookie linebacker Micah Parsons moved into one of the starting defensive end spots and was absolutely spectacular as he recorded one sack and kept major heat on Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert all day long.
“I was chasing (Herbert) all day,” Parsons said. “I really wanted Herbert and I finally got to him and I was happy about that.”
Parsons said late last week defensive coordinator Dan Quinn asked him about carrying a heavier load against the Chargers.
“After practice coach Q came up to me and was like, ‘Man, we’re going to need you to step up big for us this week,’ “ Parsons said. “Actually, I just said, ‘Alright coach, let’s play.’ A lot of it was natural. Some people had a long day out there.”
Defensive back Damontae Kazee also provided a clutch interception in the end zone after the Chargers had reached the Dallas 6-yard line late in the third quarter.
Other than the play of Parsons and Kazee, another reason the Chargers had a long day was due to racking up 12 penalties for 99 yards, and also due to the running of Cowboys running backs Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott. Pollard rushed 13 times for 109 yards and a touchdown, and Elliott added 71 yards rushing on 16 carries and a touchdown.
“We just wanted to go with who was hot,” Pollard said. “We both feed off each other, so if (Elliott) was hot, we would have just gone that way. But it just turned out that way for this game.”
“TP, he ran his tail off,” Elliott said. “He’s a great back – all-around – can catch it, can run it. He had a helluva day.”
The play-calling by offensive coordinator Kellen Moore against the Chargers was in stark contrast to what the Cowboys did against the Bucs. Dallas threw the ball a whopping 58 times and ran just 18 against Tampa Bay, but against the Chargers they ran the ball 31 times for 198 yards and attempted just 27 passes.
“We didn’t throw it 50 times,” said Prescott, who was 23-of-27 for 237 yards. “I think we were a whole lot more balanced. Kellen did a great job of just mixing it up.”
The Cowboys scored both of their touchdowns in the first quarter after executing a sparkling 15-play, 78-yard drive, and a seven-play, 75-yard drive. In all, the Cowboys recorded 13 first downs in the first quarter.
That’s the most first downs in any quarter in franchise history and ties for the most first downs by one team in one quarter in the history of the National Football League.
“To come in here and win this game was important on a number of fronts for us,” McCarthy said. “We needed it and we needed the confidence that goes with this win.
“Winning in this league is so hard. I’m just proud of the guys. They’re doing everything the right way.”
After starting the season with two road games, the Cowboys will now play their next three games at home, starting with Monday night’s NFC East encounter against the Eagles.
Looking back on the cliffhanger over the Chargers, Prescott said: “It’s the confidence of getting that first win, especially on the road going into your home opener on a Monday night. We know what that atmosphere (inside AT&T Stadium) is going to be like, and it’s important to be going into that off a win.”
And thanks to Zuerlein, the Cowboys will go into the game against the Eagles with a ton of confidence. The game-winning kick by Zuerlein was the longest game-winning field goal with no time left in the Cowboys’ 61-year history.
“I like the way our team is progressing and I’m excited about what’s in front of us with the Monday night game with Philadelphia and the three games at home,” McCarthy said. “We’re trying to build this to win a championship.
“These football games always usually come down to the last couple of series and this one here came right down to the last play.”