By Dwain Price
Thanks to the Dallas Cowboys’ suddenly ferocious defense,they made coach Mike McCarthy sound like a prophet during Sunday’s road game against the Washington Football Team.
Last week McCarthy said something coaches usually steer away from. In the days leading up to the matchup against Washington, McCarthy said: “We’re going to win this game. I’m confident in that.”
Well, thanks to five sacks, four takeaways, two interceptions and a touchdown by McCarthy’s defense, the Cowboys were able to survive a scare and defeat Washington, 27-20. That victory padded the Cowboys’ record to 9-4 and gave them a three-game lead over Washington in the NFC East with four games to play.
If the Cowboys win next Sunday’s road game at the New York Giants, and the Philadelphia Eagles prevail at home next Sunday against Washington,Dallas will clinch the NFC East and host at least one playoff game.
But before the champagne bottles pop and the confetti drops,the Cowboys first must figure out what’s wrong with their usually vaunted offense. Celebrated as being one of the top offensive units in the entire NFL, the Cowboys broke out to an 18-0 lead after the first quarter and a 24-0 lead at halftime against Washington, but could only produce six measly points in the second half.
More importantly, quarterback Dak Prescott completed a pedestrian-like 22 of 39 passes for a season-low 211 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, and he was missing more than his share of wide open receivers. Prescott’s quarterback rating of 9.9 was the lowest of his career and is cause for concern among Cowboy followers.
“Obviously there’s frustration,” Prescott said. “But there’s no doubt, I would say, concern about where we are. We just got to continue to get better.
“It starts with communication. It starts with all of our guys being on the same page — all 11 being on the same page with the coaches and what they’re expecting and looking for. Some of the things are just simple decision-making by me, and I’ll clean those up.”
Prescott’s biggest mistake that he needs to clean up came with 4:13 remaining in the game when he tossed an interception that linebacker Cole Holcomb returned 31 yards for a touchdown. That made the score, 27-20,Dallas, and made the Cowboys very uncomfortable.
And actually, Washington had the ball down the stretch with a chance to either tie the score or take the lead. However, Washington’s last gasp was thwarted when defensive end Randy Gregory sacked quarterback Kyle Allen,stripped the ball away and the Cowboys recovered with 2:24 remaining in the game.
That was a huge sigh of relief for the Cowboys, who rode the defense’s dominant performance to their third win in the last five games.
“Just as much as the outside world isn’t pleased (with theCowboys’ offense), we’re not,” Prescott said. “I guarantee you we care a whole lot more than the outside world about what we’re doing. I know I do. I know the guys on the field and the coaches do.
“As I said, all of this week we can get better and we can learn from it. It’s much better to do that in a winning setting.”
Prescott’s TD pass to Amari Cooper put the Cowboys ahead,11-0, with 3:42 left in the first quarter. And the lead soared to 18-0 when linebacker Micah Parsons collected a sack and forced a fumble which defensive tackle Dorance Armstrong scooped up and returned 37 yards for a touchdown.
It was the sixth straight game Parsons has recorded a sack, and he also had another one later in the game that gave him 12 for the season. Also,this was the first game since opening day that defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Gregory, and Parsons, all played in the same game.
And their impact was very noticeable, especially the spectacular interception Gregory had which led to the touchdown by Cooper.
“If we got to win the game on us (on the defensive side of the ball), that’s what we’ve got to do and I think we all have been taking that standard and that approach every week and we’ve been living up to it,” Parsons said. “The more you guys see us play together the more you guys are going to be like, ‘Man, this is insane.’ “
With the Cowboys up 24-0 at intermission, this game was looking like a runaway. But things began to flip, and some of that – fair or unfair– was pointed directly at Prescott, who has only eight touchdown passes and six interceptions since suffering a calf injury that forced him to miss the Oct.31 game against the Minnesota Vikings.
“Six points in the second half, yeah, that’s not acceptable,”Prescott said. “We’ve got to be better than that the latter part of the year, obviously as you get ready to go play better teams, play division teams and play in the playoffs.
“We’ve created these high expectations and high standards, and we have them for ourselves.”
McCarthy, though, wasn’t going to allow folks to put the offense’s second half woes at the feet of Prescott.
“You look at statistics, usually 50 percent of your games come down to the last series of the game,” McCarthy said. “Not that we wanted to do that (Sunday), especially after where we were at halftime.
“But there’s so much value in winning those games because, let’s be honest. If you want to be a playoff team, if you want to win in the playoffs and you want to get to your ultimate goal, you’re going to have to win those (one-possession)games.”
Maybe, but since the Cowboys held Washington (6-7) to just19 total yards on its first 20 plays, usually this would have been like a walk in the park on a sunny day for the Cowboys. But McCarthy saw it differently, saying:“At the end of the day I think this is a clear reflection of what division games are usually like.”
Either way, the Cowboys have put themselves in the weird position of admitting that their usually powerful offense has to catch up with their now dominant defense — and not the other way around.
“We’re a confident bunch,” Prescott said. “I’m confident. I know this defense is confident, this offense is confidence, obviously our coach is confident.
“That’s why he (guaranteed a victory over Washington) and I told you (media) guys that Thursday that that’s how we felt. So, we had to come out here and go through that and be accountable to our words.”