The Dallas Cowboys extended their winning streak to three on Thanksgiving, giving their home fans plenty to be thankful for with the direction of this team. This streak began in Philadelphia, where the 3-5 Cowboys were supposed to see their season end prematurely at the hands of the defending Super Bowl champions. This young Cowboys team has grown up a lot since, following their win at the Eagles with an equally impressive one at the Falcons and culminating their first two victories away from AT&T Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
Defeating the Washington Redskins 31-23, the Cowboys separated from the division leaders in the second half to reclaim first place in the NFC East. Winning without Left Tackle Tyron Smith or Tight End Geoff Swaim is a sign of significant progress for a Cowboys offense that managed just 73 rushing yards in a previous loss at the Redskins.
As has been the case through the Cowboys turn of fortune, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott was phenomenal, rumbling for another 121 yards and a touchdown. The Cowboys missed opportunities in the first half to leverage their defense and put the game away early, instead relying on both Elliott and Wide Receiver Amari Cooper to make plays throughout.
When the Cowboys best players came to play, which Cooper did with touchdown receptions of 40 and 90 yards in the third quarter, this team made a terrific case for the best in a division that remains wide open.
The Cowboys will have a normal week to prepare for the 10-1 New Orleans Saints, playing again on Thursday Night Football in week 13. Here first are my notes on their short-week performance that got the best of the Redskins.
- Lost in the excitement of his long touchdowns are the four other receptions from Amari Cooper that kept Cowboys drives alive on third down.
The Cowboys very first drive of the game provided their best showing from Cooper and Elliott playing in sync. Three plays after Cooper beat Josh Norman on third down, Elliott rolled to the end zone from 16 yards out. Showing off his outstanding patience, Elliott was hardly touched on what instantly became his longest run against Washington this season, giving the Cowboys a 7-0 lead.
Cooper's connection with his quarterback was evident on these third down completions as well, which should excite the Cowboys beyond what Elliott's provided on the ground. Throwing with anticipation and trust in Cooper to track the football, Dak Prescott is quickly learning how to use his new target.
Although this great timing throw to Cooper only led to a Cowboys field goal, Prescott made up for it on both touchdown passes. The spark Cooper provided in the passing game made Prescott's miss of Noah Brown on first and goal (followed by a second down sack) an afterthought from the win.
Plays like Cooper's 40-yard dash on a simple slant pattern are the perfect example of why he's in Dallas, saved from the Oakland Raiders. It's been a long time since a Cowboys receiver could punish a cornerback that slips in coverage quite like Cooper did to match the Redskins go-ahead touchdown.
Not only is Cooper creating the type of separation that the Cowboys lacked to sustain any offense, but his run after the catch ability has completely changed the tone of Scott Linehan's offense. The next logical step for Linehan and the Cowboys is to better utilize Cooper in addition to the run game in the red zone, something the Cowboys must figure out if they're to emerge as division favorites.
- When Dak Prescott wasn't perfect with his arm, he was able to run decisively to create a touchdown and another first down on a field goal drive.
Prescott's third and goal scramble for a touchdown was the best possible outcome from another red zone possession that looked certain to end without seven points. The complexion of this game changed entirely when Prescott refused to go down running to his left, eluding two tackles behind the line to find a running lane.
The Cowboys were driving on a short field off a DeMarcus Lawrence interception. Asking any more of their defense in a game that would have the Cowboys up only 14 with a field goal could have led to a much different outcome.
On Dak's designed runs, Tight End Blake Jarwin was able to play with power and leverage out in space to create some key blocks. Jarwin has not earned the role in the Cowboys offense he seemed destined for in the preseason. Proving himself as a blocker will be the best way for him to change this very quickly.
With Prescott converting the touchdown himself, the Cowboys jumped ahead 31-13. This 18 point lead wouldn't last long, as the Redskins needed just six plays to answer with a touchdown of their own. This assured the Cowboys defense would be needed until the final whistle, forcing one more turnover when Xavier Woods caught a deflected ball from Chidobe Awuzie.
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The Cowboys kept their annual Thanksgiving game entertaining enough to cover the end of dinner and most of dessert, coming out at 6-5 and learning a lot about the makeup of this team.
Last year, a win without Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick was unthinkable, proven in Atlanta where the Cowboys added to this ongoing win streak in week 11. Prescott was sacked four times in the first half against the Redskins, but Marc Colombo's makeshift line protected him perfectly through the second half.
On a day made for coming together, the Cowboys did just that in a big way, handing out the game ball to rookie Wide Receiver Michael Gallup. Gallup received news of his brother's suicide following the Cowboys win over the Falcons, remaining in Georgia with his family after the game before returning to Dallas and playing in this contest.
Where the Cowboys can go from here will be determined by their performance against a top NFC/Super Bowl contender in the Saints.
The Cowboys have done just enough to make this game against the Saints less of a "must-win" scenario, but should still be out to prove with each passing week they belong in the same conversation as the Saints, Rams, and Bears atop the conference.
Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.
The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.
Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.
Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.
While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.
Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.
The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.
Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.
The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.
Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.
#INDvsDAL: How The Game May Be Decided In The Red Zone
In many ways the Dallas Cowboys offense has found their stride in recent weeks. Over this five game win streak they have "found their identity" playing ball control offense and trusting their quarterback to make big throws when needed most. Of course the defense has been the star most weeks, but this offense should not be slept on either.
This doesn't mean the offense has been without their fair share of struggles, however, particularly in the red zone. Struggles that the numbers say could cost the Cowboys this weeks' game in Indianapolis if they don't get it cleaned up.
In terms of red zone offensive efficiency the Cowboys have been downright horrendous. In fact, they are dead-last in the league in success rate inside the 10 yard line, last in first-and-goal success rate, and 21st in success rate between the 11 and 20 yard lines.
There's no sugar-coating those numbers, they are bad. Especially when you consider that this team has arguably the league's best running back and a quarterback with the size and athleticism you might expect from a linebacker.
For as bad as the Cowboys are inside the red zone, the Colts are equally as good. Indianapolis is top 10 in terms of success rate inside the 10, at the goal line, and in first-and-goal success rate. They are also 11th in success rate between the 11 and 20 yard lines.
Despite not having the individual running back the Cowboys have, the Colts offensive line and skill players as a whole set them up a bit better when the field is shortened. Tight end Eric Ebron has been rather incredible in terms of production this season, catching 12 touchdowns on 58 receptions. Andrew Luck is also a more accurate quarterback than Dak Prescott, though Prescott should be a much more dangerous red zone threat than he currently is.
I am working on the Cowboys 32nd ranked Goal-to-Go offensive numbers. They have run 35 of their 59 total plays out of Shotgun-11 Personnel. In those 35 plays, the average gain per snap is....12 INCHES. I am not kidding. They could out-gain that by running QB sneaks. I am amazed.
Of course, some of the Cowboys red zone struggles can be pinned on offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Linehan has failed to scheme open the "easy" red zone touchdowns we see so often around the league. As pointed out by Bob Sturm on Twitter this week, the Cowboys' personnel groupings and play calls when in goal-to-go situations have been questionable to say the least. But while blame does fall on the coaches' shoulders, the players need to execute better as well.
Games in the NFL often come down to just a handful of plays, and red zone efficiency plays a key role in deciding the outcome of close games every week. If this is once again the case on Sunday, based on past performance, the Dallas Cowboys could be in trouble against the efficient Colts.
#INDvsDAL: Betting Preview, Trends, And Prediction
For once, the Cowboys are not playing what feels like a do-or-die game on Sunday, needing just 1 win over their final 3 to win the NFC East. This week the 8-5 Cowboys go on the road to face the 7-6 Colts, with each times vying for playoff spots in their respective conferences.
Both the Cowboys and Colts have turned around what looked like dead seasons, but there is no doubt the Colts need this one more than the Cowboys do to keep pace for the 6th seed in the AFC.
Cowboys +3, O/U 47 points.
The once 3-5 Cowboys are now head and shoulders above the rest of their division, after winning their fifth straight in thrilling fashion over the Eagles last Sunday. The team which seemed so disjointed and inconsistent through 8 games has found their identity, and is playing complete team football as of late.
Dak Prescott is coming off a career-best game in terms of yardage, and despite some poor turnovers is still playing some of the best football of his career. This is due in large part to two stars in Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, who have shouldered the production load of this offense the last 5 weeks.
And, of course, there is the defense which continues to make life a living hell for opposing offenses. Randy Gregory is coming into his own as a pass rusher, getting another sack last week and getting flagged for what should have been his second sack of the day.
Dallas is playing the brand of football they told us they would before the season, and are beginning to make their front office and decision makers look very smart in the process.
At 7-6 and fighting for the final AFC playoff spot, the Colts need this one more than the Cowboys do. Getting shut out by the lowly Jaguars two weeks ago may ultimately keep the Colts out of the playoffs, but a win this Sunday and a little help elsewhere could set them up nicely down the stretch.
Indy has quietly one of the best passing offenses in all of the NFL, with star quarterback Andrew Luck playing his best football in quite some time. Luck is healthy and looks like himself again, and the selection of Quenton Nelson to sure-up the offensive line has gone a long way to improving this offense as well.
Defensively the Colts have been even more impressive lately. Though they have a roster comprised of no-names nationally, the Colts defense is 11th in DVOA. Darius Leonard has been a revelation for the Colts at linebacker, and their young defense seems to be improving by the week.
The Colts are coming off of a big road victory over the Houston Texans a week ago, and will look to defeat the Texans' in-state rivals on Sunday to improve to 8-6.
- The Cowboys are 5-0 against the spread their last 5 games, and have won all 5 straight up.
- The score total has hit the over 4 of the Cowboys' last 6 games.
- But the score total has gone under 4 of the Colts' last 5 games.
- The Colts are 4-1 straight up their last 5 home games.
- Dallas is 6-3 their last 9 games against the Colts.
The Cowboys' winning streak has to end at some point, right?
Well, unlike Vegas, I don't expect that ending to happen on Sunday. The Cowboys have been playing desperate football over the last 5 games and they are well aware what a win over Indianapolis would mean.
A victory would clinch them a division title for the third time in five years, and just as they did in 2014, I expect the Cowboys to get that clinching victory over the Colts. Give me the Cowboys and the points this week.
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