ARLINGTON, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys discovered something crucial at a time when they most needed a glimmer of hope. Even with their best offensive player suspended and their best defensive player sidelined by injury, this team still has the ability to impress. It’s taken three games of ugliness — and plenty of steadily building criticism — for the Cowboys to prove that to themselves. The hard part now is sustaining that effort at a time when a playoff spot still lingers as a possibility.
The Cowboys‘ 38-14 win over the Washington Redskins on Thursday night was the kind of butt-kicking Dallas had needed to inflict on somebody for well over a month. Dallas was riding a three-game losing streak coming into this contest. Its offense had turned into a running joke, one that stemmed from its inability to function while star running back Ezekiel Elliott served a six-game suspension for domestic violence. With a 5-6 record entering this contest, the Cowboys looked very much like a team clinging to its last breath in a season that had been tumultuous since it started.
The difference Thursday was the Cowboys remembered something critical to their future hopes: They have more than enough weapons to make a run at a playoff spot. The key is that they maintain the same hunger that surged through them in this victory. “We knew that our margin [for error] was tight,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. “So we just decided to get back, cut it loose and impose our will. We knew it was going to be that kind of game because this is a prideful team. But it’s a big win and all three phases had a role in it. It’s good to see us play that way and get some confidence going.”
Confidence had been hard to find around the Cowboys of late. It certainly wasn’t there during a 27-7 loss to Atlanta, when Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn tormented Dallas with a career-high six sacks. That swagger also wasn’t anywhere to be found in the Cowboys‘ next two defeats after that — a 37-9 pounding by the Philadelphia Eagles and a 28-6 blowout at the hands of the Los Angeles Chargers on Thanksgiving. For those scoring at home, Dallas had been outscored 98-22 over their previous three games.
There’s no question that the absence of Elliott had plenty to do with the offensive struggles. Injuries to left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Sean Lee (who has missed the last three games) also didn’t help. However, there comes a point when a team can only lament such absences for so long. Dallas needed to start playing better, regardless of how they made that improvement happen.
This is why Thursday’s effort was so important. It wasn’t merely that Dallas won but the way they won. Quarterback Dak Prescott played efficiently despite bruising his hand in the second quarter while running back Alfred Morris gashed his former team for 127 rushing yards and a touchdown. The much-maligned defense flew around the field all day, forcing four turnovers and sacking Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins four times. Special teams also got into the act as well, with Ryan Switzer giving Dallas a 17-0 lead with an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter.
That success meant even more because Dallas opened this contest with three consecutive drives that lasted all of three plays before punts. Instead of succumbing to the feeling that they were in store for another sluggish effort, the Cowboys ramped up their energy and dominated. As Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said, “Credit them for making the plays. We just didn’t make any. You have to make plays in this game. We tried to fight back … We cut it to 10 [24-14] and we couldn’t stop them.”
“The biggest thing that we try to emphasize to our team is to focus on what’s in front of you, the task at hand,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “Whatever happened before in the last play, (or) the last game, is done. Good, bad or indifferent — focus on what we need to do. Our team did a good job of that this week. They did a good job of that tonight. They handled some adversity in the game tonight and just put it behind us and kept playing. That’s a sign of maturity — understanding that the experiences aren’t always going to be good [but] you learn from it and keep moving forward.”
That lesson was especially important for Prescott to remember. After becoming the darling of Dallas during a rookie season that saw him lead the Cowboys to the NFC East title, he stumbled more than anybody in the last three weeks without Elliott. Normally known for his efficient play, Prescott had thrown no touchdown passes and five interceptions during that losing streak. He also led the Cowboys to just two touchdown drives over the previous 12 quarters.
Prescott admitted that the frustration wore on him, but he also was encouraged by messages from former Cowboys quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach. “(Their message was) keep going,” said Prescott, who completed 11 of 22 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. “Keep putting your head forward. That’s the only thing really that you can do. The talk is going to be there, good or bad, so I am thankful for both those guys.”
As critical as it was for the Cowboys to improve to 6-6, all they’ve done is give themselves a chance to remain optimistic about what could happen come January. They now enjoy a 10-day break before their next game, a road trip to face a New York Giants team (2-9) that has just benched starting quarterback Eli Manning. After that, the Cowboys will play Oakland (also on the road) and Seattle before meeting the Eagles in the season finale. They also will have Elliott back for those final two games.
There are a lot of things that still have to go right for Dallas to earn a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive NFC, where 10-6 might not be enough to secure a wild-card bid. At least have their heads back in the right place. “We saw before our eyes how to keep a team together,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “I don’t recommend it for anybody but you have to walk out there and have that adversity and be shooting blanks. And do it about four times with turnovers. That’s the kind of thing that gets you down. But that’s why I compliment Dak and the way the defense has continued to make plays. That’s the kind of stuff that turns a team around.”
That much was evident from the way Dallas played Thursday. This was a game between two teams that found themselves in a similar dilemma, trying desperately to avoid a loss that would cripple their playoff hopes. One team left with their season in serious doubt. The other walked away feeling like it had been resurrected, with plenty of time left to accomplish even bigger things before this year ends.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.