The winless Cleveland Browns were supposed to be a trap game for the rising but young Dallas Cowboys.
Coming off an emotional overtime victory against the Philadelphia Eagles, their NFC rivals, and with a potential statement game at the Pittsburgh Steelers up next, the Cowboys could have been caught napping Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
And they were for one play.
The Browns used a tricky alignment on the second play of the game — splitting out two linemen right and hitting the Cowboys with a 44-yard pass from Cody Kessler to running back Isaiah Crowell.
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That the Browns had to settle for a 31-yard field goal after opening up their playbook in hopes of a shocking upset speaks volumes about the runaway machine that the Cowboys have become, as well as the maturity and focus inside the locker room.
The final score of 35-10 doesn’t do justice to how lopsided the game was. The Browns (0-9) offered little resistance to a focused Cowboys team streaking into history.
They like the work. They like the grind of the game.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, on the Cowboys’ ability to focus in a so-called “trap” game.
“That’s what we strive to do,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We strive to stay in the moment. They like the work. They like the grind of the game. It was a big emotional win for us [against the Eagles]. That game ended late. Somehow you have to get your eyes forward quickly. They did a good job of that.”
The Cowboys (7-1) did it in their biggest blowout of the season and their seventh consecutive win, while scoring a season high in points and a season low in points allowed.
It was the first time in franchise history that Dallas has started the season 0-1 and won the next seven games. The seven-game winning streak is the second longest in franchise history, behind an eight-game streak in 1977.
The last time the Cowboys won seven consecutive games was in 2007 when they went 13-3.
But the most applicable comparison of the current state of the hot Cowboys at the midpoint of the season is the juxtaposition of their misfortunes a year ago amid a seven-game losing streak en route to a 4-12 finish.
The absences of quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Dez Bryant were big reasons then.
On Sunday, Romo missed his eighth consecutive game with a fractured bone in his back and Bryant was held to just one catch for 19 yards.
Yet, the Cowboys won handily and have the best record in the NFC, tied for the best record in the NFL with the New England Patriots and a two-game lead in the NFC East.
“What I would compare it to is how and where we were this time last year,” owner Jerry Jones said. “That’s vivid to me. And when I see how we’re playing, the optimism that we have, just the confidence that we have, then it’s daylight and dark.”
Damn, it feels good. ... But we all know we have a lot of of football left to play.
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten
Tight end Jason Witten allowed himself to savor the moment.
“Damn, it feels good,” Witten said. “It says a lot about where we are. But we all know we have a lot of of football left to play. The best thing we have done is recommit to that process week in and week out. The team doesn’t get the big head. We know we have to work. It says a lot about the maturity and the approach. What’s that old saying, ‘Keep working, keep working. Stay together man and good things will happen.’ That is the way it feels for this football team right now.”
Good things happened in bunches against the Browns.
The record-setting barrage was led by another sterling performance from rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who completed 21 of 27 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with a season-high passer rating of 141.8, which is also a Cowboys record for a rookie quarterback.
Prescott has 12 passing touchdowns on the season, surpassing the Cowboys’ rookie record of nine set by Hall of Famer Troy Aikman in 1989.
Most important, Prescott bounced back from a rough outing in last week’s victory against the Eagles, when he had problems with his accuracy. Sunday, he was 18 of 23 passing for 218 yards with three touchdowns and rating of 145.7 after three quarters against a quarterback-needy team that passed on him eight times in the 2016 NFL Draft.
“They didn’t pass on me today,” Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick, quipped playfully after the game.
“It was more about concentrating on my footwork, driving off of my back foot, and I feel like I did a good job with it throughout the game,” Prescott said of his improved performance. “Those guys around me made plays all day long. The offensive line protected. The receivers and running backs did what they always do.”
I probably haven’t felt that way 10 times relative to the end of the ballgame in probably 27 years. That felt good.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, on his team having a 25-point lead in the fourth quarter
Witten was one of the guys around him who enjoyed a record-setting day. He made his 155th consecutive start to break a tie with Lee Roy Jodan for the most in team history.
The man who capped the Eagles’ victory with his first touchdown catch of the season, which came in overtime, caught eight passes for 134 yards. It was Witten’s first 100-yard game since 2013 and the 21st of his career, tied for third most by a tight end in NFL history.
His 26-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter was the 62nd of his career. He tied Shannon Sharpe for fourth most by a tight end in NFL history.
Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott didn’t reach the 100-yard barrier for the second consecutive game because he sat out the majority of the fourth quarter. He rushed for 92 yards on 18 carries, including two touchdowns. He has seven touchdowns and an NFL-leading 891 yards for the season.
Elliott is the third player in NFL history to rush for more than 875 yards and seven or more touchdowns in the first eight games of his career, joining Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson.
The Cowboys’ defense got in the act as well.
In addition to allowing a season-low 10 points, the Cowboys recorded a season-high-tying four sacks, including the first two of his career for rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins.
It all resulted in the Cowboys being up by 25 points after three quarters, allowing the owner to spend the fourth quarter watching games of upcoming opponents.
“I probably haven’t felt that way 10 times relative to the end of the ballgame in probably 27 years,” Jones said. “That felt good.”