This is not a drill. This is no longer a far-flung fantasy. The Dallas Cowboys are in first place in the NFC East after winning their third consecutive game Thursday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys’ 31-23 Thanksgiving Day win over the Washington Redskins gives them a share of the lead with Washington with five games left (See item No. 5). For the first time in 2018, the Cowboys (6-5) are above .500.
Did Cowboys’ owner and general manager Jerry Jones see this coming when the team was 3-5?
“I wouldn’t have, even in my thoughts, go that far,” Jones said. “But I did think we had played some pretty good teams when we were 3-5. And I did see that we could have one two or three of those that we lost. But I could also see how we could have lost two of the three that we won.”
After a first half that felt eerily similar to the Monday night loss to the Tennessee Titans three weeks ago, Dallas’ offense came alive in the second half. The spark plug was receiver Amari Cooper, who was playing in his fourth game with the Cowboys since being traded from Oakland.
1. Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper
Amari Cooper, stand up and take a bow.
The receiver caught eight passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Most of the damage came in the second half.
On consecutive possessions, Cooper caught touchdown passes of 40 and 90 yards to break open a tight game from a 13-10 deficit to a 24-13 lead in the third quarter.
It’s the most yards by a Cowboys’ receiver since Dez Bryant had 224 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches in a December 2012 overtime loss to the Saints.
Cooper said he hoped to prove to be an asset to the Cowboys as soon as possible. He has been a difference-maker for the offense and the trade four weeks ago is looking like a stroke of genius for Dallas at the moment.
“Yeah, it does. I want to come out here and help my team win and prove that the Cowboys were right in trading for me, and I think this is one step toward doing that,” Cooper said.
2. Zeke’s feast
Ezekiel Elliott only had 33 yards rushing on 15 carries when the Cowboys lost to the Redskins on Oct. 21. He had 31 yards on Dallas’ first series on Thursday and finished with 121 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.
“I think the formula for success is just dominating up front,” said Elliott, who now has six 100-yard rushing games this season. “They’ve been through a lot of adversity. Cam [Fleming] came in and filled [Tyron Smith’s] spot just fine and did a great job. I think that’s definitely the key for this team.
It’s Elliott’s third consecutive 100-yard game. The last time he did that was in October 2017.
The offense gained 406 yards, its third best game of the season and second time over 400 yards in the past three games. The Cowboys have only scored more points once in 2018 when they beat the Jaguars 40-7 on Oct. 14.
3. Redskins short-field advantage
The Redskins took advantage of a short field twice to score touchdowns. In the first half, Colt McCoy hit Vernon Davis for a 53-yard scoring pass on the first play of a drive in which Washington started at their own 47.
In the third quarter, the Dallas offense was forced to punt backed up near their own end zone. Trey Quinn returned the punt 30 yards to the Cowboys’ 25. Punter Chris Jones made the tackle to prevent a touchdown.
The Redskins moved up to the 20 before the drive’s first play after Tyrone Crawford was called for a neutral zone infraction. McCoy hit Quinn for a 10-yard touchdown strike and 13-10 lead, but the point after attempt was wide left.
Dallas held Washington to 331 total yards and intercepted Colt McCoy three times. They also sacked him three times.
4. Tyron Smith DNP
Cameron Fleming started in place of left tackle Tyron Smith who sustained a stinger last week against the Falcons.
Smith was suited up but he never played. It’s Fleming’s first start for Dallas. He played in 12 games with six starts for the Patriots in 2017.
Smith started the first 10 games, but has dealt with back spasms two weeks ago and suffered a neck stinger last week. After a rough first half in which Prescott was sacked four times, the line stepped up in the second half and allowed none.
5. Final five begins with Saints
The Cowboys’ host the Saints (9-1) next Thursday. The Saints could be 10-1 if they beat the Falcons Thanksgiving night in New Orleans. Their only loss was in Week 1, 48-40 to the Buccaneers and only the Rams (10-1) have a better record and the Saints pegged them with their only loss.
“I really don’t think much about that,” Cowboys’ coach Jason Garrett said of the current standings. “We are going to get our eyes forward on the next game.”
Dallas then hosts the Eagles (4-6), play at the revitalized Colts (5-5), hosts the Bucs (3-7) and finish the regular season at the Giants (3-7) on Dec. 30.
“It’s huge,” Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “Our backs have been against the wall the whole season and now the only thing we have to do is maintain our focus and maintain the same energy and keep stepping on people’s throats.”