Dallas Cowboys

Elite or not, Dallas Cowboys defense leads the way in division-clinching win

Cowboys QB Dak Prescott: ‘We’re gonna celebrate, then get right back to work’

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott says they will enjoy the NFC East title, but they have a lot of work to do heading into the playoffs.
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Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott says they will enjoy the NFC East title, but they have a lot of work to do heading into the playoffs.

The Dallas Cowboys have pulled off what seemed an impossibly unrealistic task seven weeks ago.

After getting embarrassed at home by the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football and dropping to a woeful 3-5, no one outside of their locker room predicted this.

But its done. They did it.

The Cowboys won the NFC East with a week to spare after taking care of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.

The Cowboys’ 27-20 win locked up their 23rd NFC East title (and 25th if you count the two Capitol division titles in 1967 and ‘69). It means next week’s regular-season finale against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium means little to nothing for Dallas as far as playoff seeding (see Item No. 5).

It will allow ailing stars such right guard Zack Martin, linebacker Sean Lee and left tackle Tyron Smith to take fewer snaps (if any) before the playoffs. Most importantly, however, it allows the Cowboys to rest and preserve their biggest offensive components: Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. Expect all three to play a quarter or less against the Giants..

“It was an important, emotional thing for this team,” Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “We just have to take advantage of it. We won’t let up against the Giants. I will assure you of that.”

Five storylines from Sunday’s NFC East-clinching win:

1. Defense on the offensive

The Dallas Cowboys defense has been talking about being elite all season. To be elite, however, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has preached takeaways. And not just takeaways, but scoring takeaways.

The turnovers have been coming in the second half the season, but until Sunday, they were still looking for their first points. Jaylon Smith got them with a 69-yard fumble return in the first quarter. Randy Gregory forced the fumble with a massive, blindside strip sack of Bucs’ quarterback Jameis Winston. Smith outraced everyone down the sideline for the touchdown.

In the third quarter, Gregory picked up another Winston fumble and returned it two yards to the the Tampa Bay 4. That set up Dak Prescott’s four-yard touchdown pass in the corner to Michael Gallup, which put Dallas up 27-13 late in the third.

“He certainly showed up big time,” Garrett said. “It goes to the relentless spirit, you keep playing, they extended the play, he wasn’t going to quit on the play. That was the signature play of the game.”

2. Red zone alert

The Cowboys’ red zone issues didn’t exactly vanish against the Bucs. But even more concerning, the offense as a whole was held to a 232 total yards. That ties the team’s season low. They also had 232 yards in the Week 1 loss to Carolina.

“We’ve got a lot more work to do. This is just the start,” said Dak Prescott, who completed 20 of 25 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. “Obviously, we have high expectations for ourselves and if we don’t score, I guess you can say that we are angry or frustrated. We’ll get it done, we’ll get better.”

Despite excellent field position once in each half, the Cowboys were held to settle for two field goals.

In the second quarter, after taking over at the Tampa Bay 46 on a punt, the offense was stuffed on three plays and made Brett Maher attempt a 59-yard field goal. He drilled it to give Dallas a 17-6 lead.

In the third quarter, the Cowboys took over on their 42 after a missed field goal. They moved to the Bucs’ 4 but had to settle for another field goal on a 4th and goal. Maher made it 20-13 with 3:41 left in the third quarter.

Prescott spread it around to six different receivers, including Cole Beasley, who shared the team-high with Elliott with five catches for 50 yards. Amari Cooper had four catches for just 20 yards. Michael Gallup had three for 53, including a four-yard touchdown catch that gave Dallas a 27-13 lead lead in the third.

3. Not pretty but effective

The Cowboys finished with only 85 yards rushing, their third-fewest in a game this season. But Ezekiel Elliott has 85 yards on 18 carries, including a long of 17.

Prescott rushed it four times for only two yards, but had a long of seven-yard touchdown run to put Dallas on the board. It was an odd game. Instead of dominating the time of possession as they typically do, the Cowboys were the team seemingly never with the ball.

The Bucs owned a 35:19 to 24:41 possession advantage. It really stood out in the first half when the Cowboys only had the ball once in the first quarter and had possession for only 10:28 compared to 19:32 for the Bucs.

“We certainly have some work,” Jerry Jones said. “We’ve certainly had live game experiences of how not to get it in the red zone.”

4. Tyrone Crawford’s injury

Defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford left the game with a neck injury after the second play of the game. It was a scary moment while Crawford was placed on a spinal board before being placed on the cart.

His teammates and coaches, at least half of them out on the field to monitor the situation, were visibly concerned for his health. Crawford gave a thumbs up as he was driven off the field.

“It was a scary moment,” DeMarcus Lawrence said. “I just thank the Lord he is alright.”

Several tests, including an MRI at an area hospital were negative and Crawford was allowed to go home Sunday afternoon. He’ll be evaluated on Monday and is likely day to day.

5. Playoffs? You wanna talk about playoffs?

The Cowboys are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 when they earned a bye but lost to the Packers 34-31 in the divisional round at AT&T Stadium.

Dallas will play the wild card team with the best record at AT&T Stadium on either Jan. 5 or Jan. 6. The Chicago Bears, the NFC Central winner, will play the wild card team with the worst record. At the moment (at the conclusion of Sunday’s win), Dallas’ opponent was looking to be the Seattle Seahawks (8-6). But depending on how those teams fare today and next week, it could also be the Minnesota Vikings (7-6-1).

“We’re playing the kind of football where you can win games in the postseason,” Jones said. “Absolutely. We’re all-out [next week]. We’ve got some work to do out here, I think we’ll all agree. We don’t want to, if we can, go into the playoff with dangling participles — loose ends.”

Another intriguing playoff foe would be the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles beat the Houston Texans on Sunday to improve to 8-7. With a win next week against the Redskins in Washington, the Eagles’ 9-7 record likely earns them a wild card spot. If they have the best record among wild card teams, they’d come to AT&T Stadium for another meeting of NFC East rivals.

The Cowboys are 1-2 in the playoffs under Jason Garrett, the last appearance coming in 2016.

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