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Lessons learned: Cowboys are hard to figure heading to the playoffs

The wait is over. It was a strange game in many ways, but it was the win the Dallas Cowboys needed over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to take the NFC East and get a home game to open the playoffs.

Before we dive into what we did (and didn’t) learn from this game, take a moment to savor that. This was a team almost everybody believed was dead in the water after the 3-5 start. The past seven games, despite the bad loss to the Indianapolis Colts, have been a remarkable comeback story. It is a tribute to this team and the coach who molded them, Jason Garrett, that they now get to play in January.

OK, back to our regularly scheduled look at lessons we can take from that game.

Win the turnover and sack battles, win the game.

Dallas was plus two in both categories, and that is simply the reason why they won. Obviously, the takeaways were by far the most important, as 14 of the Cowboys’ 27 points came directly off the fumbles they recovered. That Randy Gregory/Jaylon Smith tag team touchdown was a thing of beauty, and featured two players that are significant comeback stories of their own. And Gregory wasn’t done, pouncing on a missed handoff that his presence likely influenced. He almost scored, and that time, the offense came through with a touchdown from deep in the red zone. Without those two plays, this might have been a very different story.

The flip side is just as important, if not as obvious. While Ezekiel Elliott put the ball on the ground, Dalton Schultz (who is quietly becoming a meaningful cog in the offense) was there to get it back. Dak Prescott got lucky on a pass or two, but in the end, the Cowboys did not turn it over, which is significant. Dallas has had seven games this season where they did not give the ball away at all – and every one is a win. Hang onto the ball (even with a little help from a lucky bounce or two), and they win games.

Sacks were not nearly as important, except, you know, for that one that turned into the thrilling scoop and score for Smith. It was certainly nice to see Prescott only get dropped for a loss once, even if it was probably due to that lack of pocket presence he has too often. He did not get beaten up in this game. Like it or not, keeping Prescott healthy is a key to what happens in the playoffs and the future.

Living on the edge.

While it was a much-needed win, the 27-20 victory over the Bucs continued a somewhat concerning trend: Eight of Dallas’ nine wins have been one score games. Only the blowout over the Jacksonville Jaguars did not come down to a margin of eight points or less at the end. It is a measure of the toughness and determination of the team that they have prevailed in so many of those affairs.

The problem is that winning almost all your games by a single score is not a reliable path to success. Over the long haul, those games are basically 50-50. The Cowboys are 8-3 in one-score games, and regression to the mean is the fear. Repeatedly they have failed to put things out of reach.

Further, close games are what should be expected in the playoffs, where the opponents have already been through the regular-season elimination process. As the four seed facing the five seed, they are fated to go up against a team that should be very close to them in performance – and the most likely opponent at the moment is the Seattle Seahawks, who have already beaten Dallas by a two-score margin this season.

But wait a moment.

Another thing the Cowboys do best is getting ahead and staying ahead in games. They let the Colts jump out to an early lead and didn’t respond, and things got away from them. But against Tampa Bay, they only trailed for 5:01, and that by three points after the Bucs got a field goal on their opening possession. From the point that the Cowboys responded with a touchdown, they never trailed – and for the greater part of the game, led by two scores. That seven point margin of victory was for the last 2:05, after Leighton Vander Esch covered the onside kick. The Cowboys finished the game with a kneel-down, thanks to Elliott’s eleven-yard run to seal things on the penultimate play.

This is not the first time they have lost a two-score lead late in a game. It is not the best way to go about things, but forcing the opponent to burn a lot of clock/timeouts late to get their final score that just draws them closer has worked – so far.

However, the Buccaneers.

This was a game that the Cowboys should have won, of course. Tampa Bay has an offense that puts a lot of yards and often a lot of points up, but also turns that ball over as they did against Dallas. They have a truly dismal red zone defense, so getting 17 points on three trips there actually was underperforming to a degree. The only thing they do well on defense is rush the passer, and the Cowboys do get props for largely providing good protection for Prescott. Still, that margin of victory could and probably should have been better.

It leaves us wondering just how good Dallas really is. Get hot and go on a January run, and it all won’t matter. The question remains if they can.

Defense is the backbone.

The offense once again did just enough to hold up their end in a game where the Cowboys’ defense rose to the occasion superbly. They came through with those two huge plays that put 14 points on the board.

They did give up a bunch of yards, with Mike Evans getting 90, Adam Humphries 79, and Jacquizz Rodgers adding 55. As a team, they averaged 9.9 yards a completion. But they only got to the end zone twice on the day, which made all the difference.

The points.

Dallas scored 27, and held Tampa Bay to 20. The Cowboys have won all seven games this season when they put 20 or more on the scoreboard, and have also won five of the eight games they have held the opponent to 20 or less. That seems to be a crucial line for them.

So just how good is this team?

That was the question when the season started at the Carolina Panthers, and it still is. The evidence is mixed. They have won so many games when they had to, but have dropped some real stinkers along the way.

The answer will come in the playoffs. The defense just has to avoid an off day like they had against the Colts, while the offense has to keep working to overcome their issues.

But we have a couple of weeks to enjoy the fact that the Dallas Cowboys are the unquestioned NFC East champions. Eight weeks ago, that looked impossible.

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