The 2016 Dallas Cowboys have won a lot of games a lot of different ways but none was more impressive, important or indicative of the greatness of the team's two top rookies than their wire-to-wire Thanksgiving win over the red hot Washington Redskins.
The NFL's Thanksgiving record book will read Cowboys 31, Redskins 26, a score that hardly tells the tale of the teams' second meeting of the year. Since Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott found their footing in Week 3, the Cowboys had walked onto every football field as the superior team and played accordingly. That wasn't the case Thursday. Washington had 505 yards of total offense. Kirk Cousins had the second-most passing yards in Thanksgiving history. Kicker Dustin Hopkins missed two field goals that would have changed the entire tenor of the game. The team failed on a two-point conversion. On multiple occasions, Dallas faced third-and-long when the game's momentum was at a tipping point. The Redskins controlled the clock, winning the time of possession battle 33:24 to 26:36. None of it mattered as the Cowboys stormed to 10-1 and basically clinched the NFC East and a bye in the playoffs, barring a complete December meltdown.
Getting beat up isn't the m.o. for this Dallas team with its dominant offensive line and rushing attack that takes advantage of it appropriately. The team hadn't been both outgained and lost the time of possession battle all season. They did on Thursday with a resilient Redskins staying alive until the final minutes despite a disastrous first defensive drive (Dallas went 75 yards on seven plays to open the game), two missed field goals in their first three offensive drives and a two-score halftime deficit.
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Three times in the second half they cut the Dallas lead from two scores to one. The Cowboys responded with a touchdown of their own each time. From midway through the third quarter up through Dallas' final kneel-down drive, the game went: Touchdown (WAS), Touchdown (DAL), Touchdown (WAS), Touchdown (DAL), Touchdown (WAS). Washington, which came within a fingertip of beating Dallas in Week 2, kept punching and Dallas took it, then punched back harder every time.
This wasn't like the Dallas-Pittsburgh game — still the most entertaining of the season — when good offenses took advantage of bad defenses in a game that always seemed like the best team would come out on top. It was a worthy battle on both sides of the ball and one that solidified Prescott's status as the most important player on the Cowboys and the MVP front-runner. (Sure, the Cowboys offensive line, as a unit, provides the greatest advantage in football. On Thursday, Prescott showed that he's not just some quarterback who stands in the pocket picking apart defenses with all the time in the world.)
The score was 24-12 Cowboys when Kirk Cousins and DeSean Jackson hooked up on a picture-perfect 67-yard touchdown pass. 24-19, Cowboys, 9:22 remaining. The tide was ever-so-slightly shifting. Washington gave a little momentum back with a failed onside kick, but the defense got Dallas into a 3rd and 7 at midfield on their first set of downs. The secondary smothered the Dallas receivers and looked like they'd force a punt that would give Cousins the ball back with a chance to go ahead. But Prescott waited a beat, waited another and then scrambled for the first down.
Later in the drive, on another third down, this time with nine yards to go, the Redskins changed schemes completely and put a spy on Prescott. Giving a rookie quarterback a new look late in a game that was slowly starting to slip away from the home team seemed like a genius move from defensive coordinator Joe Barry. The play developed the same way as the last third down. Prescott had nowhere to throw, rolled out and when he began to scramble, this time there was a spy quickly closing on him. The Cowboys rookie, who didn't seem to be looking for anything but a run, quickly flicked his wrist and hit a covered Dez Bryant in perfect stride just before the goal line. Play off him, Prescott runs for a first down. Play on him, he throws on a dime. It's the definition of unstoppable.
The scariest part for the NFL might not be for 2016 (though it still is) but beyond: If Prescott and Elliott are so in control when they're 11 games into their NFL career, just imagine what they'll be like in seasons two, three and beyond.
The football team from Dallas was 9-1 entering Thanksgiving and it was a real-deal record — they weren't paper champions like, say, the Raiders appear to be. But after holding off the Redskins' furious comeback efforts and seeing Dak, Dez and Zeke at full roar, it's finally time to ask: How 'bout them Cowboys?