National Football League
Cowboys find a way to win vs. Lions, after nearly finding several ways to lose
National Football League

Cowboys find a way to win vs. Lions, after nearly finding several ways to lose

Updated Dec. 31, 2023 2:33 a.m. ET

In their last real test before the postseason begins, the Dallas Cowboys reminded everyone that they're good enough and talented enough to win it all this season.

But that's only if they don't find a way to mess everything up first.

That's the tightrope this team has walked all year long, and they were dangling from it Saturday night despite one of the finest games of the year by their dynamic duo of Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb. Prescott threw for 345 yards, Lamb set career highs with 13 catches and 227 receiving yards, and yet the Cowboys still nearly lost to the Detroit Lions. In fact, they probably would have lost if it weren't for an officiating nightmare that helped Dallas hold on for a 20-19 win.

If not for a negated two-point conversion, the story of this game would have been Mike McCarthy's unforgivable clock management, a late collapse by the Cowboys' defense and their consistent inability to run the ball. Instead, they got to celebrate a fortuitous call that snapped their two-game losing streak and keeps them alive in the NFC East race.


"It's huge," Prescott said. "Huge, especially coming off the last two. Being able to pull this one out was important for us to understanding this is what playoff football is about.''

"If you think you're going to be battle tested and ready to go in the playoffs, these are the kinds of games that character is enhanced," McCarthy said. "It's the adversity you train all year for."

That's certainly one way to look at it. Of course, the Lions (11-5) will look at it much differently. From their perspective, they won the game after Jared Goff hit Amon-Ra St. Brown for an 11-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds remaining and then converted the go-ahead, two-point conversion on a pass to tackle Taylor Decker. But the officials ruled that Decker never checked in as an eligible receiver — making his catch an "illegal touching" penalty — despite the fact that he clearly walked over to the official and verbally addressed him right before the play began.

It appeared that the officials declared the wrong player — tackle Dan Skipper — to be eligible. But that's the Lions' problem, and leaves questions for them and the officials to answer. The Cowboys clearly have problems and questions of their own, despite finishing out another undefeated season at home with a thrilling win over one of the best teams in the NFC. Like, for example, how did McCarthy mismanage the last six minutes of the game so badly and open the door for a Detroit comeback?

The Cowboys had just rallied to take a 17-13 lead on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Prescott to Brandin Cooks with 7:20 remaining. They even got the ball back with 5:52 to go and a chance to run out the clock. But with their anemic running game (61 rushing yards, including 49 on 16 carries from Tony Pollard), that's almost impossible. And that fear of the run has clearly affected McCarthy because, after the Cowboys got the ball back again on a Donovan Wilson interception with 2:05 to go, he called a pass play on second down with 1:55 remaining rather than a run that would've forced the Lions to use their last timeout.

"We're trying to put it away," McCarthy explained. "First down was a struggle all day for us. I can't tell you how many second-and-longs we had. I'm trying to get within striking distance on third down."

OK, but all that did was leave too much time on the clock after Brandon Aubrey's 43-yard field goal gave Dallas a 20-13 lead with 1:45 to play. And that's where its once-aggressive defense that had already pressured Goff (19 of 34, 247 yards) into two interceptions, sat back in a soft shell as he picked it apart. It took Goff just 78 seconds and nine plays to go 75 yards for a touchdown.

It was ultimately the officials — not the Cowboys defense — that kept the Lions from winning the game.

"It's frustrating," Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons said. "I don't know what's going on. To be a championship team, we've got to get them type of stops."

That's what's frustrating the Cowboys the most, because they do seem to have all the ingredients of a championship team. Prescott sure looked the part of a championship quarterback, completing 26 of 38 passes while averaging 9.1 yards an attempt. He also made one of the plays of the year when he somehow escaped what looked like a sure sack and safety by Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes in the first quarter before hitting Lamb with a perfect pass downfield that his No. 1 receiver turned into a 92-yard touchdown.

Lions corner Kindle Vildor fell while covering Lamb, making it look easy. But Lamb had already beaten him by a step and Prescott's pinpoint pass hit his target in stride at midfield. That gave the Cowboys a 7-3 lead that they nearly extended to 14-3 early in the second quarter — when Lamb fumbled into the end zone and out of bounds for a touchback.

Turnover aside, Prescott and Lamb are playing at a ridiculous level. Even on big plays, where it's clear Prescott has no other good option and everyone knows where he's going, Lamb seems to come down with the ball. The two of them alone might be enough to carry the Cowboys a long way in the postseason. They actually might have to.

"(Lamb) is just a complete, complete receiver," McCarthy said. "His yards after catch, he's so dynamic with the football. Those two guys have taken it to another level."

And that's more of the message the Cowboys wanted to take from this win. On a night where nothing outside of Prescott and Lamb was really working — they couldn't run, they couldn't stop the run (the Lions had 125 rushing yards), they had clock issues and turned the ball over twice — they still managed to win the ball game. And they did it against one of the NFC's best teams, while holding one of the NFL's best offenses to less than 20 points (with a little help from their official friends).

In other words, in a big game, they proved they are capable of getting the big win however they need to get it.

"Part of football is to gut through a trying, tough, competitive, physical (game)," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said afterward. "That game had it. For us to step up and come back and hang in and win this ball game helps us in the playoffs."

Toughness is good. Being able to fight through adversity is good. What's bad is that the Cowboys created a lot of that adversity themselves. It was a game they probably should have won by two touchdowns the way their quarterback and top receiver were playing, especially considering they had been averaging 39.9 points per game at home.

But they made it tough on themselves, which is a reminder of their incredible ability to do just that. It is a good thing that they were able to survive and win. That's all that matters once the playoffs open. But their path, which will almost certainly include three road games if they're going to reach the Super Bowl, will be tough enough.

They just proved they might be good enough to survive it — if only they can stay out of their own way.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.


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