The Dallas Cowboys hadn't just gone 8-8 in their last three seasons, they had posted a cumulative .500 record going all the way back to 1997, one of the more enduring harbingers of franchise mediocrity in NFL history. But with their 41-28 win over the Chicago Bears on Thursday night, the Cowboys ensured that they would bust through that ceiling, marking their ninth win in a campaign that was supposed to be different from the start.
Not that it was easy ... or at least, it wasn't easy late in the game. Early on, Dallas had it all over Chicago, racing out to a 35-7 lead with 2:08 left in the third quarter when backup running back Joseph Randle gashed Chicago's defense for a 17-yard touchdown run.
But aided by a successful onside kick and several Dallas coverage breakdowns, the Bears outscored the Cowboys 21-6 in the fourth quarter to make the score close, even though the game was still out of reach.
"Every win you have is important," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said after the game. "But on the road, after last week, we really needed to come back strong and put a good performance up."
Last week saw Dallas lose to the Eagles on Thanksgiving day in a game where Romo was off, the run game was unspectacular, and the defense could get no pressure. It seemed at that time that we might see another Dallas regression into mediocrity, but this Cowboys team was tough and determined enough to pull one out at Soldier Field.
The 5-8 Bears, 2-4 at home this season, muddled through three dispirited quarters, and no amount of last-minute fireworks would erase that. Nor should it. Head coach Marc Trestman looks to be on the way to his second straight playoff miss, and given how much more was expected of this team this year, one wonders if he'll be around for a third try in 2015.
Three key thoughts from the game:
1. Dallas' offense doesn't belong to Tony Romo -- it belongs to DeMarco Murray.
When Dallas' offense is humming this season, it's based on a power ground game behind the NFL's best run-blocking offensive line and shot plays from Tony Romo to his receivers based on defensive adjustments and play action. Last week, DeMarco Murray posted a season-low 73 rushing yards on 20 carries in Dallas' loss to the Eagles, and it was clear from the start on Thursday night that head coach Jason Garrett was out to reverse that trend. Murray's 41 total touches was the most by any player in any game since Kansas City's Larry Johnson had that same number against the Seahawks in 2006, and he finished this game with 228 total yards, split up with 179 yards on the ground over 32 carries, and a career-high nine receptions for 49 yards. With 1,606 rushing yards on the season, Murray still has an outside chance to become the eighth player in league history to exceed 2,000 in a season, and the first since Adrian Peterson in '12.
The "run to win" narrative is generally a canard, but in Dallas' case, it's very clear that this team will go as far as Murray -- and that dominant offensive line -- takes it.
2. Chicago's offense started completely out of whack.
The Cowboys don't look to fool anyone on defense. They'll stunt occasionally, but they don't blitz a lot, and while they'll throw some man coverage at you, there's a lot of Cover-2 ambling about in their secondary. It's a defense without a lot of stars, and it's regressed as of late. And with all that said, Jay Cutler and the Bears' offense could do very little against a unit that would seem on paper to be outmanned and under-schemed. Cutler was frequently out of sync with his receivers, the run game with Matt Forte wasn't featured enough (again), and when it was, it didn't do much. The worst move early on was at the end of the Bears' first drive, when the call was for Cutler to throw a swing pass to former Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett on third-and-16. The play gained three yards.
Brandon Marshall's 42-yard bobbler in the second quarter gave the Bears their first big play. They had 25 total yards before that. Then, a penalty, and soon after, Marshall was hurt on a reception that converted fourth-and-7. Safety Barry Church tagged Marshall with a knee in the back, and Marshall was on the field for a couple of minutes before he walked off and to the locker room. On the next play, Bennett caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Cutler to even the score at 7. Marshall was taken to a local hospital, though he later tweeted that he was okay.
After that, Chicago's offense stayed dormant until it was too late, and though Cutler did rattle off some productive deep passes late in the game, this contest also ended on his interception to cornerback Orlando Scandrick with 1:35 left in the game. Cutler completed 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards in the fourth quarter alone, but it was too little, too late, and a far too common way to end things. With that late pick, Cutler tied Jaguars rookie Blake Bortles for the league lead in interceptions with 15. The difference is, of course, that Cutler is supposed to know better. Will he ever?
3. Mel Tucker's gotta go.
Chicago's defensive coordinator has turned a good front line, estimable talent at cornerback, decent talent at linebacker and an undermanned safety duo into a defense that can't seem to stop anyone. When Tucker puts his cornerbacks on receivers one-on-one, they frequently get shredded, but he's more prone to dial up a bunch of dated Cover-2 stuff that would have been singed a decade ago, never mind in the modern NFL, when offensive complexity and specialization requires defensive coaches to be far more on their toes.
Against the run, as it has been most of the season, Tucker's schemes had his defenders overpursuing, and Chicago's defense was easy money for Dallas' inside zone running game most of the night. This team has more talent than it is showing, and that's most obvious on the defensive side of the ball. When that happens over and over, it's down to coaching, and Tucker is the man to blame. The decades of defensive excellence in Chicago are a thing of the past, and this Bears franchise has a lot of questions to answer about itself.