At least now the rest of the NFL knows the blueprint to beating the Cowboys. The devil will be in the execution.
With a chance to tighten up the NFC East race and put a dent in the armor of their rivals’ two impressive rookies, the Redskins did all the right things on Thursday afternoon in Dallas. Ezekiel Elliott was bottled up for roughly two and a half quarters. Washington won the time of possession battle, thanks in part to the lightly regarded running back tandem of Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson. Kirk Cousins took care of the ball and didn’t flinch when the Redskins dialed up deep balls to test the Dallas secondary. All admirable accomplishments—all not good enough to beat football’s hottest team.
The Cowboys took their hated rivals’ best shot and kept churning, coming away with a 31–26 win that made them the NFL’s first 10-win team this season and kept the NFC’s top seed firmly in hand.
The difference was Dak Prescott, who delivered a sharp rejoinder to those who have qualified the rookie quarterback’s hot start by pointing to his loaded supporting cast. Prescott finished 17 of 24 for 195 yards and a touchdown, finding open receivers on the move and working the pocket perfectly when the Redskins occasionally found holes in Dallas’s league-best offensive line. He also turned in the best rushing performance of his young career, running for 39 yards on eight carries, including a touchdown on which he beat the Redskins’ defense to the pylon on a bootleg. The idea that Prescott can do even more to incorporate his legs into the offense is nothing short of terrifying for opponents the rest of the way.
He didn’t flinch when Washington tried to claw back into the game with 20 fourth-quarter points, which exposed the Dallas defense to the tune of three touchdown drives of at least 75 yards or more. Top tight end Jordan Reed proved unguardable after returning from an early shoulder injury, catching two late touchdown passes, and DeSean Jackson torched rookie cornerback Anthony Brown for a 67-yard touchdown catch of his own.
Those big plays kept the Cowboys from pulling away as they so often have this year once teams tighten up at the realization that there’s no stopping the Dallas offense—although Washington coach Jay Gruden’s onside kick with more than nine minutes remaining in the game did reveal a little desperation. Once Elliott began to find holes again in the fourth quarter (he finished with 97 yards and two scores), the Cowboys regained control.
Despite the loss, Cousins put in another gem. After two masterful prime-time performances in five days, the QB looks set to make the Redskins pay (literally) for hitting him with the franchise tag this past off-season. Cousins has taken control of the team and won any lingering hesitant fans over this fall, and he’s all but assured a big-money long-term deal if he plays like this into January. He finished 41 of 53 through the air for 449 yards (no quarterback in Redskins history has more 400-yard games), three touchdowns and no interceptions.
But again, it takes more than that to down Dallas, which doesn’t need any help from its defense the way the offense is clicking right now. Three of their final five opponents, the Vikings, Giants and Eagles, all have front sevens that can keep Elliott at bay in spurts—if not for 60 minutes—but all three teams will be hard-pressed to score enough to hang in the way the Redskins did on Thanksgiving.
Delivering drama is one thing; there’s still no road map for finishing the job against the NFC front-runners.