It’s easy to imagine what this Cowboys’ season would be like without Amari Cooper because we saw it for the first eight weeks of the season.
Opponents would stack the box to stuff Ezekiel Elliott while daring Dak Prescott, who was still struggling from his sophomore slump the previous year, to throw to his non-existent No. 1 receiver or a backup tight end playing the top spot. Presumably in this scenario, head coach Jason Garrett—he of one playoff victory—would be jettisoned on New Year’s Eve, and Dallas would enter a new era.
Cooper has changed all of that. The box is no longer stacked and Zeke is eating again. The other receivers are back in non-No. 1 receiver roles—the roles they should have been in all year long. And Cooper is playing like the 24-year-old stud receiver the Cowboys traded a first-round pick to acquire.
His 217-yard, three-touchdown performance in Sunday night’s 29-23 overtime win against the Eagles continued to prove that Cooper has saved the Cowboys’ season. By taking advantage of a banged-up Philly secondary and suffering through some mistakes by Prescott, Cooper was able to deliver a fifth straight win for Dallas and help the Cowboys fit comfortably into the driver’s seat for their second trip to the playoffs in the past three years.
In what was perhaps the most competitive day of games of any NFL Sunday this year, this tilt for control of the NFC East delivered the most. Three quarters of defensive stands, a fourth-quarter flurry of points leading to overtime, missed kicking attempts and a handful of controversial calls were all a part of Sunday evening’s clash as the Cowboys swept the defending Super Bowl champs.
Until midway through the fourth quarter, the only reason the Eagles were still in the game was due to Prescott’s miscues. A second-quarter Prescott pick by Rasul Douglas came when he put too much air on the ball on what should have been an easy touchdown pass to Cooper. In the third quarter, Prescott turned it over on the opposite side of the field when Corey Graham got the interception and took it to the end zone’s doorstep. And for good measure, Michael Bennett strip-sacked Prescott at the end of the third quarter, marking only the second time in Prescott’s young career where he turned it over three times in a game. The nine points the Eagles got from these three turnovers was good enough to keep the game tied at the start of the fourth quarter.
Prescott was not accurate on his deep passes either, but he got favorable matchups all night with Cooper going against Sidney Jones, who was bothered by a hamstring injury, and Cooper and Michael Gallup sometimes matched with backup Rasul Douglas. Prescott’s career-high 455 passing yards had far more to do with his receivers making plays against overmatched opponents than Prescott shining again on the national stage.
The Douglas-on-Cooper matchup was destined to fail, and perhaps there’s no better microcosm of this game than the final play. Douglas, expecting Cooper to run a slant, was able to telegraph Prescott’s pass and deflect it. But the ball floated in the air, and Cooper plucked it and jogged into the end zone for the final score in overtime.
And it helped that the Dallas defense choked out the Eagles for much of the game. For the ninth time this season, the Cowboys held their opponent to under 100 yards rushing. The Eagles had just one third-down conversion in nine tries, and Dallas doubled up Philly in first downs (32 to 16), total yards (576 to 256) and time of possession (45:33 to 22:32) in the game.
Dallas (8–5) owns a two-game edge on Washington and Philadelphia (with the tiebreaker on the Eagles) in the NFC East with three games to play. Washington (6–7) is flailing with a fourth-string quarterback and the Eagles (6–7) face the playoff-bound Rams and Texans the next two weeks. Meanwhile, the Cowboys finish the year with the Colts, Bucs and Giants before likely hosting a wild-card game in January.
The Cowboys are always relevant under Jerry Jones, but they’re finally back to playing meaningful football in December again. And they have Amari Cooper to thank for that.