Judgements XV: Why the Cowboys' sudden reversal is so significant

Clark Judge

There is no overstating the importance of that Dallas victory Sunday … and not because it kept the Cowboys tied for first in their division. Nope, because it proved a point.

Namely: The Cowboys can beat a quality opponent.

Trust me, that wasn’t just an issue entering Sunday’s game with the Los Angeles Rams. It was THE issue, with the Cowboys 0-5 vs. opponents with winning records.

That is, until the Rams showed up.

The defending NFC champions were making a late-season push for the playoffs, winning three of their last four by a combined score of 79-26, with the Seahawks their latest conquest. Furthermore, they were favored in a road game because ... well, because the Cowboys can’t beat decent teams, and the envelope, please.

They lost to New Orleans. They lost to Green Bay. And Minnesota ... and New England ... and Buffalo. Heck, they lost to Chicago, too, when the Bears were 6-6. So the rap was as preserved as it was deserved: Win as many games … or more … as you lose, and the Cowboys are dead meat. They can’t win.

Except they just did. Final score: Cowboys 44, Rams 21 in a beatdown that offered that rarest of glimpses into what the Cowboys were supposed be … but haven’t.

Their offensive line punished the Rams’ defensive front, with the Cowboys gashing Wade Phillips’ defense for 475 yards, including 263 rushing. Zeke Elliott had his first 100-yard game in six weeks. Good Dak was back. And the Cowboys’ defense frazzled Jared Goff and Sean McVay’s offense.

In short, they looked like a playoff team.

"This is what we should have been," said offensive tackle La'el Collins. "But right now, this is just what we are."

Of course, that was one game. Now they must go to Philadelphia next week and beat the never-say-die Eagles, except … except Dallas won four of their last five there. Plus, the Cowboys just proved something to their critics -- and themselves -- by hammering the defending NFC champions … and that should count for something.

How much? Tune in next weekend.

FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED

1. There’s no underselling Houston’s defeat of Tennessee, either. It happened on the road, and it happened vs. a Titans’ team that won six of its last seven. But let’s be honest: You can’t trust the Texans. Who are they? The club that stood tall in the fourth period Sunday or the one that caved the week before vs. Denver? Beats me.

2. Chicago will not win another game. Reason: the schedule. Kansas City next week and at Minnesota in Week 17. Adios.

3. Stephon Gilmore is more than an All-Pro cornerback. He’s Aaron Donald's competition for Defensive Player of the Year.

4. Joe Burrow, welcome to Cincinnati. At 1-13, the Bengals are zeroing in on the first pick of the 2020 draft.

5. Rookie N’Keal Harry may be just the wide receiver Tom Brady needs now. In the past two weeks he and Brady have developed a connection on the fly, with Harry scoring his first TD Sunday. It should only get better.

REPLAY TO THE RESCUE

Now you know why the NFL is going to make “a top-down review” of officiating after this season: Without replay – and sometimes in spite of it – you can’t trust the guys with whistles

Of course, that's not exactly news. But it is when it has to rescue officials twice in the last eight seconds as it did in Atlanta's 29-22 defeat of San Francisco Sunday.

First, there was an apparent Austin Hooper TD catch. Officials said as much. But it was overruled when replay revealed he didn’t complete the catch … whatever that means. Anyway, it was an incompletion.

Then, with two seconds left replay corrected another call – this one a 49ers’ goal-line stop of Julio Jones’ apparent TD reception. Officials thought he was stopped short of the goal line, and he was. One problem: The ball wasn’t.

Replay revealed it broke the plane of the end zone, resulting in a Falcons’ upset.

Look, I' m not a big fan of replay reviews, either. There are too many of them, interrupting the flow of games and turning what should be three hours or entertainment into slow-motion breakdowns of videotape while players, coaches and fans wait. Furthermore, with coaches allowed to challenge pass-interference calls that seldom are overturned, replay can be – and often is – more of an intrusion than a necessity.

But let’s face it: It IS a necessity, and we just found out why. As long as officials continue to miss critical calls in critical games, we need replay as a safety net.

FOURTH AND 20

1. I’m sorry, but Raiders’ fans deserved more than that in the Last Waltz in Oakland. Ten drives inside your opponent’s territory … and only 16 points … when your opponent is Jacksonville? Pathetic. By the way, that makes Jon Gruden 55-71 since winning Super Bowl XXXVII with Tampa Bay and 10-20 since returning to Oakland. “The mystique stays in Oakland,” read a sign held by one fan. What mystique? The Raiders have been to the playoffs once since 2002.

2. San Francisco doesn’t need Joe Montana. It needs Mariano Rivera. All three losses have been on the last plays of games. But that tells me something: Their defense is not as bullet-proof as advertised. Three times it couldn’t hold up in critical situations, and, yeah, I know, they were missing Dee Ford and Richard Sherman Sunday. They were also playing Atlanta.

3. When fans in Cincinnati chanted "Bra-dy! Bra-dy!” were they calling for Tom Brady or Joe Burrow’s mentor, LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady?

4. Maybe you don’t care that Arizona won, but I know who does: Running back Kenyon Drake, and not because he scored a career-high four TDs but because it was his first win of the season. He was 0-6 with Miami and 0-5 with Arizona before Sunday.

5. The last time Seattle won 11 games the Seahawks went to the Super Bowl. Just sayin.’

6. First the good news for Buffalo: The Bills are going to the playoffs. Now the bad. Next stop: Tom Brady. The Patriots' quarterback is 31-3 vs. Buffalo. No NFL quarterback has more victories vs. one opponent.

7. Under-the-radar game that interests me next week: Baltimore at Cleveland. Reason: The Browns were the last team to beat Baltimore, and it wasn’t close. They put 40 on the Ravens … in Baltimore. So how different are these two teams now? Stay tuned.

8. Maybe good things really DO come to those who wait. Greg Ward – the guy who made the game-winning catch for Philadelphia -- was cut or released six times by the Eagles.

9. Most underrated trade of the year might go to Houston for its acquisition of running back Carlos Hyde. He just produced his first 1,000-yard season and scored the go-ahead TD in Sunday’s defeat of Tennessee. I’m with NBC’s Tony Dungy on this one: The Texans are a better team with Hyde on the field.

10. Lamar Jackson or Malcolm Perry?

11. Finally, New England found its offensive threat: Andy Dalton.

12. If the Lions firing Matt Patricia would -- as Dick Vermeil says -- be “the biggest mistake,” what does that make the firing of Jim Caldwell?

13. Welcome back, Saquon Barkley. Sunday marked the first time since Oct. 20 that he scored … but you knew that if you’re his Fantasy Football owner.

14. Yeah, sure, Urban Meyer was at FedEx Field only at the behest of former Buckeyes’ wide receiver Terry McLaurin. That’s why he was spotted with owner Dan Snyder.

15. Consider that a costly victory for Minnesota. It’s always good to win on the road but not when you have to sacrifice a running back like Dalvin Cook. The Vikings aren’t saying much about his shoulder injury, but it looked serious enough to keep him out of next week’s game with Green Bay.

16. Give Atlanta’s Dan Quinn this: He’s trying to make it hard for Arthur Blank to fire him. I know, the Falcons are 5-9 this season and 22-24 since their meltdown in Super Bowl LI. But they’ve won four of their last six and knocked off two of the NFC’s best teams, San Francisco and New Orleans.

17. The Chargers’ window of opportunity isn’t closing. It’s shut. The Bolts just clinched their third losing season in the past five years. Time to start over.

18. If Sean McVay is such an offensive genius, then why hasn't Todd Gurley run for 100 yards once this season and why did he have Gurley run just 11 times Sunday -- including six in the first half ?

19. Freddie Kitchens is toast. You can lose to Pittsburgh, and you can lose to Buffalo. But you cannot get torched by Arizona. Turn out the lights. The party’s over.

20. Here’s what makes Jameis Winston’s second straight 450-yard, four-touchdown performance noteworthy: He did it without Michael Evans and without Chris Godwin for much of the second half.

AND THEN THERE'S THIS ...

Let's hear it for NBC's Sunday Night Football telecast for recognizing -- and celebrating -- the biggest win of the weekend, and, no, I'm not talking about the Falcons' defeat of San Francisco. It was Newtown (CT) High's Class LL state championship victory on a 36-yard pass play with three seconds left ... on the seven-year anniversary of Sandy Hook. Take a look:

MY TOP FIVE

1.Baltimore … Next round is on Marcus Peters.

2.New Orleans … Only have to worry about their frickin’ playoffs.

3.Green Bay … Aaron Rodgers’ biggest nemesis: State Farm ads.

4.San Francisco … All three losses on last plays of games.

5.New England … In the playoffs for the 11th straight season.

MY BOTTOM FIVE

32.Oakland coach Jon Gruden … Just lose, baby.

31. Cincinnati … Taylor made to tank.

30. Detroit … Time for another bail out.

29. N.Y. Giants … That’s one for the road, Eli.

28. Washington … Up next: Urban redevelopment?

STAT THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME

Cleveland won’t finish with a winning season, and no surprise there. The Browns haven’t had a winning year since 2007. That’s 12 straight seasons, the longest active drought in the NFL.

ONE THAT MIGHT INTEREST YOU

Nobody is better in close games than Seattle. The Seahawks are 10-1 this season in one-score contests, with one score defined as eight or fewer points.

AND ONE THAT MAY INTEREST BOTH OF US

Jacksonville had lost 23 consecutive games when it trailed by 10 or more points in the fourth quarter. Then Oakland came along.

SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET WINNER

Philadelphia RB Miles Sanders. No Jordan Howard, no problem. Sanders scored twice, had his first 100-yard rushing game, set a franchise rookie record for most yards from scrimmage in one season, produced the Eagles’ first 100-yard rushing game in 42 starts … and, most important, was just the weapon Carson Wentz needed Sunday to pull out his second consecutive last-gasp win.

SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET QUOTES

“I probably saw more middle fingers today than I have in my whole life.” – Jacksonville quarterback Gardner Minshew on Raiders’ fans.

"He's the best. There ain't no doubt about it. He's better than Lamar." -- Denver cornerback Chris Harris on Patrick Mahomes.

Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF

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