Not even 15 seconds into yesterday’s Thanksgiving matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and the undermanned Oakland Raiders, it seemed like the Cowboys were looking to get an early start on their annual December swoon. Rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams, filling in for the injured Dwyane Harris, fumbled the ball on the opening kickoff, resulting in a touchdown for the Raiders on the very first play of the game.
And as much as that 7-0 seemed like a fluke, Oakland got up as much as 21-7 with 1:56 left in the first half. At that point in the second quarter, Oakland had possessed the ball for all but 19 seconds of the period. The Raiders weren’t chewing clock by blowing Dallas off the ball in the running game, either. Oakland wasn’t able to run the ball effectively at any point in this game and averaged just two yards per carry. Instead, rookie Matt McGloin was picking the Cowboys apart on third down, targeting and burning Brandon Carr time and time again in man coverage.
Down 14 points at home in their historic Thanksgiving Day game to a team that wasn’t given a chance coming in, Dallas needed something from their offense heading in halftime if for no other reason than to boost morale, and though Dallas could have used it earlier in the half, Tony Romo delivered with a huge 70 yard drive to help stem the tide as the Cowboys ran into the lockerroom.
“We were in a hole there, down 14, and that drive at the end of the half, we really needed that,” Romo said after the game. “Especially with them starting the second half with the ball. I think that was as important as anything in the football game.”
In the second half, the Cowboys completely flipped the script on the Raiders, dominating the time of possession and scoring 17 straight points before a Sebastian Janikowski field goal in the final minute of the game ended Oakland’s two quarter scoring drought. Dallas went from having the ball for just over two minutes in the second quarter to icing the game by holding onto the ball for 21 of the 30 minutes in the second half.
Romo played an incredible second half given the circumstances. He was a perfect 12-of-12 for 101 yards and a touchdown in the final two quarters, and the only errant pass he threw in the second half was negated by a pass interference flag drawn by Dez Bryant. Given the offense’s struggles in the first half and the illness Romo was dealing with, this was a very impressive response from the Cowboys’ leader. It didn’t exactly warrant the Michael Jordan comparison that Bryant threw out during the post-game media scrum, but it was definitely essential to Dallas’ comeback efforts.
Once Romo helped get the Cowboys the lead, Dallas was able to do something that they haven’t been able to do in a long time: ice the game by running the ball. In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys ran the ball 12 times compared to just four pass attempts (attempts and sacks). This was a far cry from the times we’ve seen Dallas throwing the ball with a lead because their running game couldn’t keep the chains moving.
And while DeMarco Murray found the endzone three times in this game, he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and had a rough go of things early in the game. Instead, it was Lance Dunbar that feasted on the Raiders defense. Dunbar didn’t get his first carry of the game until the Cowboys’ first drive of the third quarter, but he made an impact instantly. He ran off tackle to the left for a six yard gain on his first play and then exploded for a 45 run right up the middle of the field on the very next snap.
“Lance did a nice job,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said of Dunbar’s performance. “We put Lance in there and he finds a way to kind of work his way through those holes and make some positive plays for us. He is quick, he’s explosive, but … he is still a physical player that doesn’t get knocked around too much in there.”
Dunbar showed a great ability to plant his foot in the ground and change direction quickly. On some outside runs, Murray struggled when trying to find and explode through the right gaps. Dunbar’s size does make him less likely to serve as a full-time back, at least this season, but I’d venture to say that he’s got more natural ability than Murray. He’s a much more fluid runner and seemed to, as Garrett said, turn each one of his touches into a positive play (this is evident in his 6.8 yards per carry average) and he gets through the hole in a hurry with an incredible burst.
Unfortunately for Dallas, Dunbar hyper extended his left knee in this game. While the severity of the injury is not known, Dallas would sure love to be able to use Dunbar in these final few weeks, and the extra days off heading into a Monday night game next week should help with his recovery.
At 7-5 with an undefeated record in the division, the Cowboys are in pole position for the NFC East crown as we head down the stretch, but that coveted playoff birth won’t come easy. While Dallas’ next two opponents — the Bears and Packers — haven’t looked great of late, both teams are expecting their star quarterbacks to be back for their games against the Cowboys, and they too are competing in a very tough division race.
Dallas’ final two games of the season will be against the division rivals in Washington and Philadelphia. Anything can happen against the Redskins and with the Eagles riding a three-game winning streak thanks to some extremely impressive performances by second year quarterback Nick Foles (he had 7 touchdowns against this Raiders team earlier this month), this season may very well come down to the wire for the Cowboys.
So how does Dallas avoid continuing what has been a troubling trend with their play as soon as Santa starts packing his sleigh? The Cowboys are focusing on execution and preparation.
“We just have to continue to execute,” linebacker Sean Lee, who told me he feels optimistic about being able to play against the Bears next Monday, said. “We need to continue to understand what winning football teams do, and that’s finding a way to create turnovers, playing great defense and getting the ball back to our offense.”
“The key in these last four games is that we’re going to have to peak (as a team).”
“We’ve just got to come out and work every single day,” wide receiver Miles Austin said. “We have to be prepared each and every week and we have to be prepared for a tough Bears team next Monday night.”
While keying in on the minute details that tend to decide close games is a good way to prepare for an important stretch of games, Romo is taking an Al Davis-like approach.
“We just need to win some games,” Romo said after the game. “I think more than anything you’ve just got to keep stacking wins together and see where you’re at at the end. Our football team continues to try and improve each week that goes by and I think we’re playing some of our better football right now.”
We have been here before with the Cowboys. We’ve seen them play good football through Thanksgiving and come so close to the playoffs that they can taste it, only to do overdo it on the turkey and wind up in a month-long hibernation.
The Cowboys are in full control of their destiny from here on out. If they finish strong, they’ll earn themselves a playoff spot. And if things come together at the right time, this may be the year that Dallas finally rediscovers their post-season success.