EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Perhaps it would be wiser not to nitpick about these things, to search for the small black cloud in every silver-and-blue lining. Or victory. The Cowboys must wait until Tuesday to officially try to capture the NFC East, due to a COVID-fueled delay of the Washington-Philadelphia game, but when you remain unbeaten in the division after a 21-6 win over the New York Giants and hold a 3.5-game lead this late in the holiday season, a division title is hardly the goal.
Likewise, the Cowboys flew home after another defense-inspired victory without knowing the outcome of the Buccaneers-Saints game that could guarantee them a playoff berth. Again when you’re 10-4 and know that an 11-6 record will grant you a home game in the first round, no one is eager to celebrate a mere invitation to the 14-team tournament.
But, it’s just weird and hard to ignore the fact the Cowboys can’t get their passing game on track.
We have seen teams capture Lombardi Trophies with a defense and a running game and not much more than that. The Cowboys seem capable of carrying at least those strengths into the playoffs as long as their best running back, Tony Pollard, stays healthy. The club’s most explosive weapon remains a bench player despite the fact his 12 runs Sunday averaged more per carry (6.2 yards) than the entirety of Dallas’ 40 pass plays (5.1 yards).
Even with another four-turnover game from the defense making this a relatively easy victory, I think it’s fair to ask whatever happened to Dak Prescott throwing to his “Big Three” wide receivers. There was a time Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup were viewed as capable of gaining 1,000 yards receiving apiece. On Sunday afternoon, Prescott threw passes in their direction 19 times. That produced a whopping 90 yards, no touchdowns and a fourth-quarter Dak turnover (this time a fumble) for the third straight week.
“That’s just the way defenses are playing us,’’ Prescott said. “They’re not gonna let these guys get over the top. You’ve got to throw underneath and hope to get some run after the catch.’’
Keep in mind the opponents were the Giants, who surrendered 37 to the Los Angeles Chargers last week, 38 to the Los Angeles Rams and 30 to the Bucs not so long ago and, oh yes, suffered a 44-20 loss to Dallas back in October. In that game, with Gallup sidelined, Lamb and Cooper totaled 144 yards and two touchdowns and wideouts Noah Brown and Cedrick Wilson supplied another 71 yards receiving.
There was no talk of what the Giants gave Dallas in October. That Cowboys offense simply took.
But the Cowboys’ three-game win streak has been a product of a defense that creates big plays all over the place and an offense that barely takes advantage of it. The Cowboys’ three touchdown drives the last two games have amassed 41, 29 and 13 yards.
“It’s definitely frustrating,’’ Prescott said. “The defense is doing a great job of giving us the ball in plus territory. We’re just trying to peak at the right time, be playing our best going into the playoffs. The defense is doing that. The offense still has some growth to do.’’
In MetLife Stadium, tight end Dalton Schultz was Prescott’s only reliable target with eight catches for 67 yards. Lamb had two awkward drops — one while trying to one-hand the ball unnecessarily and another just losing the ball while leaping at the wrong time — and Prescott endured a sack/fumble late in the game while trying to find Cooper.
For the day, Lamb had 50 yards on six catches, Gallup 32 on three and Cooper eight yards on two. That looks more like first-quarter stats from a year ago, and if the Cowboys were dominating in the run game, maybe those totals would be acceptable. But, while leading the entire day, Dallas threw the ball a lot more than it chose to run it, and Ezekiel Elliott’s runs — despite a 13-yard touchdown — netted less than 3.5 yards per carry.
We know the Cowboys can survive this way. They can certainly beat Washington again since the Football Team will be playing on short rest following a Tuesday game with the Eagles. And Dallas will certainly be favored to beat Arizona which has gone from No. 1 seed to No. 4 in six days with losses to the Rams and Detroit Lions.
But, if the playoffs are really all about everyone firing their best shot, the once-proud strength of this team cannot get untracked. Since the end of October, Gallup has the only 100-yard game among Cowboys wide receivers, and it came in a wild Thanksgiving Day loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
Look, Dallas’ 10-4 record is not to be ignored. It would match Kansas City’s for the best in the AFC and at least has the Cowboys hoping of climbing the ranks of the division winners in the NFC. But, a passing attack that once frightened opponents is doing all it can to be functional these days. And it’s impossible to say what exactly is going to change that come January.