There were still 10 minutes left in the third quarter of the Cowboys’ 44-21 win over the Rams, but given the Cowboys’ 24-point lead at the time and the way the listless Rams were playing, everyone knew how this one was going to turn out.
And considering the underachieving Cowboys were losers of three straight entering the contest, that was a relief. After weeks of reports of disharmony and threats of staff turnover, the Cowboys were practically bursting at the seams, ready to celebrate a return to .500 at 7-7.
That’s also why after the game Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, the man being set up for a Ned Stark-like ending barring a miracle midseason turnaround, spoke in front of his team in the locker room with the conviction of a man trying to speak hope into his charges.
“Toughness was on display today,” Garrett said. “The physical toughness, the mental toughness, was all over our football team. Hell of a job.”
Well, sure. Every victory is a good victory in the NFL, where parity reigns supreme. However, some wins mean more. And while the Cowboys’ desire to get off the schneid was admirable, they didn’t prove much of anything Sunday.
Although it’s tempting to praise them for an inspired effort, considering the wealth of talent on this roster, it’s long overdue. Entering this contest, Dallas was 0-6 against teams above .500, and the Cowboys were also coming off 10 days’ rest. Playing good, tough, football with enthusiasm, especially with a division title and a home playoff game within reach thanks to the fact they play in a historically putrid NFC East this year, was the bare minimum for what was expected Sunday. Especially considering that Dallas pulled from the “Nobody-Believed-In-Us” well for this one.
You can blame Vegas for that. The Cowboys were 1.5-point home underdogs Sunday because the Rams (8-6), who were winners of two straight entering the contest, were erroneously thought to be back by many.
On the surface, it’s easy to understand why. Following a rough start to the season, coach Sean McVay’s group got back to emphasizing their ground game and utilizing play-action off that, their bread-and-butter during their Super Bowl run last season. Aside from an ugly 45-6 home loss to the Baltimore Ravens last month, they’ve played well enough to win five of their previous seven games
However, these are not the 2018 Rams, and this year’s group probably isn’t playoff-worthy, despite its winning record. Last season’s team was much better along the interior offensive line and they were also more adept at protecting Goff and dominating the line of scrimmage in the run game. Since Goff lacks the creativity of a Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers, that’s a big deal. Goff needs both those things operating at peak efficiency to rip up teams the way he did last year, and when they’re not as they weren’t Sunday, the Rams are deeply flawed and eminently beatable.
So, yes, while the Cowboys get credit for bottling up the Rams’ run game Sunday — Los Angeles rushed only 14 times for 22 yards — they shouldn’t get a merit badge for that, even though it feels good for Dallas after the Rams rushed for a playoff-record 273 yards in a 30-22 divisional-round win over the Cowboys last season.
Again, these aren’t the same Rams. Not only do they have two new starters on the offensive line, they also feature a slightly less productive Todd Gurley in the backfield, a star who is averaging nearly a full yard less per carry (4.1) than he did a year ago.
So if Dallas wants to earn some respect, they need to go on the road next weekend and topple a charged up (and sorta-surging) Philadelphia Eagles team that enters with a matching 7-7 record, has won its past two games and feature a suddenly hot Carson Wentz, who is capable of making the second-reaction throws the quarterback they just beat isn’t. If the Cowboys win in Philadelphia, they’ll clinch the NFC East for the second straight season.
Do it, Dallas, and that will open some eyes a bit. But beating whichever clearly better NFC West team in the ensuing wild-card home game — and then winning more games after that — is how the Cowboys can earn respect and save their coaches’ jobs, to boot.
So sure, Cowboys, go ahead and celebrate your win over the Rams. But also know there is still much, much, more work more to do to salvage the season.
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