The Dallas Cowboys‘ season reached a fork in the road Sunday. The problem is, they have no control over which direction they go.
The Cowboys’ biggest issue during their disappointing 2-3 start was that Ezekiel Elliott was far off his rookie season paces. That’s not all his fault. The offensive line hasn’t been the same as it was last season. But on Sunday, Elliott looked like he did as a rookie and the Cowboys looked like contenders again. Finally.
Elliott had 147 rushing yards with two rushing touchdowns and added a 72-yard receiving touchdown. He ran with purpose and force. The Cowboys blasted the San Francisco 49ers 40-10 and looked the best they have all season. The 49ers are not your typical winless team; San Francisco had lost its previous five games by 13 combined points. And the Cowboys destroyed them.
Before Sunday, Elliott had been averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and had two rushing touchdowns in five games. He has been warming up lately, and then exploded on Sunday. But we all know when it comes to Elliott this season, we’re talking about more than football.
Elliott was playing Sunday because a federal court issued a temporary restraining order earlier in the week, after it looked like his six-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy would finally have to be served. If it’s up to the NFL, Elliott won’t make the Cowboys’ next game. The league filed a motion to expedite Elliott’s hearing so it happens before the Cowboys’ Week 8 game against Washington, according to the Dallas Morning News. That game is set for Oct. 29, and Elliott’s hearing to get a preliminary injunction is scheduled for Oct. 30.
Elliott could play the rest of the season or be suspended for the Cowboys’ next six games, or suspended six games at some other point later this season. But we could plainly see Sunday how that decision affects the Cowboys.
If this is what we’re getting from Elliott the rest of the way – Elliott’s rushing yards have jumped from 85 against the Rams to 116 against the Packers and 147 on Sunday – then the Cowboys are a different team. We saw last season what they can do when Elliott is dominating. Dak Prescott is very good but Dallas is better off if he’s not asked to do everything by himself. A great running game helps keep a suspect Cowboys defense off the field. Last season that formula led to the Cowboys winning 13 of their first 15 games. On Sunday, we saw that Cowboys team for the first time this season.
But it all goes away if Elliott goes away for six games. The Cowboys won’t be the same team. It seems unlikely they’d be able to keep pace in a competitive NFC East, especially with a tough schedule coming up. Dallas is a potential contender in a wide-open NFC with Elliott and might not be a playoff team without him. The stakes are high for this next step in the legal process.
The Cowboys took a big step toward being their NFC East-winning selves with a great game on Sunday. The next crucial step in the Cowboys’ season will come in a courtroom, and nobody knows which direction that will go.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 7 in the NFL:
The unlikely Chicago Bears: Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky completed four passes. Running back Jordan Howard needed 21 carries to get 65 yards and as a team Chicago had 2.6 yards per rushing attempt. The Bears didn’t score on offense against a good ( … right?) Carolina Panthers team. And the Bears won. By two touchdowns.
This was the Bears’ first win completing four or fewer passes since Dec. 6, 1981, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. It will go down as one of the strangest wins of this NFL season. Give most of the credit to rookie safety Eddie Jackson, the first player in NFL history with two defensive touchdowns of at least 75 yards in the same game. Give some credit to a Bears defense that held the Panthers to a field goal and punished Cam Newton most of the day.
Nobody figured on the Bears winning many games this season, but they’re 3-4 against a tough schedule to this point. The schedule will get easier in the second half, but the Bears will need to get something out of the passing game going forward. Trubisky has 24 completions in three starts, including 12 the past two weeks. There’s not much Chicago can do to make up for an extreme deficiency at receiver, but they’ll have to figure out a way if they want to keep winning. They might need to show a little more faith in their rookie quarterback, for starters. But right now the Bears will take their three wins, no matter how they’re happening. (And on the flip side, the Panthers just lost a game in which the opposing team completed four passes and had 2.6 yards per rush, but that Carolina conversation is for another day.)
Odd Week Jacksonville Jaguars: The Odd Week Jaguars are playing like one of the greatest teams of all time, at least to this point. Seriously. It’s just too bad they have to play on even weeks too.
In Weeks 1, 3, 5 and 7 the Odd Week Jaguars went 4-0 and outscored their opponents 130-23. That’s 26.8 points per game. The 2007 Patriots had the highest point differential in NFL history; they outscored opponents by 19.7 points per game. The Odd Week Jaguars continued their dominance Sunday with a 27-0 win over the Colts. The Jaguars had 10 sacks in the win.
The problem is the Even Week Jaguars are terrible. They’re 0-3 and have been outscored 53-87. It’s an unbelievable split between even weeks and odd weeks. It really is like they’re two separate teams.
If the Jaguars could bottle up what they do every other week, they’d win the AFC South easily. The 1984 Bears hold the NFL record for sacks in a season with 72. The Jaguars are on pace for 75. Calais Campbell already has a career-best 10 sacks, which means Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5 might not be out of reach. The Jaguars dominated the Colts on Sunday even without star running back Leonard Fournette. When the Jaguars are good, they’re amazing.
Here’s the best news: The Even Week Jaguars get a bye next week.
Tre’Davious White: White is having a tremendous rookie season at cornerback for the Buffalo Bills, and it peaked late in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
In a back-and-forth 27-27 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, receiver Adam Humphries caught a short pass and White caused a fumble that won the Bills the game. He made a great, clutch play to punch it out, like retired Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman was famous for doing. Buffalo recovered and kicked a field goal in the final seconds to win 30-27. The Bills are a surprising 4-2 and White, their first-round pick, is a big reason.
Yet, White was upset with himself after the game for giving up a touchdown to Mike Evans. That came on a great catch by the sideline from Evans that almost any cornerback would have given up, but that didn’t matter to the competitive rookie.
“I almost cost us the game again; gave up another touchdown,” White said, according to the Democrat and Chronicle. “If it weren’t for the offense we would have lost because of me again.”
The Bills will probably take White giving up a great touchdown catch to one of the game’s best receivers in exchange for a play that turned the game in their favor.
Joe Thomas: Thomas isn’t a star on the same level as Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham or J.J. Watt, but he has a level of fame most offensive linemen don’t reach, and it’s terrible that he’s injured now.
Thomas hurt his triceps in Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans. It’s worth celebrating Thomas’ great iron-man streak, which might be more impressive than any other. Cal Ripken never had to block defensive ends, after all.
Thomas played 10,363 snaps in a row before the injury. He hadn’t missed an offensive snap in 11 seasons. He has played on some awful Browns teams but kept showing up and playing at an incredible level. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and respected enough that Titans tackle Taylor Lewan came off the bench to give Thomas a pat on the behind as he left the field.
— Joe Thomas (@joethomas73) October 22, 2017
Thomas has the incredibly rare distinction of being the biggest star on an NFL team even though he’s an offensive tackle. Now he might be done for the season with a torn triceps, and that stinks.
The new king of the NFC North: I was willing to give the Brett Hundley-led Green Bay Packers a chance before writing them off. Well, Hundley wasn’t good in his first start, the Packers lost at home to a resurgent New Orleans Saints team, and now it’s clear where the division is headed.
If the Minnesota Vikings, even with their own injury issues, don’t win the NFC North then it’s a pretty big disappointment.
The Vikings throttled the Baltimore Ravens in a 24-16 win. They’re 5-2 and have the type of defense that can take a team a long way. Also credit the coaching staff for making fine adjustments as Sam Bradford, Dalvin Cook and Stefon Diggs have missed games. There might not be an Aaron Rodgers in that group, but they’ve compensated tremendously for a lot of injured talent.
Diggs will presumably be back soon, Bradford could return at some point, and the Vikings are making do without Cook for the rest of the season. Unless Hundley shows significant improvement soon, the Packers aren’t going to pass them. It’s the Vikings’ division title to lose now.
Adrian Peterson: The second act of Peterson’s Arizona Cardinals story wasn’t as good.
Peterson, who won NFC offensive player of the week in his first Cardinals game last week, had 21 yards on 11 carries against a Los Angeles Rams defense that was suspect before Sunday’s win in London. The Rams took an early lead and that knocked the Cardinals off their game plan.
With the news that Carson Palmer is probably done for eight weeks with a broken left arm, Peterson will be asked to carry a larger part of the offense and that will be a challenge. Despite Peterson’s nice game last week, the Cardinals’ offensive line has been poor most of the season. That showed up on Sunday, too.
Peterson had a great debut with the Cardinals, but then came a rough second game and he has a tough road ahead. If Arizona is going to salvage anything out of this season, it’s now on Peterson’s shoulders.
Josh McCown’s one big mistake: McCown has played pretty well as quarterback of the New York Jets this season, and through three quarters Sunday he might have been the most impressive quarterback of the early set of games. He had three touchdowns and the Jets led the Miami Dolphins 28-14.
Then the Dolphins rallied to tie the game and McCown gave Miami the win.
It’s hard to say what McCown was trying to do on his lone interception, but he clearly never saw Dolphins cornerback Bobby McCain. McCain had a pretty easy interception and a few plays later the Dolphins won on a field goal. It was a bad loss for the Jets, who would have been 4-3 had they held onto a 14-point fourth-quarter lead.
McCown has been much better than anyone could have expected, and the same can be said about the Jets. But he presumably wishes he had his pass to McCain back.
Bengals coaching allowing a fake punt: Before we talk about the fake punt the Steelers ran on the Bengals, let’s get some things out of the way. There was nothing wrong with the Steelers running a fake punt up 12 points. There wouldn’t have been anything wrong with it had they been up 112 points because there’s no such thing as “running up the score” in a professional game. Players sign up for 60 minutes of football. But being up 12 points with about seven minutes left is no lock. If the Steelers thought they could get a first down because the Bengals were giving them one, then they should take it. That’s just a football play. It wasn’t done for spite or a rivalry or the ridiculous notion they were “running it up.” They were trying to win a game.
Now that we have that straight, the Bengals screwed the situation up pretty bad. They left Darrius Heyward-Bey wide open on the offense’s right side. Presumably that didn’t take the Steelers entirely by surprise, because they were ready to snap it to upback Robert Golden in that situation and let him throw. That’s not a play you make up on the fly after you line up.
It’s the Bengals’ fault for allowing a receiver to be wide open for a 44-yard gain that practically sealed a Steelers win. It’s not the Steelers’ fault for taking what Cincinnati was gifting them.
Tennessee Titans: There are no bad wins in the NFL, but the Titans’ win on Sunday comes close.
The Browns are a mess. They started rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer and waited until he made all of two mistakes before pulling him. The Titans would have lost to a better team on Sunday. They were lucky to play the worst team in the NFL and sneak out with a 12-9 overtime win.
Cleveland does have defensive talent, but it still doesn’t fully explain why the Titans played four quarters and an overtime and couldn’t score a touchdown. Marcus Mariota, who had an admirable performance on Monday night through a hamstring injury, wasn’t good on Sunday. He had 203 yards on 34 attempts. He had a chance to hit Delanie Walker for an easy touchdown off a play-action fake in the fourth quarter and badly underthrew his wide-open tight end. The running game didn’t help much either. DeMarco Murray had 59 yards on 18 carries and Derrick Henry was much worse with 13 yards on 13 carries.
The Titans won. They’re 4-3. They have a bye next week and that’s huge for banged-up players like Mariota, Murray and Walker (who sprained his ankle Sunday) to get closer to 100 percent. But the Titans haven’t been the breakout team some folks were planning to see this season.
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