Less than an hour after he walked out of the ring, with marks of a three-hour heavyweight fight still on him, Dak Prescott had every right to take every bit of criticism fired at him over the five previous days with him to the podium.
Instead, he went the other way.
“Let’s start with the interception,” Prescott said to the room of assembled media.
The 29-year-old quarterback then explained that he’d underestimated the length of Eagles edge rusher Josh Sweat, who plucked Prescott’s throw at point-blank range, then raced it 42 yards to paydirt. That happened less than six minutes into the game and put the Eagles up 10-0. It came on the heels of a seven-play, 68-yard field goal drive that Philadelphia backup QB Gardner Minshew had engineered to start the game.
It was also an interesting thing for Prescott to bring up first, on the heels of a career game in a very big spot at AT&T Stadium on Christmas Eve. And it’s indicative of where Dallas is right now, as it chases Philly, and seeding, in the NFC—the Cowboys’ best players aren’t just really, really good. They’re also accountable, and you saw that this week after a win, just like you did a week ago after a crushing loss to the Jaguars.
“I mean, Dak does his thing, no matter what,” do-everything linebacker Micah Parsons told me by phone, as he was leaving the locker room postgame. “If you give him the run game, he’s gonna take the run game. If you give him the pass game and the chance to throw it, he’s gonna throw it. We got one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and he just showed that here today.”
He showed more than just that.
The Cowboys, as a whole team, did too.
That 10-0 deficit? The pick-six? Learned from. Deal with. Compartmentalized. And Prescott was hardly the only star with a star on his helmet to show that sort of resilience and competitiveness on Saturday afternoon.
Which is why the Cowboys came out of it with a 40-34 win—and a different look about them than they’ve had in a while.
Given the Christmas weekend schedule, we’re hitting you a day early on Cowboys-Eagles. Come Monday, you’ll also have…
• How the Bengals showed their mettle in the face of a meltdown.
• Why the Bills stayed an extra night in downtown Chicago.
• Where the Panthers have reshaped their identity.
• What you’ll be doing to get Sunday Ticket in 2023.
• Who you’ll be watching in the College Football Playoff.
But we’re kicking off this week’s MMQB column with a special early-Sunday-morning release of our lead for Week 16, with a focus on the big step the Cowboys look like they’re taking.
There were a number of points of emphasis for the Cowboys’ defense this week, but the overarching theme for the group really was the same as it was for the offense. Just as Prescott and the offense had yielded a backbreaking overtime pick-six to the Jaguars, the defense had allowed Jacksonville to drive 41 yards and set up an overtime-forcing field goal in just over a minute. So this week, the players would be judged on chips-down situations.
That’s why, even if he wasn’t particularly happy with how it materialized, the hair on the back of Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s neck stood up when he saw his unit would have the chance to hold the line, when Minshew spiked the ball at the Dallas 19 with 33 seconds left, after a spectacular DeVonta Smith catch for 22 yards and a first down.
“That was the moment I was actually hoping we’d get to, because you can’t really say that you learned or have gotten better until you’re in that moment again,” Quinn says. “And here we are tonight, in that moment again to go close it. … Allowing a field goal at the end of regulation against Jacksonville really pissed us off to say, Hey, when you got somebody out there, you gotta take them to the deep water and finish them.
“So I said, We’re not gonna prove that we’ve done that until you’re in that moment again.”
And then, they proved it.
On second-and-10, with 33 seconds left, Parsons came off the right edge, forcing Minshew up in the pocket where Dorance Armstrong Jr. was looping around and coming free, eventually getting his arms up to force a high throw from Minshew. The ball, likewise, came in too high for Smith, who was waiting for it in the back of the end zone.
On third-and-10, with 27 seconds left, Parsons took a false step outside, then burst inside, going right by left tackle Jordan Mailata and into Minshew’s lap. The shifty quarterback was able to get away, but Parsons gave chase and forced a throwaway.
Then finally, on fourth-and-10, Armstrong’s initial burst into the backfield got Minshew off his spot, and influenced a hasty, off-balance throw down the sideline to AJ Brown, who found himself in a Dallas team meeting—no fewer than five Cowboys defenders were in close proximity to the Eagles’ star wideout.
Now, here’s how coaches really saw the Cowboys answer the bell: While Dallas did feign pressure on that final snap by crowding the line with seven guys, on all three of those plays, the defense came with a standard four-man rush. Nothing fancy, nothing exotic. It was, more or less, Quinn telling his guys to beat the other guys, a nice vote of confidence for those pass rushers when the “other guys” happen to be the NFL’s best offensive line.
Dallas, in fact, didn’t bring any extra rushers, period, on the Eagles’ final possession.
“Yeah, we just had to be relentless,” Parsons says. “We had to become one of the best; Well, I mean, we are one of the best D-lines in the world. And we had to show that here today in the end-of-game situation.”
Which only made everything else that happened in the previous three hours at AT&T Stadium stand out.
Weird as it sounds for a game in which the Cowboys’ defense yielded 27 points (seven of the Eagles’ points, again, came on the pick-six), that unit checked a lot of its boxes.
Tackling was a big point of emphasis, with all the movement and space the Eagles created, and Dallas’s ability to hold Philly to just 87 yards rushing on 29 carries was proof that the message got through. Quinn and his players also wanted to limit explosive plays and force the Eagles to drive the field, and Philly needed seven, 10, 10, 10 and 13 plays on its five scoring drives, two of which ended in field goals.
And then there were four turnovers. Two were picks where Jayron Kearse and DaRon Bland outcompeted their guys for the ball. Another was Kearse being where he needed to be to recover a botched exchange between Minshew and Boston Scott. And the final one was generated in the fourth quarter, with Dallas up just 37-34, and Philly starting a new possession, with Parsons creating havoc in the backfield and defensive lineman Carlos Watkins swooping into the mess to punch the ball free from Eagles star Miles Sanders.
“They ran like a tackle-over play, tried to run the ball off, rub me off, and the ball was exposed,” Parsons says. “And our guy just came in and knocked it from behind. What a big play—super big play. … I mean, the emphasis is the same every week, and that’s just getting the ball back. Some games the ball rolls your way, sometimes it doesn’t, but today the ball was picking our way. Shoutout to the football gods.”
But that wouldn’t mean much if Prescott and the Dallas offense couldn’t take advantage.
They’d prove they could. And just as it was Parsons making plays on his side of the ball, it was Dallas’ best players making them on offense—namely, Prescott and CeeDee Lamb (who finished with 10 catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns).
Yes, Prescott threw the pick-six. But folding that one in, the first throw he made that hit the ground was his final one of the first half. Outside of that miss, and the interception, he was 16-of-16 for 168 yards and a touchdown, that touchdown being a 36-yarder on which he found Lamb running open on a corner route through a dead spot in an Eagles zone.
The two scoring throws he made in the second half were even more impactful. On the first one, he scrambled left and found Michael Gallup streaking through the front of the end zone, right into his vision. That tied it at 27 at the end of the third quarter. His next one, a seven-yard dime on a corner fade to Lamb, tied it again at 34 and set the stage for the Cowboys to figure out—to borrow Quinn’s phrase—if they could swim in deep water, a week after they’ d drowned in it.
“Really, every loss is a chance to learn and get better,” Parsons says. “Losing close ones sucks, but there’s always something you can look at and learn from it.”
From there, at 34-34, and with less than six minutes left, the Bland interception led to the go-ahead field goal; the Watkins punch led to another Brett Maher field goal to give the Cowboys a 40-34 cushion. Prescott finished up 27-for-35 for 347 yards and three scores, the interception and a 124.3 rating.
Then, the defense closed things out. Which, as much as anything, proved the team had learned from the Jags game.
“I think when we saw the film, similar things popped up today, things we could do better, things that hurt us down the stretch,” Parsons says. “We fixed it today. And I’m super excited for the guys, that we were able to gut this one out. Similar situation last week, but we were able to finish this game, so, I’m glad we learned from our mistakes. …
“Just our heart, relentlessness, and the will not to quit, through the Texans [a last-minute win in Week 14]the Jags, this game, it’s been close, but we gotta keep trending upwards to the playoffs, and start playing our best football.”
And that’s why, when this one was over, as much as it might’ve proved that these Cowboys might be more resilient and tougher than some of their recent Dallas predecessors, there was still the sobering reminder that the Eagles remain two games up in the NFC East. And that means, with two weeks to go, the Cowboys are probably going to have to go on the road in the playoffs to chase their goals.
But that also has a way of keeping Dallas’s eyes on the prize. So when I asked Parsons about winning this game, and gaining ground in the East, and avenging the Cowboys’ loss to Philly in mid-October, really, he wasn’t having any of it.
“Well, everything we do is about getting to the trophy,” he quickly responds. “That’s what we’re thinking about. We’re not worried about no rivalries. All we’re thinking about is getting to the trophy.”
Like everyone else, on that front, the Cowboys have a long way to go.
But Saturday was a nice step in that direction.