For a span of about fifteen minutes on Sunday, it looked like the Cowboys could do no wrong. Quarterback Dak Prescott tossed three touchdowns on three consecutive drives; the only ball that hit the ground in that stretch was a two-point conversion attempt. Running back Ezekiel Elliott ripped off 68 yards on just 4 carries, and the defense intercepted two throws while not allowing a third-down conversion and holding the Panthers scoreless.
But that third-quarter explosion was nearly followed by a fourth-quarter implosion. The 22-point lead Dallas held in the opening minute of the final frame dissolved quickly as Carolina clawed their way back with 14 unanswered points, making for more nail biting than Cowboys fans, players, and coaches might have liked.
The eventual 36-28 win gave the Cowboys an impressive 3-1 record to start 2021. But the team eased up prematurely to let the Panthers make it close. The team has long used “Finish” as one of its mantras; Elliott and the leaders of the locker room appear to have something to focus on as a new week starts.
“We played really well this first month of the season,” Elliott told reporters in his postgame remarks, “but the biggest thing I want to see us do is play a complete game. I think we’re good enough where- we shouldn’t, but we get up and I think we kind of let our foot off the gas pedal. I think our next step as a football team is going out there and choking a team out. I think last week and this week we had opportunities to end the game really early, but we kind of let them hang around. I understand this is the NFL, but I want to see us as a team make that next step.”
On a day when he served as offensive captain, Elliott dominated on the ground with 143 rushing yards and a score. But Sunday’s win showcased a very team-centric attack from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s unit. Prescott threw four touchdowns yet didn’t top 200 yards; none of his six targets surpassed 70 yards. And after Amari Cooper’s score gave the lead back to Dallas in the third, it was tight end Dalton Schultz and backup wideout Cedrick Wilson who provided the cushion with touchdown receptions of their own.
“That’s kind of the strength of this offense,” according to Prescott, “getting the ball in these guys’ hands. You see what they can do afterwards and what Kellen’s dialing up. The play to Ced, we took advantage of something that we did in the first half to come back and use it against them and spring Ced open for that touchdown. [Same with] Dalton later. Yeah, just being able to mix it around and get it in different guys’ hands. All these guys are greedy; they know the next guy’s going to go and try to make a touchdown if they don’t get theirs with their opportunity.”
The result was a feeding frenzy that gave Cowboys fans a tantalizing look at what they’ve hoped this offense could be when it’s firing on all cylinders. And although the defense let Carolina mount a strong comeback effort, even Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy had to admit that the third-quarter burst was something to behold.
“What was it like? It was fun,” the coach told media members afterward. “You’re obviously focused on other things, but yeah, when you do get in a groove and things click, it’s a lot of excitement. But every football game has an ebb and flow to it. There’s momentum swings that you have to stay in tune with. You have to be ready for the counter-punches that the opponent plays, but I like the way our guys stay up on the balls of their feet and keep punching.”
In the end, the Cowboys took a few late body blows, but had thankfully done enough damage in earlier rounds to come away with the decision.
“We left some meat on the bone,” Prescott said. “We left some plays out there. We want to finish that game with another touchdown on one of those last two drives. That’s just the expectation and the standard of this offense… I’m sure the defense is pissed they allowed some of those late touchdowns. I know we’re upset that we didn’t capitalize on a few of those touchdowns.”
“As long as everyone keeps playing the way we’ve been playing and stay together, I think we’ll be all right,” defensive end Randy Gregory added after the win. “The only issue I had, kind of like what Zeke said, is finishing games out. You play so well for three quarters, and I think guys kind of relax a little bit. We can’t have that. We’ve got to have the ability to really shut teams out and finish them out. I think we had the opportunity to do that this week, just like last week, and we didn’t capitalize on that. I think that’s probably the aspect of our game as a whole that we need to get better at.”
Expect the Cowboys to focus more what they didn’t do especially well for three quarters instead of the fifteen minutes when it all clicked as they continue their pursuit of a complete-game performance in all three phases with the rival Giants coming to town.