There is no such thing as an ugly win in the NFL. It is hard to win games in an ultra-competitive league with great players and coaches on each side of the field.
The Cowboys did not play to their championship standard in a 27-23 win over the Houston Texans. The team was sloppy and lethargic for most of the game but found a way to flip the switch down the stretch to get the win.
After reviewing and reflecting on the game, here are some thoughts and observations from a former NFL scout…
Cowboys need to quit playing with their food
Despite urging his team to play to a championship standard each week, the Cowboys tend to play to the level of their competition. If facing a team viewed a title contender, the Cowboys will bring their A-game to the field, as evidenced by their impressive wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings.
That said, the Cowboys have slogged through wins against the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans despite fielding a roster with significantly more talent and playmaking potential than the opposition. The flawed execution from the Cowboys for most of the Texans' game can be attributed to the team's lack of maturity or focus.
Instead of knocking the Texans out with a furious flurry from the opening kick, the Cowboys waited until the game's late stages to mount a rally behind Dak Prescott. In leading the offense to a game-winning score, the veteran exhibited the composure, poise and playmaking skills to make big plays under duress. Prescott connected on six of seven throws for 79 yards while also adding 15 on the ground on two rush attempts.
Given the efficient execution displayed by the offense throughout the drive, it makes you wonder why it took the Cowboys so long to get into a rhythm.
Defensively, the Cowboys' ability to produce stops or turnovers on five of the Texans' final six possessions suggests the team was sleepwalking through the first half when it allowed 20 points to a one-win squad. Maybe it took a while for defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to get a feel for the Texans' quarterback rotation and quirky call sequence, but the defense stood up when needed to close out a game hanging in the balance.
Overall, it is a win, but the Cowboys need to lock in and quickly dismiss an overmatched opponent if they want to be viewed as legitimate title contenders.
Can Jason Peters hold up at right tackle?
The loss of Terence Steele to a season-ending knee injury has forced the Cowboys to insert Jason Peters at right tackle. Although the veteran has earned all-star accolades throughout his career due his work on the other side, it is hard to imagine a 40-year-old thriving on the edges in the twilight of his career.
Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore must protect the former Pro Bowler by tweaking the call sheet to feature more right-handed formations (tight end aligned on the right attached to the right tackle) and quick-rhythm throws designed to get the ball out of Prescott's hands quickly.
In addition, the Cowboys' commitment to the running game should help mask some of Peters' flaws as a blocker. Despite his diminishing athleticism, the massive edge blocker remains an effective asset due to his ability to move defenders off of the ball. With Peters acting as a road grader beside Zach Martin, the Cowboys can continue to bludgeon opponents with off-tackle runs to Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
While it is not ideal to have an aging veteran with diminishing skills occupying a key position, Peters' experience and expertise could enable him to play effectively if the Cowboys make some schematic tweaks to limit his exposure on the edges.
It is time for Dak to clean up his game
If the Cowboys are going to reach their potential as a title contender, they must avoid the self-inflicted errors that routinely lead to losses. Turnovers are the No.1 factor in determining wins and losses, and the Cowboys' QB1 has been giving away the ball at an alarming rate.
Prescott has thrown at least one interception in six of his eight starts and is nearing double digits (9) for the second straight season and the fourth time of his career. While an uptick in interceptions is common for quarterbacks directing pass-happy attacks, the Cowboys' star is throwing the ball to the other team in a run-based offense built around Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Moreover, Prescott has a 3.6% interception rate after posting a rate above 2.0% (2.7% in 2017) just once in his seven-year career.
Given the staggering increase in miscues from the veteran, the Cowboys must find a way to help Prescott curb his turnover issues down the stretch to avoid an embarrassing "one-and-done" appearance in the postseason. McCarthy and Moore will not only need to challenge the star quarterback to recommit to his footwork and fundamentals, but they must also consider adjusting their play calls to decrease the odds of Prescott throwing it to the opponents.
Although most franchise quarterbacks would bristle at being demoted into a "managerial" role, the Cowboys will be forced to take away some of Prescott's privileges as a player if he does not correct his turnover problem.
What does T.Y. Hilton add to the rotation?
The Cowboys apparently wanted to add an experienced, speedy wideout to the rotation to upgrade the explosiveness of the passing game. The flirtation with OBJ revealed the team's plans to make a move, but the flamboyant star is not quite ready to return to action.
By signing TY Hilton to a one-year deal to complete the season as a potential WR3 or WR4, the Cowboys are adding a veteran playmaker with enough speed and quickness to take some of the pressure off of CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup to produce big plays down the field. As a savvy route runner with "plus" speed, quickness, and burst, Hilton should be able to win against sub-defenders (nickel and dime corners) on the backside of formations.
Considering the four-time Pro Bowler has amassed almost 10,000 receiving yards and 53 touchdowns as a career WR1, Hilton is an upgrade over the others vying for the role. Experience and expertise matter down the stretch, and Hilton's resume makes him the perfect candidate to serve as a "super-sub" during a playoff run.
Despite facing long odds to overtake the Eagles for the division crown, the Cowboys must pick up their play down the stretch to build some momentum heading into the playoffs. The Cowboys face three teams with winning records (Philadelphia, Washington, and Tennessee) and a scrappy squad that is discovering its identity down the stretch.
Mike McCarthy must help his team play with playoff-like intensity, urgency, and physicality over the next four games to fully prepare them for the "win-or-go-home" atmosphere of the postseason tournament. The game becomes faster and more intense when the calendar year changes, and the Cowboys must prepare for the playoffs by treating the next four games as "must-win" contests on the schedule.
By ramping up the intensity, focus, and attention to detail during the regular season's final month, the Cowboys will be better prepared to handle the pressure of playing a playoff game on the road in a hostile environment.