The Cowboys might have clinched the division title prior to an impressive performance against the Washington Football Team, but it was the gut-punch delivered to their division rival that has the football world buzzing about a Super Bowl run.
There is still plenty of work to be done, but this Cowboys' team has all of the ingredients of a championship squad. Given some time to review the tape, here are my thoughts and observations from Week 16…
Dak breaks out of his slump
Whether Dak Prescott admits it or not, the veteran certainly was playing well below his standards prior to his impressive performance against WFT.
The sixth-year pro had posted a passer rating above 100.0 in just two of his last seven starts with a 9:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio during that span. The spate of mediocre performance fueled talk of Prescott being mired in a slump and the veteran needed a blockbuster game to silence the critics.
Against WFT, Prescott ended all of that nonsense by completing 22 of his first 25 passes on the way to putting up a 300-yard game (330 pass yards) with four scores. The veteran made a handful of spectacular throws that dropped a few jaws and helped the offense regain some of the pop that has been missing since the middle of the season.
To be fair, the offense's struggles should have been expected due to the rash of injuries that prevented the offense from building the chemistry and connectivity needed to thrive against elite defenses. The connection between Prescott and his pass-catchers, in particular, was off with Gallup, Cooper, and Lamb missing time throughout the season.
With the band finally back together and able to put invaluable time on the practice field, Prescott was able to get back on the same page with his pass-catchers and play like the MVP candidate who torched opponents at the beginning of the season. If this version of No.4 plays in the playoffs, it will be hard for opponents to knock the Cowboys out of the playoffs regardless of their seeding in the tournament.
Tempo, tempo, tempo
Credit offensive coordinator Kellen Moore for prioritizing tempo against the Washington Football Team. The extensive utilization of a hurry, no-huddle approach enabled the Cowboys' offense to rediscover its rhythm and flow as one of the most explosive units in the league.
With Prescott instructed to push the pace, the Cowboys were able to wear out an overwhelmed WFT defense forced into a simplistic game plan due to communication concerns. Moreover, the frenetic pace wore down a defense that was unable to sneak in substitutes or mix up their personnel packages to better match up with the Cowboys' perimeter playmakers.
Prescott took advantage of the WFT's simplistic plan by stringing together a series of completions that enabled the offense to pile up first downs and touchdowns in an impressive first-half performance. The Cowboys scored on five straight offensive possessions (all touchdowns) and finally looked like the juggernaut that led the NFL in points and yardage at the beginning of the season.
After unlocking the offense's potential utilizing a faster pace the Cowboys should consider playing with more tempo to charge up a high-powered offense that is capable of lighting up scoreboards around the league.
A fresh D-Law energizes the defense
The coaching staff would never admit it, but Demarcus Lawrence's injury-related absence at the beginning of the season might have been a blessing in disguise. The extended layoff resulted in the veteran rejoining the starting lineup fresh and healthy as the Cowboys hit the stretch run.
Although NFL has not embraced the "load management" concepts that have been popularized in the NBA, the emphasis on rest and recovery for star players to ensure their availability for the playoffs has helped several teams hang championship banners in their respective areas (SEE Kwahi Leonard and Toronto Raptors).
The Cowboys are reaping the benefits of Lawrence's sabbatical with the Pro Bowl defensive end imposing his will on opponents since returning to the lineup in Week 13. Since his return against the Saints, the Cowboys have not only reeled off four straight wins but the veteran has amassed two sacks, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and an interception in four games.
With Micah Parsons' development accelerated due to the extra pass rush reps he received in No.90's absence, the Cowboys have been able to diversify their pass rush packages the band back together. The combination of Lawrence, Parsons, and Randy Gregory has overwhelmed opponents with the trios taking turns wreaking havoc off the edges.
Considering how Lawrence's absence enabled defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to experiment with different schemes while resting a key veteran defender, the Cowboys' inadvertent load management strategy might spark a title run.
Special teams make an impact
The kicking game is frequently overlooked as a key component of a championship team, but the Cowboys could gain an edge on their opponents with an emerging special teams unit making more plays down the stretch.
Corey Clement joined the party against WFT with a blocked punt that resulted in a second-half touchdown. Although the game was out of hand at that point, the punt block will prompt future opponents to spend more time on punt protection and create more opportunities for big returns.
CeeDee Lamb will have more room to field kicks and bigger creases to attack with blockers/cover guys sitting in a little longer to make sure the protection is solid before filling their lanes. The second-year pro has been close to breaking one, but it could happen in the coming weeks with Clement's block changing how opponents will handle the punt rush.
Special teams coordinator John Fassel must get Greg Zuerlein on track with his extra points (87.1 conversion rate) but the veteran kicker has exceptional range and his ability to knock down 50-yarders could be a difference-maker in a close game.
Considering the Cowboys' explosive potential in the kicking game through return, blocks, or kicks, the special teams units could give them a hidden advantage during a title chase that could feature a number of close games.
Quinn and Moore drawing interest on the circuit
It is not a surprise to hear each of the Cowboys' coordinators cited as viable candidates as the NFL coaching carousel begins to spin with the season coming to an end. Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn have played critical roles in the team's emergence as a title contender, and their contributions warrant consideration.
Moore has transformed a Cowboys' offense into a juggernaut by unlocking Dak Prescott's potential as a playmaker from the pocket. In addition, the offensive coordinator's ability to manage a star-studded lineup with a number of playmakers and pass catchers with big-play potential will serve him well as a leader of a team tasked with handling different personalities and units. Despite his age (33) being a bit of a concern, the leadership, creativity, and management skills displayed by Moore will make him a hot commodity in a league searching for the next great offensive mind.
Quinn's name is heating up in coaching circles due to the defense's dramatic improvement from a season ago. The enthusiastic leader has created a disruptive takeaway machine utilizing a mix of veterans and newcomers in a simplistic scheme that suits the team's talents. The flawless execution and the "hustle hard" mentality displayed by the unit suggests DQ has the secret sauce needed to rebuild a program
With a resume that also features a Super Bowl appearance as a head coach, the Cowboys' defense coordinator deserves to be at the top of the list for teams looking for a leader with the experience and expertise to get the job done.