What a week for the Cowboys, who improved to 6-1, thanks to the play of Cooper Rush, who filled in for Dak Prescott. The Cowboys' defense had one of its best games and to think they still have some talented players coming back from injury.
Before we dive into this Sunday's game with Denver, let's look at five other aspects on my mind:
Cooper Rush is ready for primetime
The biggest question mark on the Cowboys' roster was considered the backup quarterback spot based on the inexperience of Cooper Rush. The skepticism should subside after watching the fourth-year pro put up a 300-yard performance in his first career start with Dak Prescott sidelined with an injury.
Rush earned super-sub status after performing like a five-star general directing the Cowboys' offense like a veteran. The first-time starter did not wilt under the pressure and his poise in the clutch shows an in-game maturity that surpasses his experience. Rush patiently worked through his progressions as he frequently found the second or third option in the route when the Vikings took away the primary receiver.
In addition, he kept the ball out of harm's way by dumping the ball off to his running backs and tight end underneath coverage. With Rush willing to take the layups when the coverage dictates, the offense continued to flow and stay on schedule.
For a backup quarterback to understand how to play chess against a veteran defensive mastermind like Mike Zimmer, the Cowboys should feel better about their backup quarterback situation heading down the stretch.
The "Energizers" spark the defense
It does not take long to figure out that Randy Gregory, Micah Parsons, and Trevon Diggs are the heart and soul of the defense. As ultra-competitive defenders with non-stop motors, their individual and collective energy sparks the entire unit.
Whether it is Gregory rushing off the edge utilizing a variety of athletic rush moves to blow past blockers at the point of attack to register a sack or quarterback, or it is Parsons hustling from sideline to sideline to make a tackle for loss, or it is Diggs coming down with an acrobatic interception, the big play trio has played a major role in the defense's rejuvenated spirit this season.
As a wise coach once told me, "If you want a hard-playing defense, you need to play the players who play the hardest."
Looking at the defense's rise to prominence in 2021, it is not a coincidence that No.94, No.11 and No.7 have emerged as the team's playmakers based on the energy and effort that each defender exerts between the lines. Sure, they are talented and instinctive, but the "hustle hard" mentality that the trio brings to the field is one of the reasons why the Cowboys' defense has a chance to join the ranks of the elite this season.
Who's the real No.1?
The Cowboys are one of the few teams in the league with a pair of wide receivers with No.1 option ability. Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb are each capable of serving as a WR1 on the team, which makes it hard to determine where the ball should go in critical moments.
Although it is a good problem for the coaching staff, it certainly can create a dilemma for the quarterback when deciding which receiver should I trust the most with the game on the line.
Against the Vikings, Rush was tasked with that decision in determining which sticky-fingered pass catcher would be the target on the fade route that ultimately won the game. With Cooper and Lamb reportedly lobbying for the play, Rush opted to trust the veteran at that moment and No.19 rewarded him by hauling in the game-winner over an overmatched cornerback.
It is quite possible that Lamb would have delivered the same result in that situation against the corner on the other side. Remember, No.88 caught the game-winner against the Patriots a few weeks ago to help the Cowboys chalk up win No.5 in Week 6.
With defensive coordinators unable to determine where the ball is going with the game on the line, the Cowboys have a significant advantage over their opponents down the stretch. It will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott take advantage of the WR1s as the games become more meaningful in December and January.
Mike McCarthy has the team rounding into championship form
It takes about half of a season for a head coach to assess the strengths and weaknesses of his team, and how to build a plan to maximize their potential. After watching the Cowboys surge to a 6-1 start with an explosive offense and opportunistic defense playing A-level football, Mike McCarthy understands that this squad has the potential to fell the confetti drop on their shoulder if he is able to give them the tools needed to make a deep postseason run.
The knowledge and expertise that he gained from his time with the Packers have come in handy as he has started to whip the Cowboys into championship contender on the field. The Cowboys have the No.1 ranked offense in football and they are third in points per game (32.1). Defensively, the team is tied for third in the league in takeaways (13) and they holding opposing offenses to fewer than 90 rushing yards per game (88.3)—sixth-best in the NFL.
Championship teams traditionally have the ability to produce big plays on offense while taking the ball away and suffocating running games on defense. The Cowboys are excelling in those key areas and it is one of the reasons why the team has surged to the top of the NFC.
The return of La'el Collins could help the O-Line survive without Tyron Smith
The return of La'el Collins was expected to give the Cowboys their original starting five for a stretch run that could culminate in a title, but the veteran could become a key sub as a fill-in for Tyron Smith as the perennial Pro Bowler nurses an injury.
That is not what Collins desires based on his history of starting at right tackle, but the team is comfortable with Terence Steele at the spot and this temporary move would help the team maintain its comfortable lead in the NFC East. Moreover, it would put Collins on the left side and help him begin the process of mastering different footwork and techniques that could help him if the team opts to move him to left guard to put the best five linemen on the field.
After missing most of the season with injuries and a suspension, Collins could become a team MVP as a capable fill-in for a franchise tackle poised to miss a little action with an injury.