Nick Eatman is the author of his third book, the recently published ***Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas****, a chronicle of three football teams on three levels in Texas, from high school to college to the Cowboys. *
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Going on the road in the NFL is usually hard enough.
Going on the road and losing the turnover battle, typically spells doom for any team.
Going on the road, losing the turnover battle and getting out-gained in total yards won't win you many games.
Going on the road, losing the turnover battle, getting out-gained in total yards and time of possession and having double-digit penalties … well that just screams a big fat L.
But not this team, and not this time.
If you want to really figure out why this team is so good this year, look no further than this game here at the brand-new U.S. Bank Stadium. Because the Cowboys did a lot of things that will get average to good NFL teams beat.
This team isn't average anymore. And they've surpassed good.
This is the best team in the NFL and it's not even close. Did they play like the best team? Not at all. Yet, they won – and beat a team that is fighting to make the playoffs. And beat a team that has one of the better defenses in the league.
Without a doubt, this was a struggle. It was a fight. It's the kind of games head coach Jason Garrett warns his team about every week.
Sometimes it's not going to go your way. Sometimes that ball won't bounce the way it's supposed to. Sometimes it's just not your night.
And for the most part, it wasn't the Cowboys' night. Yet, they won.
That's why this is a great football team.
Hey, we all know you can't make a living with games like this, especially in the playoffs. Playing with fire will get you burnt at some point – literally if you're a cornerback going up against some of the elite receivers. And on this night, the Vikings' offense was far from elite. Sam Bradford has never been a quarterback I considered in the top half of the league and even though he engineered a last-minute drive, I never truly thought the Vikings would tie the game.
I think my exact quote to my colleagues on the field was, "I just don't see Bradford putting the ball in that purple area two times." Touchdown, maybe. But not a touchdown and a two-pointer. Hey, don't look now but this Cowboys defense is the best in the league at something – stopping the two-point conversion. They did it four times in Pittsburgh, and now one each in the last three games. Something about getting the ball in from the 2 is hard to do against these Cowboys.
That's the definition of bend-but-don't-break. This defense bent several times Thursday night, but never really broke.
No they don't get pressure. And no the defense doesn't get turnovers. Occasionally they will give up a big play or have a costly penalty. But the Cowboys have figured out how to stiffen up when it's time to make a play.
The offense is the same way on the flip side. Led by this unfazed rookie quarterback, the Cowboys just know how to turn it on when the game is on the line.
Again, Thursday night was a prime example of this. Struggling to sustain drives all night, the Cowboys wasted no time in taking advantage of their first turnover since October. After Kyle Wilber's forced fumble and recovery, the Cowboys dusted off any consistency issues we had seen for three previous quarters and went straight to Dez Bryant for the go-ahead touchdown.
Hey, it's December – that time of year when gifts are given and received. The Cowboys got a gift with that fumble and made sure to tear right into the wrapping to get to the prize.
It's that time of killer instinct that will help this team in the playoffs. Yeah, I feel rather comfortable in writing that statement because the Cowboys are knocking on the doorstep of making the postseason. All they need at this point is for the Redskins to lose Sunday to Arizona, or the Bucs to lose or tie Sunday at San Diego. If ever of those scenarios occur, the Cowboys will at least clinch a playoff spot. If they win next week at the Giants, the Cowboys will clinch the NFC East as well.
And to think we're only two days in December and the Cowboys already have a chance to clinch playoff berths and division titles.
But that's what these Cowboys have earned. They've earned it because they've stayed the course the entire 12 weeks of the season.
Trust me, you don't need to remind me the Vikings are struggling right now and have an offense that isn't very good. We all know teams like the Seahawks, Falcons and maybe the Lions can give the Cowboys some problems in the playoffs. And no one probably wants to see the Giants or Redskins for a third time this season.
But if Thursday's win proved anything, it's the Cowboys can win ugly. They can roll up their sleeves and grind out a victory even though all of the stats are against them.
That's when talent usually prevails. It prevailed here Thursday night, giving the Cowboys one of their toughest wins of the season.
We're pretty sure the competition will be better down the road. But after 12 games, I think it's an even safer assumption to think the Cowboys will be better as well.