FRISCO, Texas – The Cowboys' path forward was so clear in watching the Atlanta Falcons race to a 28-3 lead during Super Bowl LI.
True to their identity, the Falcons rolled to a 25-point third quarter lead on the strength of their historically explosive and efficient offense. Their MVP quarterback hit open receivers, never leaning too much on his All-Pro receiver to make plays.
When Matt Ryan wasn't doing his thing, he was letting the Atlanta ground game gash New England for 10 yards per carry – 86 total rushing yards before halftime.
This should all sound like a familiar blueprint if you follow the Cowboys.
The main difference between the Cowboys and an Atlanta team that claimed the NFC crown was the swarming play of a defense that was almost entirely homegrown.
The Falcons were paced by the rookie duo of Keanu Neal and Deion Jones, who combined for 22 tackles and a crucial forced fumble to cap off fantastic debut seasons. Robert Alford, a second-round pick in 2013, broke things open with an 82-yard pick-six to cap off the first half.
Atlanta's pass rush was also out on display, as the Patriots keyed on stopping NFL sack leader Vic Beasley – a top 10 draft pick in 2015 – and in doing so opened the door for a huge performance from someone else.
Beasley's college teammate and fellow 2015 draftee Grady Jarrett – a fifth-round pick – burst into the spotlight on Sunday night. The second-year defensive tackle collected an absurd three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. It's not an exaggeration to suggest Jarrett might have claimed MVP honors had the Falcons won.
Of course, the Falcons didn't win. Tom Brady burned that narrative to the ground in an amazing second half that solidified his legacy as arguably the greatest player in the sport's history.
It's a little harder to correlate the Patriots' success to this Dallas Cowboys team. Dak Prescott was phenomenal in 2016, and his future looks bright – but it's hard to ask anyone to be Tom Brady.
It's totally doable, though. It might have looked a bit different, but the Patriots actually won that game in similar style to what the Cowboys did all year.
Perhaps the most staggering stat of the entire night was the play disparity. Brady and the Pats ran a whopping 93 plays, limiting Ryan and Co. to a measly 46. It wasn't ground-and-pound, Feed Zeke football like the Cowboys prefer, but Brady helped the Patriots convert 50 percent of their third downs – throwing 62 passes in the process.
New England finished with 40 minutes of possession, which had to have absolutely gassed the Atlanta defense. As other publications have already noted, the Falcons ran the ball just five times after taking their 25-point lead, giving their defense little time to rest.
So what was the result? A New England defense that is surprisingly lacking in star power helped limit the Falcons to seven points after halftime.
Did you know the Patriots actually finished the season with four fewer sacks than the Cowboys – who have deservedly been criticized for their lack of ability to rush the passer? This isn't a unit like last year's group in Denver, which seemed to feature All-Pros and Pro Bowlers at every position.
Dont'a Hightower, who forced the fumble that changed the game, was drafted at the back end of the first round. Trey Flowers, whose two sacks killed two different Atlanta scoring drives, was a fourth-round pick – the same pick as Charles Tapper, as a matter of fact.
Obviously, having the greatest quarterback ever helps solve a lot of problems. But there's still a valid point to be made. Neither of these teams reached Houston with what one would consider an elite defense. They leaned on their offenses, and they counted on homegrown defenders to make plays when they had the chance.
The Cowboys' defense hasn't shown that penchant in recent seasons. But they're not far off, either. There are cornerstone players, like Sean Lee, and there are promising young talents – Maliek Collins, David Irving and Jaylon Smith come to mind.
With the offense they have in place, the Cowboys don't need a defensive juggernaut to reach the Super Bowl. If anything, the Falcons and Patriots proved they aren't as far away as some seem to think.