It's time to turn the page to the most critical month of the NFL regular season, and the Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in great position to make a run at a top seed in the NFC. That's due in large part to the fact they're 4-1 since the return of Dak Prescott and 2-1 in November (yes, it should be 3-0), so let's take a look at how they used Thanksgiving Day to keep their needle pointed due north.
The Verdikt — It might not carry the same level of panache as did the upset victory over the Vikings in Minnesota, but what the Cowboys did in handling business against the Giants on Thanksgiving is a bit more meaningful as the race for the division crown in the NFC East continues to rage on. In sweeping the Giants, the Cowboys take sole possession of the No. 2 seat in the division and remain within striking distance of the Eagles — setting the stage for a Christmas Eve clash that might create shockwaves.
First things first, however, and that means handling the visiting Colts in Week 13 and two other AFC South clubs immediately thereafter. It's a chance for the Cowboys defense to continue sharpening its claws in their goal of stopping the run to allow the "privilege" of their pass rush to tee off; and for Dak Prescott and the offense to clean up miscues in the passing attack. Do these two things and, for the love of all that is holy, finally eliminate penalties (and finish your food, e.g., Green Bay) and this could be a fun December.
Unsung Hero – It's high time Leighton Vander Esch received the necessary praise from those who have, to this point, been passionately reticent to provide it — for one reason or another. In the offseason, it was clear the former first-round pick would have to prove himself on a one-year deal, and he's doing just that. He's having a resurgent season in Dallas and recent evidence of it showed itself in the victories over both Minnesota and New York, with Vander Esch flying around and filling gaps to help shore up the Cowboys porous run defense.
His playing style and mentorship is also filtering down to younger players like rookie Damone Clark and helping with the acclimation of Anthony Barr. Bottom line: Vander Esch becoming a key player in Dan Quinn's defense in 2022.
Milestone Moment (Nick) — What is it about Dak against the Giants? Ironically enough, the same thing was actually said in his rookie season – but just on the opposite end. Dak lost his first start of his career – the 2016 season opener and then won 11 straight games, only to lose again to the Giants later in December. Since that game, Dak hasn't lost to the Giants again, winning 10 straight games, including Thursday's 28-20 win on Thanksgiving.
Stat of the Game (Nick) — Every week, it seems that all teams (not just in the NFL, but in college and high school as well) talk about the importance of getting off to a fast start. But have you noticed, none of those teams playing the Cowboys are getting to do that? Through 11 games this year, the Cowboys are the only team in the NFL that has not allowed a first-quarter touchdown.
It'd be one thing if they were just limiting teams without a TD on its first drive of the game. But many times, it's the first two or three drives. That's 11 opening quarters without yielding a touchdown. And when you factor in that most teams script their first 10-15 plays, usually using the best plays that have worked all week in practice, it's even more impressive that the Cowboys defense has been able to stop it – 11 times.
Kustodian's Kloset — As mentioned earlier in this piece, and for the fafillionth (new word, just got with it) time this season, the Cowboys absolutely must stop shooting themselves in the foot by way of penalties. They were responsible for 13 yellow flags against the Giants and that helped New York to a 13-7 lead at halftime in a game that should've and could've been well in-hand for the Cowboys in the first quarter if not for the willingness to extend offensive drives for Daniel Jones.
They've done well in this category on more than one occasion this season, so I know it's possible, but consistency is key if they want a special ending to 2022.