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Science Lab: Win pretty or win ugly, just go and win


FRISCO, TX — This isn't college football. You don't get extra cookies with your milk for demolishing your opponent. So while the goal is to always do it, and boy oh boy is it fun to see it happen when the Dallas Cowboys aren't on the business side of the ass whooping, but the reality is it's exceedingly difficult to do it at the NFL level.

Don't let the 70-10 point differential in the first two weeks mislead you. More often than not, the Cowboys are going to have to figure out a way to win close games — their inability to consistently do so in the pre-McCarthy days plaguing them like smallpox in the 1700s.

Their most recent outing — an ugly, but gritty, three-point victory against the Chargers in Los Angeles — serves as the latest round of evidence that they've found a cure.

That cure requires three vaccin-... er, um … injections:

  1. Don't give the ball away on offense.
  2. Stop the run.
  3. Take the ball away on defense.

Check, check and check.

Sure, there are some others, such as eliminating penalties that kill your offensive drives or extend the opponents' and scoring more in the red zone, but if those things occurred then the game wouldn't likely be close in the first place … now would it?


"A lot of back and forth. A lot of resetting your jaw and just keep fighting." - Mike McCarthy

When finding themselves in a messy back-alley brawl like the one seen at SoFi Stadium on Monday evening, delivering the three aforementioned shots to the heart will likely give you just enough juice to eek past what ails you in the moment.

In Week 6, it was Micah Parsons mentally overcoming an offsides penalty to make it 1st-and-5 to start the Chargers' final drive of the game — just over two minutes left in the fight and with the game on the line.

One play later, Parsons sacked Justin Herbert for a loss of eight yards. And one play after that one, Stephon Gilmore sealed the coffin closed with an interception.

Insert Landry shift here.

You have to hate the fact the Cowboys had 11 enforced penalties for 85 total yards, Parsons' offsides being in that tally and forcing you back into your seat like, "Well, I know how this one ends."

That's likely what the Chargers thought as well, and that didn't age well. What does age well is a defense that can travel and overcome its own self-inflicted wounds to deliver the final blow when it matters most. What also ages well is a kicker who is very near breaking an NFL record for most consecutive made field goals to begin his professional career, as Brandon Aubrey continues his trend toward being a continual lethal weapon for the Cowboys.

Neither Danny Glover nor Mel Gibson saw that one coming, but it's happening.

And, additionally, if Dak Prescott continues to make defenses account for his ability to run and escape to make plays, as he did in Los Angeles in ending the contest as the Cowboys' leading rusher (40 yards, 1 rushing touchdown on seven carries), it can only bode well for a Dallas offense that's sputtered for much of the young season.

"We haven't had close games, but this is what the NFL is about. … That's what the NFL is about; close games, winning the game at the end." - Dak Prescott

It was the best game of the year for Prescott, who also averaged 9.1 yards per pass, threw no interceptions, never fumbled and got Brandin Cooks initiated to the club. And on a day when his offensive line struggled to protect him, the two-time Pro Bowler completed seven of nine passes while under pressure for 105 yards and a passer rating of 152.11.

Is that good? Seems good.

Contrarily, Herbert struggled when pressured, and he was under duress for most of the night, although the sack tally won't tell that story. He'd make some big plays to guys like Keenan Allen, but he also failed to strike the death blow when the opportunity presented itself — overthrows plaguing him on critical occasions, in large part because he was never comfortable.

He also couldn't depend on Austin Ekeler to save him as he has in the past. Ekeler returned from injury to take on the Cowboys, only to run into a wall again and again … and again.

Ekeler was only able to muster 27 rushing yards on 14 attempts (1.9 yards per carry), an abysmal showing fueled largely by the dominance of DeMarcus Lawrence, Osa Odighizuwa and a linebackers unit that was without a dominant run stopper in Leighton Vander Esch, but one that got the job done because of the efforts of Damone Clark, Jayron Kearse and a superb outing by Markquese Bell, amongst others.

All told, having been made one-dimensional all game, Herbert completed only 22 of his 37 pass attempts, keeping the battle a close one to the very end, and giving the Cowboys' offense a chance to eat up clock en route to Butter Aubrey earning his bread with a 39-yard field goal and then looking at their defense and going full King Leonidas: "Leave them nothing, but take from them everything."

Carpe omnia, if you will.

It's as I said in last week's edition of "Science Lab": it's rarely about what just happened and always about what happens next.

It's a boxer's mentality that the Cowboys have adopted in the Mike McCarthy era, and that's why they're now 10-1 following a loss since 2021, having not suffered a two-game losing streak since the middle of that season.

The losses suffered by both the 49ers and the Eagles were capitalized upon by the Cowboys and, as such, they're still very much in the conversation atop the NFC.

So, as they enter their bye week, they do so carrying an ugly win in their last outing, a victory that you wouldn't necessarily take home to mom. But being two games above .500 after having played six, with four of those six being on the road, is very, very attractive.

That 4-2 record may not be Salma Hayek, but it's definitely worthy of a right-swipe on Tinder.

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