NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Look, I know, this darn team.
Drives you nuts, doesn't it? Just can't do anything easy. Not even when playing a 7-8 opponent, losers of five straight. Why, a team starting the backup to the backup quarterback who had been with them a whole nine days. And dang, not playing the NFL's second-leading rusher. Six injured starters inactive. Come on, gotta be a stroll down Broadway toward the Cumberland River out here in the Music City.
Ah, not so much.
With these 2022 Cowboys, it don't come easy. You know, it just don't come easy. Not even against these Tennessee Titans, another team with a losing record and second straight without its starting quarterback still extending the Cowboys into the wee minutes of the fourth quarter.
You know what, though, and don't know how they do it, but when we learned the Titans were going to give Joshua Dobbs his first NFL start at quarterback instead of their in-over-his-head rookie Malik Willis his fourth start in place of the banged up Ryan Tannehill, that line in Las Vegas moved the Cowboys up to 14-point favorites.
And I'll be, final score, Cowboys 27, Titans 13. A win is a win, but in doing so seemed as if witnessing some fingernail scrapping across the blackboard, just grinding another one out.
The Cowboys didn't put this one away until 11:58 of the fourth quarter remained when Dak Prescott connected with tight end Dalton Schultz on a beauty of a pass in the back corner of the end zone, Schultz leaping high for the grab for his second touchdown of the game, staking them of a 24-13 lead.
Then, finally, with a defense riddled with far too many Titans big plays, these at times head-scratching Cowboys stepped up to force a punt, intercept a pass and stop a fourth-down conversion attempt before the pesky Titans waved the white flag on their final possession of the game, running the ball and the clock out for self-preservation.
Geesh, let's see, this is probably the only thing I can say about this one:
The Cowboys won their 12th game of the season, meaning posting back-to-back 12-win seasons for the first time since three straight from 1993 though 1995 when they won two Super Bowls and advanced to three consecutive NFC title games in that 12-4, 12-4, 12-4 span.
This means the Cowboys also are now 12-4 with one game to play in the now 17-game seasons, forcing the Eagles to win one more game for now to secure that NFC East title guessing they thought would be a cakewalk once reaching 13 wins. That is until the Cowboys beat the division leaders on Christmas Eve, thus splitting their two-game series and at least giving the Eagles something to think about with two games remaining and having to decide when they bring back their injured quarterback Jalen Hurts (shoulder sprain).
Gotcha, the Cowboys are in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006-07.
Yep, they have secured no less than the NFC fifth seed, at least guaranteeing them a date with the division winner with the worst record, and at this point, that coming from the NFC South with either the currently 7-8 Buccaneers or the 6-9 Panthers, the title coming down to their second rematch on New Year's Day, Carolina having won the first meeting.
And OK, I'll give the Cowboys this too. They managed to win two of a three-game set being played on a Sunday, then the following Saturday and followed by this Thursday night game, so three games in 12 days and two of them on the road. Have a sneaky suspicion, just watching this Amazon Prime national subscription broadcast, along with 69,292 here at Nissan Stadium, these guys are exhausted.
Even Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was willing to concede, "So, yeah, it wasn't clean. This wasn't a clean performance. We recognize that. I'm not disputing that at all.
"I do know my football team. I know they came out of a hard victory on (Saturday), and it took them a little longer to get the bodies back. But that's what Thursday Night Football is. It's a tough battle. It's a tough challenge when you have to go on the road and all those things.
"But most importantly, we answered the bell and got it done."
See there, he felt the same way. Just grateful to secure that 12th win in 16 games, the season-ending 17th potentially important at Washington, either next Saturday or Sunday – it's been designated a TBD game since the schedule came out – if the Saints can go to Philly on Sunday to beat the Eagles. That would mean a Cowboys win and an Eagles loss to the Giants that final weekend vaults these same Cowboys, as frustrating at times as they seem, into NFC East champs a second straight time, something that hasn't happened in this division since the Eagles won four straight from 2001-04.
See what I mean about these guys?
But, boy, do they need this break between games. Injuries are starting to impact this team. And here comes another, center Tyler Biadasz left the game with an ankle injury with 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter, leaving the stadium wearing a walking boot on his right foot. I'm told it's a high ankle sprain, but not a serious one. Like there is hope he'd be ready for the playoffs, and who knows, with a 13-day layoff possibly before the next game.
That necessitated an offensive line shift, left guard Connor McGovern to center, left tackle Tyler Smith to left guard and backup Jason Peters to left tackle
As it was, Tony Pollard's thigh bruise kept him out of the game and Micah Parsons played with a protective covering on his swollen left hand having limited him in practice on Tuesday.
Leighton Vander Esch missed his second game with that pinched nerve in his shoulder, forcing the Cowboys to actually play backup Jabril Cox a season-high 18 snaps and Luke Gifford 11 in order to give Damone Clark and Anthony Barr a break.
And the Cowboys continue with their left cornerback fix after losing both Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown for the season, Nahshon Wright playing a career-high 47 snaps, struggling at times but also bagging his first NFL interception in the nick of time with 5:57 left in the game after the Cowboys stretched their lead to 27-13 on Brett Maher's 45-yard field goal.
Hey, it's that time of year. It's the NFL. That village is a necessity.
Yet, as much of a struggle as this game was, especially defensively with the Titans surprisingly deciding to start the newcomer Dobbs at quarterback instead of the struggling rookie Willis, the Cowboys did manage to win.
"One hundred percent, a win is a win," Prescott said, being charged with two more interceptions, though one on a dropped pass by rookie Peyton Hendershot, and also part of a lost fumble on a botched center exchange. "Obviously, there are things to clean up and they feel much better to clean up when you've got the win. This is the NFL."
And this team wasn't being defensive. Just trying to explain life in the NFL.
As DeMarcus Lawrence said after another Pro Bowl performance with five tackles, one QB hit, two passes defensed and a forced fumble, trying to put that 40-3 blasting of Minnesota into perspective compared to these close shaves, "Once ya'll see a game like Minnesota, you instantly think that's how every game is supposed to be. Me, personally, I wish. But it's not. You have to fight through adversity."
But then, as he said of these wins being questioned, many yearning for style points, "I think it comes with the territory of being a Dallas Cowboy, in all honesty. Ya'll question every damn thing."
Guess guilty as charged. Nuts, isn't it?