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Spagnola: Down, But With These Sharks Never Out

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Whew!

Right, and with a huge exhale, sighing in relief.

Cowboys 24, Lions 6, and believe me, this sure didn't seem like an 18-point victory against a now 1-5 Lions teams. The Cowboys allowed them to hang around, hang around to the point these guys from the Motor City – with more faithful than expected adding to the 93,487 folks squeezed into AT&T Stadium here Sunday afternoon – were convinced they could win the game

Like at halftime, the Lions were leading 6-3. That's right, 6-3. The third time in seven games the Cowboys had only scored three points in a first half, now twice in consecutive weeks. And this time with quarterback Dak Prescott starting for the first time in six games.

And with 12:29 left in this one, the Lions were poised to take a 13-10 lead, staring at the end zone from one yard out.

So to think in a game where most everyone had spent the afternoon on the edge of their seats, Dak being out there with 50 seconds remaining and taking a knee twice to kneel out the team's fifth victory in seven games was rather remarkable. Why, the Cowboys' 47 other players and everyone else on that sideline should have taken a knee too, but looking up giving thanks they were about to walk out of here 5-2 and keeping pace in the NFC East, still a game behind the second-place Giants (6-1), with the 6-0 Eagles idle this week in first place.

"A win is a win, and I don't really care how it gets done because a win is a win," Dak said quite appropriately.

Well, let's simplify for you just how this win was won. The defense laid down a hand-winning four-of-a-kind:

Five second-half takeaways, thanks to two interceptions and three fumble recoveries, the five a first since the first half of Super Bowl XXVII against Buffalo that 1992 season.

Five sacks, that's now 29, most over the first seven games of a non-strike season since 1985.

Five more QB hits.

Five tackles for losses.

Hard to trump that in football.

The first interception, compliments of Trevon Diggs, ended a Detroit drive at the Dallas 18-yard line and led to the Cowboys' first touchdown.
The second interception, a Jourdan Lewis diving one, led to the Cowboys second touchdown, though Lewis suffered a Lisfranc foot fracture and already has undergone surgery, landing him on injured reserve for the rest of the season

The Sam Williams triple play – sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery – led to the third touchdown.

And for good measure, Micah Parsons' sack, forced fumble and Dorance Armstrong recovery to end the game, probably leaving former Cowboys tight end Dan Campbell, now the Lions head coach, leaving here mumbling to himself.

"At this moment, it's gut-wrenching," he said of the loss coming back to his Texas roots with his parents here watching.

All this against a Detroit team coming in with the NFL's second-ranked total offense, eighth-ranked rushing offense and third-ranked scoring offense, managing to hold the Lions to but two field goals, yet a sixth opponent to no more than one touchdown.

"Our defense was tremendous here in the second half," said Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, well aware all five takeaways occurred in that second half. "The ball extraction was obviously a huge factor in the game."

Definitely, the sharks were out.

On Thursday, Parsons, still stinging from this very same defense allowing the Philadelphia Eagles the previous Sunday in a 20-17 game midway through the fourth quarter to drive 75 yards on 13 plays, 10 of those runs for 45 yards, turning out the lights with the game-clinching touchdown in a 26-17 victory, had this to say:

"We just emphasize Shark Week," he said, still feeling the "sting" of that drive four days later. "That's what we emphasize this week. No matter what's out there, you're going to beat them up."

Well, it was Parsons, the lead shark in this swarming school that limited the Lions to just 312 total yards, 117 rushing, far below their 151-yard average, and just two field goals, 22 points short of their average, who should be named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week once again. Not only for his sack/forced fumble to put the finishing touches on the game, but for this one play, once again showing exactly why the Cowboys selected him, not just as a linebacker but as a football playing dude with the 12th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Cowboys are barely leading, 10-6, heading into the fourth quarter. The Lions are driving to take the lead, having traveled from their own 20-yard line to the 50 to start the final quarter and four plays later they are set up second-and-5 at the Cowboys 18. The Lions are lined up in a two-tight end set to the left. The Cowboys are in a five-man front, three linebackers in the game, Leighton Vander Esch and Anthony Barr off the ball and Parsons to the right on the line of scrimmage.

At the snap, Parsons easily beats tight end Brock Wright off the ball. Too easily. And he realized once reaching the 26 in pursuit of Lions quarterback Jared Goff, oh no, something is up. And it was. Goff was throwing to Wright with the other tight end, T.J. Hockenson, the lead blocker. This was a tight end screen with two more blockers out front.

Wright turns to take off at the 21. Parsons is at the 26, now having to reverse field.

"Just in the moment, and after sitting down with Q this week," Parsons said of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, "he was talking about plays I could make, use my speed, chasing down and use my superpower."

Well, Parsons hit his booster rocket.

Wright hits the first down at the 13. Parsons is just crossing the 18. By time Wright is crossing the four, now Parsons is at the five, in hot pursuit, making up ground. Parsons reaches out to collar Wright at the two and pushes him down, then both fall out of bounds at the goal-line pylon. Touchdown interrupted, the one seemingly destined to vault the Lions back into the lead.

"At first I thought he scored," Parsons said. "I thought they were going for two."

The ball was marked down at the one-yard line, and upon replay thanks to the pylon cam, Wright's knee is seen hitting the ground before the ball breaks the goal-line plane, even though Campbell wasn't so sure.

"I couldn't tell. I didn't have the angle, so it was too hard for me to see," said Campbell when asked if he should have challenged the call. "They were up there, and I was waiting to get a call (from the coaches' box), so it's like, at that point, let's go. Let them line up and play ball."

Wright thought he was in.

"I felt like it was in," Wright said. "I felt my knee hit the ground. Just waiting for my call to come in. But, time-crunch situation, got to get up on the line and run another play."

Why not, the ball was at the one-yard line, first-and-goal. Surely the Lions could move the ball 36 inches in four plays.

Un-uh. Turns out Micah's becomes the eventual play of the game.

Because on the very next one, when running back Jamaal Williams hits it up the middle, he's awkwardly stuffed, and before going down DeMarcus Lawrence strips the ball out at about the two and, of all things, fortunately for the Cowboys the ball trickles forward right to Barr for an easy recovery at the one.

"It was huge the way they were bringing the ball down field," Lawrence said, "and to have Micah give that type of energy and effort to stop them on the one-yard line, just gave us another opportunity to get the ball. And thank God we got it."

Talk about a shark attack.

"I think today everybody had a little piece of the cake," Parsons said. "You know sharks, sometimes you get one of them, sometimes they attack in a pack. It's just like that."

This defensive performance certainly overshadowed Dak's return, and as expected, took him some time to properly read the field before he got going, hitting on 10 of his 11 second half passes for 103 yards, including four of four for 47 yards on the drive setting up Ezekiel Elliott's one-yard touchdown run for a 17-6 lead, followed by the two-yard put-away touchdown pass to rookie Peyton Hendershot. If you are scoring at home, that is a 136.0 QB rating for the half, raising his game's mark to 113. 2.

There were the Cowboys tight ends, Hendershot, Dalton Schultz and Jake Ferguson combining for eight catches covering 61 yards and that touchdown on National Tight End Day. And don't forget the Cowboys running for 139 yards, the third straight game with at least 134 yards rushing, Tony Pollard 83 and Zeke 57 and two touchdowns leading the way.

And would be remiss if not mentioning Williams again, the rookie defensive end on just 14 snaps, recording three tackles, his first two NFL sacks, two TFLs, two QB hits and then that forced and recovered fumble.

"Outstanding … very proud of him," McCarthy said.

Of him and for sure all them others on that feisty defense.

Because, as Parsons says, as if we all should have known this, "Besides, it's Shark Week, you know."

We do now, Micah.

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