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Spagnola: Finding out just who are these guys


ARLINGTON, Texas – To paraphrase what was written on Friday heading into this Rams-Cowboys game here, high-noon Sunday, at AT&T Stadium:

Why, following the Cowboys' bye and holding steady at 4-2 after six games, it was time. It was high time we start finding out just who these 2023 Dallas Cowboys are.

Are they the team winning those four games by an encouraging combined score of 128-30, making us believe they are who we thought they would be?

Or are they a suspect team losing those two games by a disappointing combined score of 70-26, causing so many to push the pause button on all that optimism?

Are they the offensive juggernaut we thought they'd be coming out of training camp with the addition of wide receiver Brandin Cooks and appearing to have a starting five on the offensive line any team could sink its teeth into?

Or are they this Jekyll and Hyde offense you can't always trust.

And Sunday against these 3-4 Rams, having lost three of those four games by a grand total of 17 points and coming in here with the No. 6 total offense, NFL reception leader Puka Nacua (58 catches) and still future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald on defense, this would be a great litmus test. Well, well, maybe we know a helluva lot more.

Consider this:

  • Once again, the Cowboys were without Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith, who showed up willing to play Sunday despite being limited in practice with a stinger, yet couldn't prove to the medical staff he had enough strength to participate, making him inactive.
  • Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was sacked on two of the first three plays of the game, and three times during their first two possessions.
  • Dak had another one of those deflected passes intercepted in the end zone.
  • And in the first half, 24 of their 48 rushing yards belonged to Prescott and wide receivers CeeDee Lamb and Cooks, meaning their running backs accounted for just 24 yards on seven carries, continuing a season-long concern when trying to run the football.

Big problems, right?

Ha, get outta here.

Cowboys 43, Rams a distant 20

And only a senseless holding penalty on what would have been KaVontae Turpin's 87-yard punt return for a touchdown prevented the Cowboys from hanging a half-a-hundred on a Rams team giving up no more than 30 points in any of their previous seven games, and just 23 in a narrow loss to Philadelphia, 23-14.

That and throwing in the offensive towel in the fourth quarter after Dak's 25-yard touchdown pass to Cooks followed the previous possession touchdown drive taking up three seconds short of 10 minutes, all grinding the Rams into the ground.

"I mean, we could have easily put our heads down and started, you know, pouting or griping or got down on ourselves after the first couple of plays," Dak said.

No sir, not this bunch, not this time.

So look, if we wanted answers, the Cowboys gave us answers while winning their 11th consecutive game here at AT&T Stadium, this time before 93,448 towel-waving fans and a smiling ear-to-ear DeMarcus Ware being officially inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor at halftime. And oh, by the way, extending the NFL's longest active home winning streak to 11 and matching the franchise's longest since the 1991-92 seasons.

Now here is some of what we learned about this Cowboys team in Game 7, now 5-2, just one game in the loss column behind the NFL-leading Eagles (7-1) after their narrow victory Sunday over Washington, the two teams butting heads this coming Sunday in Philadelphia.

The Cowboys are a scoring defense, DaRon Bland setting a single-season franchise record with his third interception return for a touchdown. This one was over 30 yards off Matthew Stafford, and was his ninth interception in his first 24 NFL games, third most in club history behind Everson Walls (17) and Trevon Diggs (12).

The Cowboys are a scoring special teams, second-year defensive end Sam Williams smothering a punt from the Rams' 23-yard line so soundly the ball rolled out the end zone for a safety. Two points. Then on the ensuing punt, Turpin takes the ball 63 yards to the Rams 13, setting up a Dak-to-CeeDee Lamb touchdown, racking up nine points in a mere 59 seconds.

And to top off the special teams, rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey hit from a career-long 58 yards and then 27, stretching his streak of consecutively made field goals to start an NFL career to a record-tying 18, including now three 50-yarders.

Boy, did they put on an offensive exhibition, scoring points on six of their first seven full possessions after struggling in three of the previous four games, scoring just 46 points, two of them losses, causing those skeptical buzzards to start circling.

But check it out:

The Cowboys totaled 387 yards, 381 of them with 12:19 left in the game before shutting down the offense.

Dak completed 25 of 31 passes (third 80-percenter of the season) for a season-high 304 yards, a season-high four touchdowns and a season-high 133.7 QB rating, not bad shut-up stuffing for those still skeptical of Dak being able to put an offense on his arm.

Oh, there won't be any more complaints about or from Lamb, who caught a single-game, career-high 12 passes for a single-game, career high 15\_8\_ yards and two touchdowns, 10 and 22 yards.

Need a touchdown from a tight end? Jake Ferguson's 18-yard grab was reminiscent of one of those Jason Witten hash-mark routes into the end zone.

Think the Cowboys have forgotten about Brandin Cooks?

Snags a 25-yard touchdown pass on a go-route.

And chunk plays? You know those 20-plus-yarders? Well, they had five in this game, and nine for at least 17 yards. That's pretty chunky wouldn't you say?

"Continuing to grow that confidence in who we thought we could be," Cooks said, finishing with three catches for 49 yards.

Right, this is who we thought they could be. Explosive offense. Takeaway defense with QB pressures (two sacks, five QB hits, six TFLs). Extra special teams, especially now with the hottest kicker in the NFL falling into their laps out of the USFL, MLS and college/high school soccer and for sure no one wanting to kick Turpin a returnable ball.

So maybe these Cowboys, who had us doubting them heading into last week's bye, are who we thought they were coming out of training camp. And wins like this can fertilize confidence but also growth.

"It was nice to see our guys from start to finish these last seven games," McCarthy said. "It's definitely something to build off of, and starting tomorrow we are looking forward to Philadelphia."

Ah yes, the Eagles, who've had some close calls themselves, winning games by five (Patriots), six (Vikings), three and seven (Washington), and then mixing in that six-point loss to the Jets.

Who knows? Maybe those Eagles, now with the best record in all the NFL heading into Week 9, are looking over their shoulders, seemingly unable to shake these Cowboys and wondering themselves, just who are these guys?

We find out more in six days. Maybe them Eagles, too.

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