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Spagnola: Let Those Red Kettle Bells Ring On


ARLINGTON, Texas – Why the Salvation Army, those folks have to be ecstatic with the Dallas Cowboys.

First Ezekiel Elliott scores a touchdown, then immediately makes a donation to the 128th Red Kettle Campaign, dropping $21 into the Red Kettle behind the end zone here at AT&T Stadium.

Then Dak Prescott weaves his way through four would-be tacklers, running some 17 yards to gain just five on third-and-goal from the five-yard line for a touchdown, and this time Zeke muscled his quarterback off the ground and dumped him in one of the four Red Kettles behind the end zones. A tad more expensive donation, though, since this was considered an excessive celebration, costing the Cowboys 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff.

And finally, not to be party-poopers, the entire Cowboys team stuffing 21 consecutive second-half points into the Kettle to deliver this before 92,076 folks:

Cowboys 31, Redskins 23.

Third consecutive victory.

Ascension into first place in the NFC East.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Let those Red Kettle bells ring.

"Everyone jumped off the bandwagon at 3-5, but you can expect that," Prescott said after the Cowboys turning that 3-5 into 6-5, not only catching the 6-5 Redskins, but also gaining a split in the head-to-head tiebreaker and pulling a half-game ahead of their division rival, their 3-1 NFC East record a half-game better than Washington's 2-1, and to think the Redskins and Eagles still must play each other the two times.

"But I can tell you who didn't doubt ourselves and who didn't think we couldn't do this or who didn't think we had the team. That is all that really matters. We locked arms, we stayed tight. We knew we could do this and that we can do more.

"That's the only thing that matters to us, and we're going to continue to try to get better."

Maybe what we're seeing after 11 games is a growth spurt.

Most tend to forget how young this team was/is. Check it out, 27 of the 53 players currently on the 53-man roster are in no more than their third NFL season. That's 53 percent. Six of those 27 are starting on defense. Another four are starting on offense, with another four playing prominent roles. Then add to that the first-year kicker.

Then consider this: The Cowboys lost one of their five games in overtime on the road in Houston to a team currently sitting there leading the AFC South at 7-3. They lost that first-round encounter with the Redskins 20-17, and might have sent the game into overtime if not for the phantom "snap infraction" penalty, making what should have been a 42-yard field-goal attempt a 52-yarder that hit the left upright.

Plus, take this, too, into consideration: Out here Thursday afternoon the Cowboys were playing without three of the very best players on this team: Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith (neck), Pro Bowl linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) and Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick (Guillain-Barre Syndrome). Plus, no David Irving, no Tavon Austin, no Geoff Swaim or Taco Charlton.

Yet, the offense racks up four touchdowns for only the second time all season and 404 total yards against the Redskins, the second time in the past three games gaining more than 400. The defense holds the Redskins to 331 total yards, running back Adrian Peterson to 35 yards rushing and this eighth-ranked defense that had only four interceptions in 10 games, tied for the third fewest in the league, comes up with three in this most pivotal game.

Yes, looking as if growing up before your very eyes.

Maybe it's been the juice. That's right, the juice.

Amari Cooper.

Anyone out there still having the nerve to criticize trading next year's first-round draft choice to the Raiders for this wide receiver? Not just any wide receiver, this wide receiver? And what took place here on Thanksgiving may serve as a cautionary tale to upcoming defenses. Better not think you're going to get away with singling-up Cooper on a consistent basis.

Otherwise ….

Cooper had eight catches for 180 yards, and two touchdowns, one a 40-yarder and the other a 90-yarder, longest touchdown pass play in the NFL this season, and matching the longest for the Cowboys since the final game of the 1999 season (Jason Tucker). Plus, you would have to go back to 1978 to find a longer one, Tony Dorsett from Roger Staubach for 91 yards.

The only longer one than that in the franchise's 59-season history? Try Bob Hayes, that 95-yarder from Don Meredith in 1966, the all-time longest.

Want to do it again?


Talk about juice.

And, will say it again: The Amari Effect.

Cooper, all of 24 years old in his fourth NFL season, has played now in just four games with the Cowboys. In three of those, Zeke has rushed for more than 100 yards, adding 121 on Thanksgiving to his total, now reaching 1,074, overtaking Todd Gurley for the NFL lead.

Zeke's run total in these past three games now reaches 394 yards of the team's 449 and three touchdowns. His reception total goes to 18 for 137 and one touchdown. And the combined totals hit 531 yards from scrimmage on 76 touches, or 7 yards a touch, and three touchdowns.

Ya think Amari makes a difference?

Take Dak, too. His QB rating of 121.6 Thursday now gives him two 100-pointers in the past three games, and then tack on a 99.3 in the first of Cooper's four games, a four-game total of 101.1. Pretty darn good, right.

And how about this when thinking back to last year when the Cowboys lost all three games without Tyron Smith at left tackle. They won a game without Tyron on Thursday, figuring out how to get by with backup Cam Fleming, who didn't find out he was starting until after warmups. Now there's an accomplishment, Fleming getting a lot of chipping help with a tight end lined up to his side or Noah Brown motioning inside.

Finally, the Cowboys, they are heading in the right direction. But pull back the reins just some. They are not out of the woods yet. Though Washington and Philadelphia have to play each other in Game 12 on Dec. 3 – someone has to lose, ties aside – the Cowboys in six days must take on New Orleans, now 10-1 with the Thanksgiving win over Atlanta, the Saints stretching their winning streak to 10 straight. Technically a home game for the Cowboys. But, just beware of the ever-present Saints fan.

So, who knows, maybe these Cowboys are aging.

"Being young guys, there is a lot we can learn each and every day with wins and losses, and we can continue to grow," Dak said. "It's important that we do that week in and week out.

"(But) it's about next week right now."

Sure is. At least though these maturing Cowboys are 6-5, have won three games in a row and the once struggling offense has averaged 27 points over the past three games. Not to mention a defense grabbing seven takeaways in the past four games when having only six over the first seven games.

As Anthony Brown said, not in a cocky way, but more in a moment of optimism finally, "The sky is the limit."

And wouldn't The Salvation Army love some more of that Red Kettle high-profile stuffing.