Skip to main content

Spagnola: Taking Punches But Keeping On Ticking


ATLANTA – Never has 5-5 felt so good.

Here the Cowboys were two weeks ago, sitting there at 3-5, having lost miserably, at home at that, to the Tennessee Titans by 14 points. Their worst loss of the season.

Panic outside the walls of The Star had set in. Firing had become the rage. Looking at next year's draft had begun. Those from afar had lowered these guys to the "moribund Cowboys."

All that noise was back on Nov. 5.


Maybe there is a reason the NFL came up with this idea of playing, not an eight-game season, but a 16-game season. And the head NFLers don't weigh the first eight games any more than the second eight games. They all count the same.

So here it is, Nov. 19, and these Cowboys now are one game out of first place in the NFC East after their slowest of starts, and will be playing for a good piece of first-place in the division three days from now when the rematch with the Washington Redskins comes down at 3:30 p.m. Thanksgiving Day at AT&T Stadium. Win, and the Cowboys and Redskins will be tied at 6-5, but the division victory would give the Cowboys a 3-1 record in the East while the Skins would drop to 2-1. And they still having to play the Eagles twice. So technically the Cowboys would be in first place after splitting the head-to-head series.

The Eagles? The defending world champs as they like referring to themselves? Well, they are 4-6, having lost two straight, and at home, and frankly, are just one game up on the Giants, now 3-7.

That's why you play the games. That's why those "analytics" Tuesdays through Saturdays during the week don't mean a darn thing when it comes to Sunday.

Just like this Sunday: Cowboys 22, Falcons 19.

Seriously now, just 19. The NFL's second-ranked passing offense scoring just one touchdown, and at home. Why, the Falcons were averaging 30.5 points a game at Mercedes- Benz Stadium. Must be kidding, right? The Cowboys hold the newest version of the "Dirty Birds" to just one late fourth-quarter touchdown? Come on, the Cowboys, a struggling offensive bunch for six of their first eight games this season, scoring twice as many touchdowns as the Falcons?

That might be the reason the home folks were seeing so much red after the game. Or maybe it was all those empty red seats in this place, the hometown fans in this fair city having no stomach for a now 4-6 team.

Heck, maybe you, too, are wondering how the Cowboys have somewhat righted themselves, winning back-to-back games, and back-to-back road games even, for the first time since beating the Giants and the Raiders in Games 13 and 14 of last year when pulling their record to 8-6.

Call these dudes the _Resilient Boyz_.

They have been taking more punches to the kisser than Adam Sandler did in that ridiculous slapstick fight with Bob Barker in _Happy Gilmore._ You know, one of those, take that and that and that beatings, resembling those roly-poly Weebles.

Look, a lesser team might have tucked tail, losing that three-pointer in overtime to the Texans; losing the three-pointer to the Redskins when their game-tying field-goal attempt as time expired clanked off the left upright; and wasting away the opportunities to build a 17-point lead in the first quarter of that 28-14 loss to Tennessee.

They had already lost Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, quite possibly for the season. Then rookie left guard Connor Williams goes down, needing his knee scoped. Sean Lee has not played the previous two-and-a-half games and then, heading into this matchup against that Falcons high-powered offense, the Cowboys went in without four of their top defensive linemen: David Irving, Taco Charlton, Antwaun Woods and Daniel Ross. Dang, and on top of that, defensive tackle Maliek Collins was playing on a significantly-braced left knee.

Pow. Pow. Pow.

The D-Line became so thin that the Cowboys resorted to signing defensive tackle Christian Ringo off their practice squad on Saturday, and he hadn't made a tackle in an NFL game since Dec. 24, 2017, and it was all of one at that. In addition, the formerly released Caraun Reid, having played in only four of the team's first nine games, actually started against the Falcons.

"But these boys locked in," Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. "Felt all week these guys would have a helluva game."

And even on Sunday, having taken a 19-9 lead, thanks in part to rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch's second interception in as many games setting the Cowboys up at the Atlanta 31-yard line for what turned out to be a two-play touchdown drive, Brett Maher's previously missed extra point prevented the Cowboys from taking what should have been an 11-point lead with 12:26 left in the game.

Yep, another shot to the kisser, leaving the Cowboys up just a tie-able 10.

But as Jaylon Smith said, "We're very resilient."

There were times in the game when the Cowboys also had to play a few downs without Jeff Heath (hard hit on a near interception), one without Vander Esch (wind knocked out), and then Tyron Smith (shoulder) missing the final three plays of the game.

"No excuses, no excuses," Jaylon Smith said, "all about next man up."

The Cowboys, well, they were stretching the limits of that ol' cliché.

And here came what could have been the final, demoralizing punch: The Falcons finally started moving the ball, driving for a field goal, then Julio Jones' improbable catch of a 34-yard, 50-50 ball from Matt Ryan with Chidobe Awuzie all over him for a touchdown to tie the game, just 1:52 to play.

Dazed. Maybe, but not confused.

Yep, still no matter.

"We've got to be resilient in every situation," LVE said.

So here came the final situation: First-and-10, own 25-yard line, just 1:52 away from heading into overtime a second time this season. Worse, first-and-10 turned into third-and-5, but again, no matter, Dak Prescott, with his first option, Cole Beasley doubled, hits Michael Gallup for 10 yards, the rookie's first catch of the game going for a clutch first down.

Then the 19-yarder to Beasley, who had to make a mini-comeback within the game, too, after dropping what would have been a first-quarter touchdown pass on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line, the possession turning into a mere field goal.

"You're just waiting for a chance to redeem yourself," said Beasley of the reception moving the Cowboys into field-goal range at the Atlanta 30 with 29 seconds to play.

Three Zeke runs netting 6 yards drained the clock down to 3 seconds, setting up Maher to attempt the game-winner from 42 yards out.

And Maher, he had his struggles, too. He came into the game missing three of his past five field goal attempts, though had made a 21-yarder and a 50-yarder earlier in the game. But that was an ugly yank of the first extra point he had attempted in the game, saying he "stubbed his foot" into the turf on the kick, but never the less, left you a tad bit nervous on this attempt for the win, right?

Especially coupled with his previous struggles, and a couple of fading right ones in warmups?

"Everyone in here was doing so much for the team," said Maher, who had kicked the game-winner as time expired earlier in the season in the 26-24 comeback win over Detroit. "I was just hoping to do my part."

Do his part he did, displaying a measure of resiliency, too, by hitting the game-winner with all eyes on him, my guess is, including the head coach's, too, not to mention the owner looking on from high above.

"I just said something to him real quick," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said of the missed PAT. "'Put it behind you, don't worry about it. To hell with it, you're going to get another opportunity.' And sure enough he did, and he drilled it."

And you want some long-range resiliency to top this off?

Remember last year? Remember Atlanta? Remember the eight sacks? Remember the 27-7 loss? Remember most of all, there was no Elliott, that Game 9 the first of his six-game suspension?

Veteran Tyrone Crawford might as well have included Zeke in his comment about how the defensive line stuck together with so many missing, saying, "We've got warriors on this team like Maliek … we've got warriors."

Well, how about this for one final dose of resiliency?

Zeke touched the ball 30 times in the game, 23 runs, seven receptions. He blasted away at the Falcons defense for 122 yards rushing, including that inspiring 23-yard touchdown run, breaking two tackles, along with catching seven passes for 79 yards.

"Just a great, great football player," Garrett said of Zeke, who accounted for 201 total yards from scrimmage and now trails Todd Gurley by just 35 yards for the NFL rushing lead.

So the Cowboys have made themselves relevant again in the NFC East, swinging and punching their way through Atlanta to get to .500, the NFL's no-man's land after losing those consecutive games to Washington and Tennessee.

But they aren't out of the woods yet. Redskins, Thanksgiving Day, the ninth time they will play Washington in the annual Turkey Day classic, going back to the start in 1966 when the Cowboys beat Cleveland, 26-14.

And if at Philly was a must win and at Atlanta was a must win, well, in the scheme of things, with the Redskins already having beaten the Cowboys once and coming in after losing quarterback Alex Smith to a broken leg, leaving matters up to veteran backup Colt McCoy, this then is a must, must win. Because lose, and not only do the Cowboys fall back two games behind the Redskins, it's really three with five to go since they also will have lost the head-to-head tiebreaker to the 'Skins.

And don't think just because backup McCoy is in the saddle this becomes a layup for the Cowboys. Why, on Oct. 27, 2014, with starter Kirk Cousins out with an injury, McCoy and the Redskins beat the Cowboys, 20-17, the kid from Tuscola, Texas, and the University of Texas completing 25 of 30 passes for 299 yards.

These Cowboys better keep their dukes up.

"We've just got to lock in," Garrett said, never straying far from his _take care of yourself_ mantra when asked about Thursday's game being for first place in the East. "We've got to put our coat and tie on, get on the plane, have a meal, clean up this game quickly, get in the office early (Monday) and get ready for this next challenge.

"That's where we are."

Yep, just 5-5, and preparing to brace for the next punch that's surely to come.