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Spagnola: Thanksgiving Day Feast On The Table


FRISCO, Texas – My, oh my, that's how you do it.

Start with a seasoned NFL quarterback.

Throw in a reasonably efficient offensive line, aided by your All-Pro guard playing at an All-Pro level at right tackle.

Mix in some Zeke.

Throw in some Pollard changeup.

Score touchdowns, four of them now, not only the most scored in a single game since Oct. 11, six games ago, but also more touchdowns than have been scored, period, over the past four games since Dak Prescott went down in the third quarter of the Giants game, uh, previously the last win.

Play just enough defense at the right times, and as strange as this might sound, hold the NFL's leading rusher to 4.3 yards a carry, 1.2 yards fewer than his season average.

Actually put pressure on the opposing quarterback, even if resulting in just two sacks and seven quarterback hits, but with the game on the line hold that guy to just two completions for 16 yards on his final seven pass attempts.

Mix in two takeaways, and win the turnover differential by a plus-1, only the second time that's happened since the season opener.

And special teams, save suffering a blocked extra point attempt and a few other miscues, don't make any other egregious, game-changing errors.

And voila!

Cowboys 31, Vikings 28, for cryin' out loud.

Cowboys stomp out a four-game losing streak and at the same time them others' three-game winning streak.

Cowboys 3-7, but a half-game out of first place in the NFC East.

Cowboys leaving U.S. Bank Stadium just off the Mighty Mississippi, flying home Sunday night from Minneapolis knowing this in this crazy 2020 season of ours:

If they can defeat the Washingtons Thursday afternoon at AT&T Stadium, they will give thanks on Thanksgiving Day for being in first place all by their lonesomes in the NFC East at the historically unstable 4-7 with five games to play.

Go figure.

"An excellent team win for us," said Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy of his club's first road victory of the season and in the Cowboys' last eight tries, going back to a Nov. 17, 2019 win at Detroit, also in the 10th game of the season.

And forgive McCarthy if he repeated the same at least another three times it seemed, but he was right when you look back on how this team so many out there are wishing they would just quit for the sake of a higher 2021 draft choice just wouldn't quit this Sunday, coming back from behind three times against the now 4-6 Vikings to win.

Did so that third time, down 28-24, on an 11-play, 61-yard drive. Call it the Dalton Double, quarterback Andy Dalton, playing for the first time in four weeks, hitting now starting tight end Dalton Schultz with a 2-yard touchdown pass just 1:37 left in the game.

But in past games, this year and stretching back to last year for sure, that would have been far too much time left on the clock to take victory for granted. This defense has not had a closing reputation. Yet in this one, even though the Cowboys defense gave up more than 400 yards for a fifth time this year (430) and at least 23 points for the ninth time in 10 games, those guys slammed the door shut on Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and them, forcing a four-and-out from the Vikings' 25-yard line, putting the Cowboys in victory formation at the Minnesota 29.

"The game of football I feel is a complementary game," said the precocious rookie CeeDee Lamb, hauling in four catches for 34 yards and one body-contorted, twisting and falling backwards 4-yard touchdown grab on his way toward breaking Cowboys Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Bob Hayes' 55-year-old franchise single-season record for most receptions by a rookie by two with his now total of 48.

"I'm grateful to be on this team."

Lamb should know, the feeling is mutual

But the kid is right. The offense scored 31 points. That's as many points as the Cowboys scored in the last three games of the now erstwhile four-game losing streak. The defense captured two takeaways, Donovan Wilson recovering a fumble he forced at the Vikings' 30-yard line and DeMarcus Lawrence recovering another one Wilson forced at the Vikings' 48. The kid safety also contributed nine tackles and a half-sack.

And wonders of wonders, the Cowboys turned the fumble recovery at the Minnesota 30 into a touchdown, the first time all season, encompassing 10 games, they have scored a touchdown driving less than 65 yards. And even turned the second fumble recovery into a field goal.

That's nine points after takeaways (a blocked extra point from being 10), and to think over the first nine games the Cowboys had only turned their seven takeaways into 13 points while opponents had cashed in on their 20 takeaways for 103.

And you wondered why the Cowboys were only 2-7?

Hmmm, maybe the worm is turning, albeit slowly.

Overall, the defense fought, although back to its old tricks of giving up big plays, but at least those guys did not let Cook, the NFL's leading rusher who already has surpassed 1,000 yards and goes by the nickname of "The Chef," overcook them this Thanksgiving week.

And what a difference Dalton's return made. While he knows he could play better, he did complete 22 of 32 passes for 203 yards, three touchdowns and one interception for a 104.3 passer rating. That is the highest rating for a Cowboys QB in a complete-game performance since Dak's 112.9 during the 49-38 loss to Cleveland seven games ago.

Although his three touchdown passes were of the shorty variety, 6 yards to Zeke, 4 to Lamb and 2 to Schultz, he masterfully drove the Cowboys downfield 61 yards for the leading touchdown.

And when it came to running the football, well, no more of the Ezekiel Elliott hasn't rushed for 100 yards since …

He busted this Vikings defense for 103 (averaging 4.9 yards a carry) and added that touchdown, his first score in five games. Add to that, Mr. Changeup, Tony Pollard totaling 60 more, blazing into the end zone from 42 yards out thanks to a strong block from backup wideout Noah Brown. That's 180 total yards rushing, a season high by 36 yards more than that 144 last week against Pittsburgh.

Something brewing?

Then there was Cooper, Lamb & Gallup Inc. pitching in with 12 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown.

Not only that, but McCarthy went out of his way to compliment offensive coordinator Kellen Moore for a game well-called and designed, no more so than the two-point conversion on the handoff to Zeke, who pitched the ball to the already-in-motion Lamb for the score.

Think about it? Greg Zuerlein made his field goals (two). Lawrence finished with four tackles, two QB hits and the half-sack. Leighton Vander Esch totaled 12 tackles, letting "The Chef" know he was in the kitchen. Schultz with four catches, the game-winner and might have had another two TDs had Dalton been more accurate with one attempt and had seen him wide open on another.

Just one guy after another after another contributing to this long-overdue victory.

One that has the Cowboys (3-7) back in the thick of the NFC East, with Philly (3-6-1) losing to Cleveland earlier on Sunday, Washington (3-7) beating Cincinnati, as well as the Giants sitting home on their bye at 3-7. Laugh if you want, but things are now nip and tuck.

So, if we can overlook the records, just like old times now, it's Cowboys-Red … er, Washington, Thanksgiving Day for, uh, outright possession of first place in the NFC East come Thursday.

"There's a lot of football left to be played," McCarthy said. "History will tell you that, that you have to play your best football in November and December. Obviously with the state of our division, that focus is ours. We need to win Thursday.

"This will be our first opportunity to really stack success, and the key to where we are as a team. All three phases played well. This is clearly the most rounded performance, victory that we've had this year. It took us a little longer to get here today, but I clearly think the journey will make us stronger. We need to do something with this win. We need to build off this win. It needs to mean something.

"That definitely will have to take a victory Thursday on Thanksgiving. So you can see where my mind already has gone."

Yep, on to Washington on Thanksgiving, the 53rd time the Cowboys have staged this holiday classic since 1966 (31-20-1), and actually having feasted over their division counterparts, winning eight of the nine times they've met on Thanksgiving, including twice in the past four seasons.

And this time the two 3-7 teams are playing for first place in the NFC East.

Hey, seriously now, don't laugh.

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