You know everything is going to come unglued now, don’t you? No more caution. No more seat belts. No more worrying why Lance Dunbar was playing during the two-minute drill instead of Ezekiel Elliott. The Dallas Cowboys have won eight games in a row, and every one of their fans is about to lose his ever-loving mind. I speak from experience.
Maybe I overgeneralize from experience. But bear with me. Sunday’s Steelers game felt like exactly the right time to end a very nice run. It was Ben Roethlisberger’s we’re-not-gonna-lose-this-one game. (Simmons was right, just a week early.) The Steelers had scouted Dallas and come up with a defensive game plan unlike, say, the Browns in Week 9. The Cowboys were down two starters in the secondary. Tony Romo was healthy again and hovering; the game was close late; and Dak Prescott was thrown into drive after drive where the rookie quarterback had to be just about perfect.
But here we are after 35–30. There are no but-what-abouts anymore. Nobody is worried about passing on Jalen Ramsey in the draft. It’s time once again to annoy football fans from coast to coast.
For me, there were a couple of moments that stuck out. First quarter. Steelers 12, Cowboys 3. The Cowboys start a drive with two offensive line penalties (a theme of annoyance all day) and are stuck at second-and-18 from their own 17-yard line. Prescott drops back and throws a screen pass to Elliott. Elliott — using a few nice blocks from those penalty-ridden linemen — takes it 83 yards to the house. The Cowboys are suddenly back in the game.
Third quarter. Steelers 18, Cowboys 16. A holding penalty on Dallas guard Ron Leary — see above — puts the Cowboys in third-and-11 from the 50-yard line. Prescott avoids the rush from Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier, steps left, and throws deep to Dez Bryant — the same Bryant who has come back slowly from a knee fracture, has been force-fed the ball by Prescott, and has only occasionally justified the attention. Bryant juggles it, catches it, and runs to the end zone. The Cowboys have their first lead of the game.
What made Dallas 35, Pittsburgh 30 all the stranger, and more wonderful, is that the mistakes I dreaded actually happened. Prescott was stripped on the first series of the game, and the Steelers turned it into a quick touchdown. The Cowboys I-can’t-believe-they’re-holding-up-like-this defense gave up the most points they’ve surrendered all season. With 1:13 remaining in the game, they fell for Roethlisberger’s fake spike, one of the slickest veteran moves this side of Dan Marino.
So why did Dallas win? Elliott was really, really great. There was a moment late when the announcers were pretending that he had been held below his usual level of excellence because his rushing total was in the low 70s. (He already had 80-plus yards receiving.) By game’s end, Elliott had piled up 209 total yards with three touchdowns. These Cowboys are usually compared to the teams of the ’90s; Elliott’s reception was the longest for a Dallas running back since Herschel Walker in 1986.
Prescott was really, really great, too. Aside from the obvious plays, I’ll remember the way he led Bryant on a third-and-7 throw in the third quarter — the pass got 12 yards and set up a Dan Bailey field goal. I’ll remember the throw to Jason Witten on the game’s penultimate drive, on an option route, where Prescott put the ball just outside of Shazier’s outstretched right arm. Elliott walked into the end zone on the next play.
After the game, Prescott and Elliott were on the field with Fox’s Erin Andrews. Listen:
These guys duck questions like 10-year veterans, too!
Safety J.J. Wilcox, who was starting in place of Barry Church, decided to come out and hit like Roy Williams — the young Roy, before his late-career, zaftig phase. I’m not sure this materially affected the game. But if you want to say it “set the tone” and answered the pops being doled out by the likes of Shazier, I’m not going to argue.
The Cowboys do not have a quarterback controversy. They might have had one if Prescott had followed the game’s first turnover with two or three more, but now it’s off the table. Tony Romo isn’t sulking. I suspect the smile Romo cracked on the Bryant touchdown is more evocative of his mood. He may not be happy about this, but he’s OK with this. (The comments from Troy Aikman and Ed Werder’s reporting kind of makes you wonder how close Romo was to his teammates to begin with.)
Cowboys success is a civic good in this country. I don’t care much about television ratings, but how happy was NFL HQ to have its best game of the season, between two of the league’s premier teams, parked right in a prime, post-presidential-election slot? If that doesn’t goose the ratings, nothing will.
Back in Texas, a win like this has higher upside. To all Dallasites who were repulsed by the results of last week’s election, I’ve got great news: You can talk to your relatives again.