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The Unstoppable Dak, Zeke, and Dez

With a dominant, controlling run game and a growing, efficient air attack, the Cowboys’ road to the NFC championship game should be smooth

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

After knocking off the Ravens, 27–17, on Sunday, the Cowboys pushed their winning streak to nine games. They’re in control of their division, two games up on the next-closest contender, and a game and a half ahead of Seattle for the NFC’s no. 1 seed. There was a time, a couple of weeks ago, when it seemed like the NFL didn’t have any elite teams. That time has passed. Dallas looks unstoppable.

The Cowboys have now racked up 400-plus yards of offense in eight straight games, a feat matched in a single season just twice before in league history: The Broncos did it in 2013 with Peyton Manning at the helm, and the Tom Brady–led Patriots strung together eight 400-plus yard games to start the 2007 season. The difference, of course, is that those two teams were led by arguably the two best quarterbacks to ever play this sport; Manning set an NFL record with 55 touchdowns in 2013, leading Denver to a Super Bowl berth, while Brady tossed 50 scores of his own in 2007, carrying the Pats to a 16–0 regular season and an appearance in the Super Bowl.

Most of the Cowboys’ extraordinary offensive dominance has been fueled by an overwhelming ground game, but the development of the passing attack is what makes them look invincible.

We knew about the elite offensive line, its variety of enterprising blocking schemes, and Ezekiel Elliott’s combination of power and speed to run behind it. That’s why Sunday’s matchup with the Ravens and their NFL-best run defense was such an intriguing one. But the Cowboys not only racked up 118 yards on the ground against Baltimore, they also showcased an increasingly efficient passing game led by Dak Prescott. The rookie sensation has really rounded into form the past four weeks since Dez Bryant’s return — and because of his veteran-like poise and nearly mistake-free play, it’s become pretty much impossible to defend against this team. With the incredible balance they possess across the run game and in the air attack, it’s time to ask: Who the hell is going to stop the Cowboys?

The Ravens defense represented the greatest challenge the Cowboys would encounter this year. They came into the week first in rush defense DVOA. They had surrendered more than 100 yards on the ground just twice this year, and had held opposing offenses to 65 rushing yards or fewer a ridiculous seven times. They were giving up an NFL-best 3.3 yards per carry and an NFL-best 71.3 yards per game rushing. If there was a defense built to stop Dallas’s runaway freight train of a ground game, it was the one that featured 335-pound nose tackle Brandon Williams, 205-pounds-in-his-quads-alone Timmy Jernigan, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, C.J. Mosley, and Eric Weddle. This was a battle-tested, AFC North–tough, veteran-led defense that matched up well with the Cowboys’ biggest strengths.

For a while, it looked like the Ravens were up to the test. They forced punts on Dallas’s first four drives; the Cowboys didn’t get on the scoreboard until the 6:01 mark in the second quarter, and a field goal in the closing seconds of the quarter notched the game up at 10–10 heading into the half. Elliott had just 26 yards on six carries to that point, Dallas was just 3-for-7 on third down, and Prescott and the passing game had been held in check. Through two quarters, the Ravens’ plan was working.

Except, the problem — for Baltimore and for the rest of the league — is that you have to face this offense for four straight quarters. Without making any major changes at the half, Dallas slowly wore the Ravens out over the final two periods. Seventy-one of Elliott’s 97 yards on the ground came after halftime, and Prescott completed all 14 of his pass attempts for 146 yards and two touchdowns over that same span.

Dez Bryant (Getty Images)
Dez Bryant (Getty Images)

Dallas had just three possessions in the second half, but that’s all it needed. A 10-play, 92-yard drive in the third quarter ended with a Dez Bryant touchdown. A 13-play, 88-yard drive stretching from late in the third quarter and into the fourth ended with another Bryant touchdown. Then, holding a 24–17 lead with 8:10 remaining in the game, the Cowboys did what a dominating, run-based offense should do: They bled the clock and protected their lead. Dallas put together a 13-play, 72-yard drive that chewed up nearly six and a half minutes of fourth-quarter clock and resulted in a Dan Bailey field goal, pushing their lead to 10 points. Elliott ran the ball nine times for 30 yards. Prescott completed all three of his passes. They gave the ball back to the Ravens with just under two minutes remaining; it proved to be too much, as all Baltimore could muster was a failed Hail Mary into the end zone as time expired.

“That’s kind of where we broke them,” Elliott said after the game. “That’s where we really wore them down. You get a chance to wear them down on those long drives, so it was really critical.”

In all, the Cowboys held the ball for 20:09 of 30 possible minutes in the second half. Dallas and Baltimore both went into the locker rooms at halftime playing at a high level, but the Cowboys are built to play at that level for longer. Runs that were picking up 1 or 2 yards in the first half started picking up 5 and 6 yards in the second. The offensive line, which faced stiff resistance in the first half, slowly began to chip away at the Ravens’ run gaps like sea waves eroding the shoreline. It’s demoralizing; the Ravens, like most of Dallas’s opponents this year, seemed to just get sick of taking on blocks. They must’ve gotten sick of trying to tackle Elliott, too, who finished the game with 25 carries for 97 yards and added four receptions for 30 yards. In nine straight games, Dallas hasn’t met a team that can hold the waves at bay for a full 60 minutes.

And it’s not just because of the Cowboys’ dominant run game. The passing attack has been incredibly efficient as well. Prescott is balling out. He’s completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 2,640 yards with 17 touchdowns and just two picks, and his ability to make big-time throws in key situations — on third downs, in the red zone — when the Cowboys can’t simply run the ball, is the reason Tony Romo conceded his starting job. Dallas went 4-for-5 on third downs in its big second half on Sunday, and all four of those conversions were Prescott passes. In games like Sunday’s hard-fought battle with the Ravens, where the ground game encounters heavy resistance, Dallas can still score points with its passing attack.

This deadly combination means that if anybody is going to beat the Cowboys, they better have balance on defense — the ability to stop the run and a strong pass defense — and an efficient and explosive offense that can put points on the board. Because of Dallas’s ability to control the clock — the Cowboys hold the ball for almost 34 minutes a game, most in the league — opposing teams have to make the absolute most of each of their possessions. It’s why the Cowboys have been so dominant with so little talent on their defense; that group just doesn’t have to play much.

Looking forward, it’s tough to see a team that matches up well on paper with Dallas. The Cowboys get Kirk Cousins and the Redskins’ red-hot offense on Thanksgiving, a challenge for Dallas’s secondary, which is missing corner Morris Claiborne and safety Barry Church, but Washington came into this week ranked 30th against the run per DVOA, has given up 13 rushing touchdowns (tied for second worst), and surrenders an average of 112.1 rushing yards per game (21st) and 4.6 yards per carry (29th).

Earlier in the year, the Vikings (Week 13) might’ve looked like a great matchup for Dallas, but they have fallen hard and fast over the past month, and even though they finally snapped a four-game losing streak on Sunday against Arizona, they’re a shell of the dominant team we all thought they were in the first five weeks of the season. The Buccaneers (Week 15) are middling in pretty much all aspects, the Lions (Week 16) are terrible defensively, and while the Eagles (Week 17) have the top-ranked pass defense and 11th-ranked rush defense by DVOA, they don’t have much of an offense to speak of these days. The matchup to circle on the calendar is that Week 14 tilt in New York. The Giants are the only team to beat Dallas this year (in Week 1) and their eighth-ranked defense by DVOA has gotten better as the year has gone on. But they also just barely snuck past the Bears at home on Sunday.

There’s still a long way to go in the season, but if everyone stays healthy, it’s difficult to imagine anybody on Dallas’s remaining schedule slowing down the best-named trio in recent history — Dak, Zeke, and Dez — plus a healthy Cowboys offensive line. As for Dallas’s path to the Super Bowl, the only team that looks legitimately prepared to match up with them might be the Seahawks — a great run defense, an elite pass defense, and an increasingly explosive offense — and that’d make for one hell of an NFC championship game. Until then, teams might be able to get in the Cowboys’ way, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s going to stop them.