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The Cowboys’ Win Over the Chargers Could Be Dallas’s Blueprint to a Divisional Crown

Despite injuries, a lackluster day on offense, and some miscues, Dallas was able to edge out a team with playoff hopes. Is there more of that in the Cowboys’ future?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Mike McCarthy never wants to do that again. Sort of. The Cowboys had an eventful week in the worst way: star pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence broke his foot, defensive end Randy Gregory landed on the COVID-19/reserve list, starting right tackle La’el Collins was suspended for five games, receiver Michael Gallup landed on injured reserve with a calf injury, and starting safety Donovan Wilson was ruled out with a groin injury. “I hope I don’t have any more weeks like we did this week,” McCarthy said after Sunday’s game, “because it just was constantly moving and churning.”

He’ll take the result, though.

Dallas edged out the Chargers 20-17 in SoFi Stadium in Week 2. A walk-off, 56-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal delivered the Cowboys their first victory of the year—and saved them from a dreaded 0-2 start. More importantly, the manner in which Dallas won—pounding Los Angeles for 198 rushing yards and two scores; generating two turnovers and maintaining constant pressure on Chargers QB Justin Herbert—speaks to the team’s ability to find ugly ways to win. In the midst of an unconventional week, it took an unconventional Cowboys performance: For the first time since the 2018 season, Dallas won a game in which it scored fewer than 30 points.

“To be able to come in here and win this game,” McCarthy said, “was important on a number of fronts for us. We needed it, and we needed the confidence that goes with this win.” The Cowboys’ second-year coach wrapped up his postgame press conference to the sounds of his players celebrating inside the nearby locker room, with a speaker’s bass rhythmically thumping out Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” and players belting out its chorus. The players’ jubilation, though, was made possible thanks to their calm in the final minutes of their victory just moments before.

Dallas took over the ball at its own 13-yard line with 3:49 left and the game tied at 17. “[We were] very comfortable,” receiver CeeDee Lamb said, grinning, when asked about the team’s mentality entering the possession. “You got your starting quarterback out there leading a charge with a two-minute drive to win a game. I don’t think it gets any better than that.”

Quarterback Dak Prescott didn’t come close to the 58 passes he threw in Week 1, going 23-for-27 with 237 yards and one pick. But on the Cowboys’ final series, he coolly guided them across midfield, completing five passes and converting a third down. After confusion occurred with 26 seconds left—McCarthy noted that a clock malfunction and late substitution sabotaged what should have been an additional play call before the team called timeout with four seconds remaining—Zuerlein trotted out for his game-winner.

“I saw the time,” Prescott said. “I just felt that we’re comfortable. We’re good in field goal range, and that’s what [the coaches] wanted to do.”

The week before in Tampa, the Cowboys hadn’t displayed the same type of resolve. Against the Buccaneers, Lamb dropped two passes; he led the team with eight catches for 88 yards on nine targets versus the Chargers. Zuerlein missed an extra point and a 31-yard field goal attempt against Tampa Bay before rebounding a week later for his game-winner. Dallas went 1-for-4 in the red zone in Week 1, and followed with a 2-for-3 performance in Week 2. Dallas was comfortable against the Chargers, even though there were plenty of reasons for it not to be. Much of it should be credited to an adaptability and flexibility fostered during the week.

When Ezekiel Elliott finished Week 1 with only 33 rushing yards on 11 carries, the Cowboys’ offensive balance came under scrutiny. But the offensive line was without its best player, All-Pro guard Zack Martin, and was facing arguably the NFL’s best front seven. Martin returned for a matchup against a Chargers defense that dares opposing offenses to run the ball by deploying lighter boxes. Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore took what he could, and Elliott (16 carries, 71 yards, one TD) and Tony Pollard (13 carries, 109 yards, one TD) each had a big day. According to Next Gen Stats data, Elliott and Pollard faced heavy boxes on five combined carries. McCarthy credited Moore for calling a “patient” game that relied on its rushing attack. The Cowboys generated 0.25 expected points added per rush and a 61 percent success rate, per Ben Baldwin’s database.

“We knew we wanted to get the run game going,” McCarthy said.

The Chargers had trouble coping with both Elliott and Pollard, whose differing skill sets enable Dallas to get creative with its offensive formations. Pollard, who’s logged 57 career slot snaps, according to Pro Football Focus’s charting, is a factor in the Cowboys’ passing game and is a threat on jet-sweep actions. Elliott’s pass-catching ability is among the best at his position, but his work between the tackles (37 percent of his carries this season have come up the middle) forces defenses to respect him. The combo immediately affected the game, as Dallas waged a 15-play opening scoring drive that lasted nearly seven minutes.

“The mentality of the [Chargers] defense is just to kinda make you slowly move it down the field, make you grind it out,” Elliott said. “So that gave us the opportunity to run the football. The O-line did a hell of a job. They were moving those guys off the ball today, and it set the tone.”

Perhaps even more impressive than Dallas’s offensive versatility was its defense. With Lawrence out, rookie linebacker Micah Parsons started at defensive end. Even though he shifted into the position during the middle of the week, he was crucial in slowing down Herbert and the Chargers’ passing game—Parsons collected a sack to go with a team-high four QB hits. “A lot of it was natural,” Parsons said. “I mean, some people had a long day out there.”

Altogether, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s unit tallied 13 QB hits and broke up eight passes. After picking off Tom Brady twice in Week 1, the Cowboys secondary intercepted Herbert twice, including an incredible snag by cornerback Trevon Diggs. Dallas held the Chargers offense to 5-for-12 on third down and only 1-for-4 in the red zone.

“I think you have to give Dan and the coaches some credit, because there is some flexibility in our scheme,” McCarthy said. “That was something that, when I arrived here, I felt like was part of the change that I tried to start last year. We wanted to be more diverse and utilize more players. If you look at the defensive free agents and the rookie class, this is what we’ve been building.”

Through two weeks, there’s reason to be impressed by the Cowboys and bullish on their chances in the NFC East. They’ve faced two opponents who are expected to be playoff contenders and have looked competitive in both contests, despite injuries. Last season when Prescott was out, these types of performances wouldn’t have been possible. Dallas finished 24th last season in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA ratings, falling off from second the year before.

The Cowboys missed Prescott’s poise on the field in addition to his play. His return this year spurred plenty of optimism within the club, but more importantly, the pieces around him—if healthy and available—offer more pathways to victory. Dallas doesn’t need Prescott to go score-for-score with other high-octane offenses, although the Cowboys have already proved that they’re capable of hanging with opponents if necessary. Once Collins returns, and if Martin can remain healthy, the group will be formidable enough to win in the run game and set up the backfield for more big days. Defensively, Dallas has shown that it can still generate frequent turnovers, while younger defenders, such as Parsons and Diggs, are showing promise in Quinn’s system.

Dallas has shown that it has great players and—in Moore and Quinn—the staff members to maximize them. McCarthy and his players noted that Sunday’s win is only one game in a long season. Some might think that, considering the Chargers’ own offensive line injuries and the team’s numerous penalties, the Cowboys shouldn’t be too optimistic about the result. But they found a way.

Against Tampa Bay, “we weren’t quite good enough,” McCarthy said. “But there was a lot to build off of that. So to me, I don’t think there was ever a blink in belief.”