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The Hot Read, Week 14: The Cowboys Have Arrived as a Super Bowl Contender

Dallas has impressed for most of the season—but it also hasn’t played many tough opponents. That all changed Sunday night with a win over the Eagles. Plus: why the Rams still look scary, Deebo Samuel’s big day, Joe Flacco’s impact on the Browns, award picks, and more.

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from the NFL Week 14 Sunday action. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you come back next week, when we’ll do it all again.

The Big Thing: The Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl Is on the Table

A lot happened in the NFL on Sunday. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.

The Cowboys have not played in the NFC championship game since the 1995 season. That should change this season.

The first and biggest reason is very obvious: Dak Prescott. Dak is shredding the league right now in all facets—there is nothing that a quarterback can do that he isn’t doing at a top-five level. Managing the pocket? Making tight-window throws? Clutch performance? I think Dak is first in all of these categories. He’s one of the best scramblers in the league (he’s fourth in expected points added per scramble) and certainly one of the best post-snap processors in the league (there’s no stat for this, but it’s been true for years).

But perhaps most importantly: Dak has never created more explosive plays than he is right now. Here’s Dak’s 10-game rolling average of explosive play percentage.

This is uproarious stuff. Over the past 10 games, Dak is producing a 20-plus-yard play on over 11 percent of his dropbacks—that’s one out of every nine dropbacks!

But here’s the real magic. Last season, Dak had a strong peak in explosive plays as well—you can see that peak on the graph. But nobody was talking about his explosives—why? Because of how often he was turning the ball over. That’s often the cost of generating explosive plays: When you throw the ball farther downfield, interceptions are more likely. High-risk, high-reward stuff.

Here’s the same graph paired with his 10-game rolling average of interception percentage.

As Prescott’s explosive play rate has risen to career-best levels, his interception rate has declined back to career-average levels—and lower! Dak is on pace for his lowest single-season interception percentage of the past five years, at 1.3 percent. He is having his cake and eating it too. He’s hacking the system. He’s got all of the reward and none of the cost.

Yet it feels sustainable. Prescott is making high-difficulty throws into tight coverage with pinpoint accuracy and fearless rhythm. There’s nothing stopping him from dotting Jake Ferguson 25 yards down the field when Ferguson was already draped in perfect coverage. You shrug your shoulders, say, “We’ll get him on the next one,” and then realize, over the course of a long and infuriating game, that you will not at all get him on the next one. You won’t get him at all.

Prescott’s explosion did not happen in a vacuum. Kudos must go to CeeDee Lamb, the star wide receiver and unstoppable force that all Super Bowl teams seem to have as a pass catcher; Ferguson and Brandin Cooks and Tony Pollard as well, as they round out Lamb’s supporting cast and punish defenses that pour too many resources into stopping the star. Along the offensive line, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith are staving off Father Time for yet another season—each is delivering an All-Pro-caliber season, as is young guard Tyler Smith on the left side.

But most importantly, a hat tip must go to Mike McCarthy. Not for doing what he said he’d do—all of the revolutionary new offensive approaches that were promised this offseason were deployed for about a month and then promptly cast out the window. But rather, for doing what is best for the team. Since their bye week, the Cowboys are running more motion, more empty formations, more bunches—all stuff that former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore would use. They’ve revamped the offseason revamp of their offense. It’s now twice revamped, honed to a sharp edge.

It feels impossible to stop. It’s pro concepts with good window dressing, but the throws Prescott must make are difficult, and with the quality of his pass protection and pocket management, pressuring him into mistakes isn’t much of an option; pressing his receivers is tough, if not impossible, given all of the Lamb hide-and-seek. Flood the field with zone coverage and pray Prescott checks it down, and you’re left tackling in space. Have fun.

The Cowboys cleared a critical test against the Eagles with their emphatic win—they finally beat a true Super Bowl contender. But the most important test remains. Dallas has lost its past three matchups to the 49ers—two of them in the postseason. In those three games, Prescott’s offense has scored 17, 12, and 10 points. San Francisco presents a unique kryptonite to Prescott. He wins by processing faster than you can move and jamming throws into tight windows moments before you arrive; the 49ers secondary plays faster than any other in the league, and when they arrive to contact, they delete what they hit.

But when the 49ers beat Dallas earlier this season, the Cowboys were still running the old, meek version of their offense. Few interceptions, but few explosives. Dallas is better equipped now to put points on San Francisco because it’s never had Prescott playing this quickly, this accurately, this maniacally. If Dallas meets San Francisco this postseason—whether in the wild-card round, the divisional round, or that elusive conference championship game—I’m certain the Cowboys can beat the Niners. Those Niners sure are good, but nobody is playing as well as Dak and the Cowboys.

The Cowboys have not played in the NFC championship game since the 1995 season. That was also the last time they made it to a Super Bowl. Also the last time they won a Super Bowl.

I’m not saying it’s happening. But it is, emphatically, on the table.

The Little Things

It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.

WHERE YOU LINE UP

Behold, the coolest play of the NFL season …

… RUINED by Kadarius Toney—hilariously, THE GUY WHO WAS HIGH-STEPPING INTO THE END ZONE—who lined up offside in a careless and backbreaking error.

How has this play been taken from us? How can art be so masterfully crafted yet so easily destroyed? Is there no more beauty in the world?

Now, there has been a ton of consternation about this play. Typically, when receivers line up, they point at the side judge to get confirmation that they are lined up correctly: onside, either on the line of scrimmage (covering the tackle) or off the ball. There is uncertainty about whether it happened on this play. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid remarked that the side judge didn’t inform him that, unless Toney’s alignment was fixed, a flag would be thrown—something that is extremely standard practice across the league.

These details explain why the Chiefs sideline was so frustrated—in particular, Patrick Mahomes. They had one of the coolest game-winning plays ever and lost it on something that they felt the referee should have waved away as a technicality or given them ample time to fix.

However, offensive offside is being called differently than it was in the past; it’s different, perhaps, from the standard that Mahomes and Reid have in their respective heads. It’s been called this season four times more than it was called last season. Referees are emphasizing the call in unprecedented ways. If Mahomes’s and Reid’s expectations of the 2023 offensive offside penalty were built by their experiences in the league over the past five years, they need to update their preconceptions.

THE EFFORT from Seattle Seahawks safety Julian Love

There’s nothing I love more than a good second-tier free agency signing. Not a huge deal—think Javon Hargrave to the 49ers, a solid starter who lands on a team and immediately contributes. Another example is Love, a college corner converted to an NFL safety who signed with the Seattle Seahawks on a two-year, $12 million deal.

Love doesn’t register as one of the big, sexy names for the Seahawks defense—Jamal Adams, Bobby Wagner, Devon Witherspoon—but he’s been a quality playmaker all season. Look at the effort and instinct on this play, down multiple scores in the fourth quarter to the division rival 49ers.

This is an incredible chasedown. But it is made even more impressive by the fact that on the previous drive, Love got absolutely bamboozled by a play-action fake and gave up a touchdown catch and run to George Kittle.

When we talk about short memories in the NFL, this is what we’re talking about. You have to put a bad play behind you and immediately be ready to make a huge one, playing with the same bravado as if you’ve never made a mistake in your life. This 49ers offense especially can steamroll you—you can feel helpless against all the motion, play-action, and elite athletes. Love gave up seven, came back the next drive, and may have saved seven. That’s great play.

THE TOTAL SCORE of the Vikings-Raiders game

Three.

The Zag: The Rams Are Scary Good

I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag.

I’m pretty sure this is the first “This team is actually very good” column written after a team lost a key game. I’m proud of this. That’s what the Zag was made for.

The Rams lost to the Ravens 37-31 in heartbreaking fashion: After forcing overtime with a last-minute field goal drive and stopping the Ravens when Baltimore got the ball to start overtime, the Rams surrendered a punt return touchdown and fell to 6-7.

That’s the bad news. The good news? The Rams offense put 31 points on the Ravens defense, which is one of the best units in the league. Entering the week, Baltimore had the second-best unit by success rate and first by EPA per drive. For every 10 drives the Ravens defense faced, it was giving up a touchdown on just one.

The Rams scored three touchdowns on 12 drives. They are the only team to score three offensive touchdowns against the Ravens this season, save for the Arizona Cardinals, who scored their third touchdown in garbage time.

That the Rams gave the Ravens defense the fight of its life shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The Rams are seventh in offensive success rate and sixth in EPA per drive. This is one of the best offenses—has been all year. Injuries have muddled up that view. Remember, Matthew Stafford has missed time this season. Include only snaps that Stafford’s played, as Nate Tice of Yahoo Sports wrote this week, and the Rams would be fourth in both success rate and EPA.

Let’s take it a step further. Starting running back Kyren Williams and star wide receiver Cooper Kupp have both missed substantial time this season. Look only at plays in which the Rams have had Stafford, Kyren, Kupp, and rookie breakout Puka Nacua, and this offense would be behind only the 49ers in success rate.

Not enough has been made of the season that Stafford is currently enjoying. Stafford is 35 years old. With Kirk Cousins down for the season, Stafford is the oldest starting quarterback in the NFC by two years (Geno Smith is 33). Last season, he endured a spinal cord injury and a sprain to the elbow of his throwing hand; this season, he injured the thumb of his throwing hand. This was an old, banged-up quarterback. There were reports that the Rams were trying to trade Stafford to get off his contract this past offseason.

Now, that guy is neutralizing free rushers in the low red zone with anticipation throws.

He’s dropping teardrops between coverage with the game on the line.

And he’s even getting a little scoot on.

As long as Stafford stays healthy, this offense should continue to steamroll accordingly. And if an offense can drop 31 on the Ravens, it can drop 31 on anyone—and that simple reality makes the Rams a scary team in the NFC playoff picture. Yes, even at 6-7.

With the 7-6 Vikings sneaking out the least impressive possible win—3-0 over the Las Vegas Raiders—and the 6-6 Packers yet to play, the Rams are out of the playoff picture as it stands. But few teams are hotter offensively than the Rams, and the NFL playoffs are built for chaos. It’s a best-of-one format. Get a hot offense into the playoffs, and it can cause problems.

Maybe they’ll miss it—another top-tier offense held back by a defense too feeble. But this is a championship coach with a championship quarterback, and Aaron Donald is on that defense. I’m not counting the Rams out of a field-tilting playoff upset until I see triple zeros on the clock.


(Mostly Real) Awards

I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.

The “… in 2023?” Award: Cleveland Browns QB Joe Flacco

I won’t sit here and tell you the Browns won because of Flacco; that is categorically untrue. The Browns won because their defense is nasty good—I mean foul, offensive, disgusting levels of good—and because the Jaguars made tons of mistakes.

But Flacco sure is a great example of the differences between a quarterback you can win with and a quarterback you can win in spite of. It would be nice if Dorian Thompson-Robinson was good enough to start, win with, and develop, but he isn’t. Flacco, somehow, in the Gregorian year 2023, is.

The Browns are 8-5 and have an inside track to the AFC postseason. I would hate to see this defense in January, and the mistakes of the team’s quarterback are far less frequent and far harder to exploit than they once were.

The Clock Management Award: The Buffalo Bills

Were I a head coach in the NFL, I would have a giant sticky note on my play sheet that read: “Tie game. Fourth quarter. In field goal range. RUN OUT THE CLOCK!

Were I a head coach in the NFL playing against Patrick Mahomes, I would have a giant sticky note on my play sheet that read: “Tie game AGAINST MAHOMES. Fourth quarter AGAINST MAHOMES. In field goal range AGAINST MAHOMES. RUN OUT THE CLOCK! AGAINST MAHOMES!

Were I a head coach in the NFL who had once lost a critical playoff game against Mahomes in which he engineered a game-tying drive with 13 seconds left, and this game was a famous performance, and this loss had started the unraveling of my team, I would get this tattooed under my eyelids so that I could read it every time I blinked: “BURN CLOCK DON’T GIVE HIM THE BALL BACK KEEP HIM ON THE SIDELINE AHHHHHHHH!”

Sean McDermott has not done what I would have done.


On first-and-10 from the Chiefs’ 22-yard line with 2:12 remaining, the Bills threw a pass, threw another pass, took a timeout, and threw another pass. They completed one of those three passes and burned, in total, 15 seconds. The Chiefs entered that sequence with two timeouts remaining and left it with two timeouts remaining.

This was terrifying. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion. The moment a team goes up by one score on the Chiefs in the fourth quarter, it feels inevitable that they’ll lose—doubly so when they could have burned more time, set Mahomes at a great disadvantage.

The Bills survived. Somehow, despite the wild season they’ve endured, they survived. They beat the Chiefs, they are 7-6, and they are in the wild-card hunt.

But, man, I sure would like for them to work the clock a little differently next time around.

Offensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): Cincinnati Bengals RB Chase Brown

The Bengals had a nice two-headed backfield for a few years, with lead back Joe Mixon and spellback Samaje Perine. With Perine leaving in free agency (and Mixon approaching it next offseason), filling the RB2 role was a big offseason priority—but Cincy spent only a fifth-round pick on the position, with Illinois senior Chase Brown.

Brown didn’t play much to start the season, and a hamstring injury shelved him for much of November. Last two games? Twenty touches, 166 yards, and a score. Young man looks spry out there.

Defensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): Atlanta Falcons CB Clark Phillips III

Falcons-Buccaneers was a mess of a game (aren’t all NFC South games at this point?), and I refuse to comment on it any further except to point out one thing that is cool: Fourth-round rookie corner Phillips started for the injured Jeff Okudah and held his own. Phillips had two pass breakups on the day, playing much larger than his frame would suggest.

Am I shoehorning Phillips into this column because I loved his Utah film and had a first-round grade on him? No comment. (The Ringer’s NFL Draft Show returns this week.)

Most Valuable Player (of the Week): San Francisco 49ers WR Deebo Samuel

The MVP race this season is a tight one. I personally love it. With many deserving candidates, I don’t really mind who wins, but I know at least three fan bases will be furious with the result—win-win. To help make it even more fun, I’m considering adding more and more names to the conversation, such as 49ers wide receiver Deebo.

I sent this tweet when the Dolphins traded for Tyreek Hill. I think, 1.5 seasons later, it still applies.

Now, Deebo said postgame that Brock Purdy is the MVP to him—and rightfully so. He should say that about this quarterback, who is comfortably the best quarterback with whom he’s played. But few players affect the field the way Deebo does. The Venn diagram intersection of “speed threats” and “tackle breakers” contains exactly one player, and it’s Deebo. Hill can break tackles and beat angles, but he doesn’t survive contact like this.

Next Ben Stats

What it sounds like: Next Gen Stats, but I get to make them up.

4: That’s the number of catches Jimmy Graham has on the season

Sorry, this is a two-parter. Here it comes.

3: That’s the number of receiving touchdowns Jimmy Graham has on the season

You remember Graham? Star Saints tight end of the early 2010s. Every time he made a big play, the broadcast would talk about his basketball background. He was traded to the Seahawks in 2015 and quickly faded into the background; his career ended ingloriously in a 14-catch season with the 2021 Bears.

Only … it didn’t! Graham came out of … not retirement, but voluntary abstinence from participation in the 2022 NFL season to rejoin the team that had defined his career. It felt a little silly. How much was Graham, an aging tight end on a team rostering Juwan Johnson and Foster Moreau and Taysom Hill, really gonna help the Saints?

Well, after his best game of the season—two catches for 16 yards and a score—Graham now has three receiving touchdowns on the season. If Graham doesn’t catch a pass the rest of the way, he’ll be the first player with at least three touchdown catches on five or fewer receptions since 2014 J.J. Watt.

Being used as a gadget player. Great bit.

Exactly half: That’s how much of the league has had at least two quarterbacks start this season

The comprehensive list: Giants, Vikings, Bears, Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams, Falcons, Panthers, Bengals, Browns, Steelers, Raiders, Colts, Titans, Jets, Patriots.

With Drew Lock making the start on Sunday for the Seahawks, half of the league has now deployed a QB2 as a starter. Most for injury, obviously—the Falcons’ dalliance with Taylor Heinicke over Desmond Ridder and Bailey Zappe’s supplanting of Mac Jones in New England are the exceptions.

That number will likely jump to over 50 percent next week, as both Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud and Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert left their respective games this week with injuries. Stroud will enter the concussion protocol, which could keep him out for a week. Herbert fractured a finger on his throwing hand, and that feels like the sort of injury that requires at least a week on ice.

Any and all Davis Mills and Easton Stick fans: This is for you.