Cowboys Take 1st Place From Redskins

via NFL

Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper wreaked havoc on the Washington Redskins defense as the resurgent Dallas Cowboys picked up their third straight victory to move into a first-place tie in the NFC East. Here’s what we learned from the Cowboys’ 31-23 victory on Thanksgiving Day:

1. This game highlighted the big play. Early on, it was the back-and-forth nature of big plays that kept it interesting, with Trey Quinn setting the table for his own touchdown reception with a long punt return. Another long run put Washington in position to add more points when down by multiple scores. And of course, there was Amari Cooper’s second-half explosion, first on a 40-yard touchdown reception created by a well-run route, and later on a 91-yard catch in which he made a pair of defenders miss and outran fellow former Alabama star Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the end zone. It was a pleasant surprise from two teams that haven’t really won with the big play for much of the season.

2. Cooper is such a massive addition for this Cowboys team, which has turned almost completely around since his arrival at the trading deadline. His inclusion has allowed Dallas to spread the offense out more, resulting in an increase in usage of 11 personnel (more on that here), more space for Ezekiel Elliott to work and more places for Prescott to go with the ball. Cooper’s aforementioned pair of big plays were the clear difference Thursday, but his impact goes beyond the big play — and has the Cowboyslooking night-and-day better in both production and capability moving forward. Look no further than the play of Prescott for proof.

3. This game was billed as one that could have been decisive in the way the NFC East shakes out, and it feels even more like a fork in the road for two teams after the fact. What was a close game quickly became a blowout, and with it went the Redskins’ reputation as a threatening opponent. Without Alex Smith, Washington becomes a team that needs to grab an early lead and pound it out on the ground with Adrian Peterson, or else run the risk of placing the ball in the hands of Colt McCoy. Pro tip: You don’t want to do that. We still have more than a month of football left, but this sure felt like Washington’s first-place swan song.

Dallas, meanwhile, is rolling. I won’t venture to say I have them making a deep run in the playoffs, but they look like the clear favorite to win the division at this point, with none of the other three members figuring out enough to move beyond a trot. The Cowboys, though, are galloping and seem to be getting more comfortable with their own identity with each week.

4. This has been a recurring theme for the Redskins in recent years and feels even bigger this year: Injuries have decimated this team. The blocking up front has fallen off significantly without multiple starting linemen, and the loss of Smith is the most obvious. We’re not sure where this game will end up landing on the list of significance, but it’s the first that truly showed how personnel losses have left this team weak in multiple areas.

The Redskins can be competitive with Colt McCoy at quarterback, but they have a rather steep climb to win multiple games. This was no more evident than when McCoy threw an interception inside 4:30 in the fourth quarter, a pass thrown behind his intended receiver and into a handful of Cowboys defenders. It ended in an interception and sent a frustrated McCoy to the sideline, appearing to question how such a pass could stray wide of its intended target. There were plenty of other examples in between, and coach Jay Gruden referenced McCoy’s lack of time with the starters leading up to Thursday, saying the quarterback hasn’t had a single rep with the group in practice. So there’s room for improvement. But we also know the ceiling of McCoy, a longtime backup for a reason.

5. A prevailing theme of the Cowboys’ recent run (since Troy Aikman’s lambasting of the organization, really) has been a suffocating defense that’s improved tremendously in the last month. It got plenty of spotlight in Dallas’ surprising win over the Philadelphia Eagles, was just enough to beat the Atlanta Falcons and caused many problems for Washington. The opportunistic Cowboys defense intercepted McCoy three times, scoring a touchdown on one of the ensuing possessions that all but buried the Redskins. Prescott’s rushing score put Dallas ahead 31-13 and the fashion in which he did it — scrambling and evading multiple would-be tacklers — was demoralizing for the Redskins. The forced turnovers also frustrated McCoy, leaving him as the latest quarterback to be flummoxed by the Dallas defense.

Should they continue this play on that side of the ball, it seems as though the best is yet to come for the Cowboys, who look poised to win at least three of their final five games and could make that four with a similar effort against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 15.