Cowboys decision to sign Dalton pays off
ARLINGTON, Texas - When 2020 began, what were the odds the year would end with the Rose Bowl being played at AT&T Stadium?
Take whatever long shot that figured to be, and tell me if it was greater or less than the likelihood of an NFC wild-card game here ... featuring Tom Brady and Andy Dalton at quarterback?
The first one’s a done deal. Alabama and Notre Dame will be in town soon enough. And the Tampa Bay Bucs, led by Brady, figure to be the wild-card team with the best record which earns them a game with the NFC East champs. The Cowboys remained very much alive in that hunt - crazy as that sounds for a 6-9 team that was 3-9 three weeks ago - with a 37-17 thrashing of Philadelphia while Washington was losing at home to Carolina.
We will get to the weird quarterback possibilities for next week in a moment. But this was all made possible by the unconventional decision the Cowboys made in May, just days after his release from Cincinnati, to sign veteran Andy Dalton. Although some of us in the media had been howling about the lack of a backup quarterback here, the truth is that Dak Prescott had never needed one. Backup quarterbacks threw zero passes here in 2018 and 2019, and Cooper Rush threw three in 2017.
But it’s still football, and as we saw with Dak in Week 5, bad things can happen to the sturdiest of quarterbacks. Dalton will go over the 300-attempt mark Sunday in New York, and he enjoyed his finest Cowboys moments against the Eagles, throwing for 377 yards on just 30 attempts (22 completions).
The club’s celebrated trio of wide receivers - Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb - went over the 300-yard mark as each had a catch of at least 50 yards. The Cowboys frequently targeted whichever receiver had undrafted rookie Michael Jacquet lined up against him, and it became a game of pitch and catch.
In his first 300-yard game as a Cowboy, Dalton actually had 356 yards passing with nine minutes to play. In the third quarter.
“We match up well vs. anybody and, for me, it was just giving guys an opportunity to make plays,’' Dalton said. “We made some big ones today.”
The Cowboys trailed 14-3 in the first quarter as it looked like rookie Jalen Hurts was going to be the passing hero of the day. But the Cowboys scored on five straight long drives, taking control of the game with a touchdown just before the half, then a scoring drive to open the second half.
“We wanted to take advantage of some of the matchups that were favorable to us,” Coach Mike McCarthy said. “I thought Andy did a great job mixing the run and the pass today.’'
That included a surprising 9-yard run for a first down by Dalton, but mostly it was the resurgence of Ezekiel Elliott that the head coach was talking about. Elliott didn’t have much going for him until the fourth quarter, but he was at his slashing best as the Eagles’ defense fatigued and he finished with 105 yards on 19 carries.
It was Dallas’ fourth 500-yard day of the season but first since Prescott was injured in Week Five.
What does it all mean?
Dalton is surely capable of leading the Cowboys past the Giants on the road. But can the Eagles, now eliminated at 4-10-1 with injuries mounting, rebound in a meaningless game for them and defeat Washington in Philadelphia?
This may be a week where Cowboys fans are more concerned about another game’s injury report than the Cowboys’ own. An Alex Smith return would considerably improve Washington’s chances of beating the Eagles since Dwayne Haskins was so awful Sunday he got benched in favor of Taylor Heinicke.
Cowboys fans would love to see Heinicke (or Haskins) getting work against Philadelphia.
Barring ties, someone is going to finish 7-9 in the East. If it’s Washington or both Washington and Dallas, then the Football Team hosts a playoff game because of its sweep of the Cowboys. But if Dallas gets there alone, then there is more big-time football to be played here even beyond the Rose Bowl.
Pay no attention to the fact that Brady’s Bucs had a 34-0 halftime lead in Detroit on Saturday. The Lions are merely 5-10. These are the 6-9 Cowboys we’re talking about, and, yes, they have a playoff chance.
“You can’t worry about (records),” Dalton said. “It is what it is. “It’s not always the team with the best record that wins the super bowl, it’s the hottest team.”
I’m not sure how Super Bowls entered this discussion, but a three-game win streak in which the club has averaged 36 points per game does qualify as “hot” for Dallas - especially after all that came before.