For the Dallas Cowboys in Week 14, the one thing that went according to expectation was getting a win over the woeful Houston Texans. But the game was far closer than anyone expected; a nail-biter against the NFL’s worst team. So despite the victory, the grades for the playoff-bound Cowboys may not be too kind.
The game started off correctly. Dallas went 78 yards on the opening drive for a touchdown, then forced a three-and-out on Houston’s first possession. Everything was going according to the script, but then KaVontae Turpin muffed a punt and set the Texans up with a short field and a game-tying touchdown. It was like Houston finally found some hope while the Cowboys couldn’t stop stumbling until the last few possessions that decided the outcome.
How did each unit fare in Week 14? What issues need to be addressed before Dallas faces stiffer competition in upcoming weeks and especially in the postseason? Let’s take a deeper look.
Cowboys Offense: D
Again, things started off great! Dallas took the opening kickoff and went 78 yards in just nine plays, capping it with a Tony Pollard touchdown and setting the expected tone for the game. But after Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott combined for 63 of the yards gained on that drive, the Cowboys didn’t lean continue to lean on them despite Houston’s bottom-ranked run defense. The Texans’ did stiffen at times, allowing just 4.1 yards per carry on the day, but it still feels like Zeke and Tony should have been a bigger part of the offense throughout the day.
Dak Prescott shouldn’t have had to throw it 39 times but that’s how the game went. And where it was mostly shaky throughout the day, either from Dak’s errant throws or some bad drops by receivers, it all came together for the 98-yard drive at the end. It was far from Prescott’s best work overall, but at least he got the job done in the end. And with WR Noah Brown and TE Dalton Schultz as his two leading receivers on the day, it shows Dak was having to work through his options while also overcoming offensive line issues.
Despite their poor record, Houston did bring one of the NFL’s better pass defenses statistically into this game. They held CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup to a combined seven catches for just 73 yards. Better defenses are coming for the Cowboys and hopefully, yesterday’s addition of veteran T.Y. Hilton will open things up, because James Washington’s debut clearly didn’t help anything.
Losing right tackle Terence Steele is a big blow and we saw that manifest immediately when he got hurt. Josh Ball quickly reminded us why he shouldn’t have a jersey, which led to Jason Peters getting swung out to the right. The line only gave up one sack overall, which is laudable given the circumstances, but only averaging 4.1 rushing yards against the league’s worst run defense was a bad day for this usually strong group.
Cowboys Defense: C+
.The defense was put in tough spots by turnovers but surrendered points nearly every time. They also continued to struggle against running quarterbacks, allowing Jeff Driskel to pick up 36 yards on just seven carries. Journeymen receivers like Chris Moore and Amari Rodgers were able to have big games thanks to poor coverage, illustrating how the loss of Anthony Brown is causing more damage than you might have assumed it would.
Still, Dallas rose to the challenge of stopping stud RB Dameon Pierce. They held him to just 78 yards on 22 carries and, even with Driskel’s runs, only gave up 3.1 yards per carry overall to the Texans. That kept things manageable despite Dallas’ offensive struggles.
It’s noteworthy how the Cowboys still played solid defense despite no tangible contributions from stars like Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs. One guy who did make an impact play was DeMarcus Lawrence, whose big goal-line stop late in the game helped prevent points and set up Dallas’ game-winning drive.
It was not a great day overall, especially with some weaknesses still getting exposed. But at the very least, they rose to the occasion at key points and didn’t allow Houston to run away with momentum at any point.
Cowboys Special Teams: C-
It’s almost unfair how special teams gets evaluated because they don’t get much credit for doing their jobs, and mistakes are often magnified. That’s certainly the case here as Turpin’s muffed punt seemed to completely alter the course of the game. Unfortunately, he didn’t offset that with any big plays on other touches and only had the turnover as his signature moment on the day.
Another knock for this group was the 36 yards given up on just three punt returns by Houston. The coverage just wasn’t as on point as usual, which is a rare sight whenever C.J. Goodwin is on the field.
Brett Maher continued his Pro Bowl-worthy season with to more field goals, one of them from 53 yards out, and no issues on extra points. His nine points are no small contribution in a game that Dallas only won by four. Bryan Anger was also solid, as usual, with a 52.3 average on his three points.
Again, there were good things here but that early turnover was a huge issue that nearly cost Dallas the entire game.
Cowboys Coaches: D
I’ve seen plenty trying to hang a wreath around Mike McCarthy for the way the team never gave up and rallied to win. But there just wasn’t any excuse for Dallas to be in a dogfight with the Texans, and these coaches deserve a lot of flack for this one not being the blowout we expected.
Granted, coaching doesn’t solve everything. It doesn’t stop Turpin from muffing a punt, keep Terence Steele from getting hurt, or make referees know NFL rules any better. There were things that went wrong yesterday that were certainly outside of the coaches’ control.
But why did Kellen Moore keep insisting on passing against the NFL’s worst run defense? Why hasn’t Dan Quinn come up with better strategies for dealing with running quarterbacks? Why is Josh Ball still on this roster if he can barely function?
One game would be a forgivable anomaly, but we’ve seen too many examples this year of Dallas playing down to the competition. The Colts game last week was closer than it ever should have been. The Packers game was a total embarrassment. If the Cowboys don’t run the Jaguars out of the building this Sunday, you’ve got to wonder just what Dallas can really do in the playoffs this year.