ARLINGTON, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys, and their fans, have a choice.
They can view their 27-23 win over the Houston Texans through rose-colored glasses, celebrating the franchise’s first string of consecutive seasons with double-digit victories since 1996. They can marvel at the clinical two-minute work Dallas demonstrated both with a defensive stand and with a resulting 98-yard, game-winning drive.
“All my mind is on, totally, is that 98-yard drive to win the game,” team owner Jerry Jones said from the stadium bowels Sunday afternoon. “Hello, Dak Prescott.”
Or the Cowboys can emerge from Sunday’s near upset with reason to worry after trailing 29 of the final 30 minutes despite entering 17.5-point favorites. Eleven tipped passes on offense? Zero sacks on defense? A muffed punt return? Each phase erred on this disjointed day.
“If you want to do great things, just because you slip by doesn’t mean it’s perfect,” Cowboys All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons said. “If you’re OK with average or OK, then that’s just tough.”
The reality: Evidence abounds for both philosophies. The Cowboys would be wise to integrate them. Plan their next steps through either lens alone, and the nearly-assuredly-playoff-bound squad will be ripe for another postseason disappointment.
Here’s a breakdown of where the Cowboys advanced on Sunday, where they regressed, and how they must address each to maximize their potential.
‘It was a faith check’
The Cowboys need not look back earlier than November to remember the pain of blowing a fourth-quarter lead. They entered Lambeau Field that week with a 195-0 franchise record when ahead by 14 or more in the fourth quarter. Aaron Rodgers, as he is wont to do vs. Dallas, rallied his squad back to an overtime victory.
Such is life in the NFL these days. Entering this week, 63 games featured a comeback victory or tie after a team trailed in the fourth quarter. That’s the most comebacks in league history through 13 weeks. So it’s fact rather than cliché to insist this league of parity demands the skill of finishing when the game’s on the line. Prescott said he believes this comeback will benefit the team more than their recent blowouts.
“You have to play one-score games, here in the back end against our division or in the playoffs,” the Cowboys quarterback said. “It was a faith check. A faith check. Everybody on that sideline, everybody within this organization knew what we were capable of and knew we were going to win that game.
“We obviously went out there and got it done.”
The Cowboys excelled in the final 4 minutes of the game following Prescott’s interception that set up the Texans at the 4-yard line, raring to extend their 23-20 lead. Dallas’ defense held tight through four high-stakes downs, stopping each and even delivering two tackles for loss.
Texans had four chances to go 4 yards. Cowboys D held them off with goal-line stand in final 4 minutes of game.pic.twitter.com/Hq0QFFeLZM
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) December 11, 2022
The offense took over with 98 yards to the end zone, 3:20 remaining in the game. Prescott used his arms, legs, and four different weapons to march downfield for a touchdown. The drive looked so clean it was difficult to fathom how this same group, with some of the same plays against the same coverages, had botched execution so thoroughly beforehand.
“The great teams find a way to win those types of games,” said tight end Dalton Schultz, whose 87-yard day included three catches for 52 yards on the game-winning drive. “So winning that game late obviously gives us a chunk of confidence.”
Mistakes the Cowboys must learn from
Great teams, indeed, find ways to win gritty. But do great teams turn the ball over four times against a now 1-11-1 squad? Do great teams fail to sack the quarterback once? Dallas’ previously league-leading sack machine (the Philadelphia Eagles jumped ahead, 49 to 48, with a seven-sack Sunday) generated only one hit on the Texans’ duo of quarterbacks.
Prescott and his receivers were concerningly off-rhythm most of the day. Prescott completed 24-of-39 attempts (61%) for 284 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. But Texans defenders tipped a whopping 11 of those 39 pass attempts. No previous game this season had featured more than six passes defensed, though Prescott has now had at least four passes defensed in four of Dallas’ last five games.
Cowboys coaches often look not only at turnovers but also more broadly at turnover opportunities, knowing the more chances to change the game, the more they will successfully do so. Prescott, in eight active games this season, has now thrown nine interceptions.
His previous worst career mark, 0.81 interceptions per game, came in 2017. This year: He’s averaging 1.1 per game.
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy routinely emphasizes how closely winning the turnover battle correlates with winning a game. Such mistakes, even if they at times align with the Cowboys’ competitive and aggressive style, can easily wreck a promising playoff contest.
Prescott was startled to hear the data in his postgame news conference, characterizing the turnovers as “very, very frustrating.” Even as coaches characterize some as receivers’ “faults” due to route depth and spacing concerns, Prescott’s decision making is contributing. The Texans challenged him with disguises, a greater volume of coverage diversity than expected and tight windows that tempted him to take chances. His hand was hit on the second interception; a more conservative decision nonetheless would be wise in a repeat scenario.
“Unfortunate on some of them, but I’ve got to find a way to take better care of the ball,” Prescott said. “Damn right, it is frustrating. It is not something that I’ve ever been OK with or ever will be OK with. But I am not going to not be aggressive. I’ve worked too hard, and this team has worked too hard. We have created too great of a chemistry for me to not be aggressive and not try to make the throws I know I can make.
“But damn sure: I’ve got to be smarter and just weigh the risk versus reward in a split second. It is just part of my preparation and something I promise y’all I will clean up.”
If the Cowboys can eliminate, or at last meaningfully reduce turnovers, that will solve plenty of the issues their defense faced Sunday. Seventeen of the Texans’ 23 points resulted from turnover-gifted possessions, including both touchdowns.
Parsons pointed to the Texans’ run game, use of screens and quick passing game as reasons Dallas’ pass rush was neutralized to its first zero-sack performance of the season. The group previously generated at least two a pop. The Texans started quarterback Davis Mills but used Jeff Driskel in an unusually heavy number of plays, Driskel rushing six times and attempting six passes as the Texans sought to confuse the Cowboys’ angles and personnel packages.
“And those quarterbacks today looked like Brett Favre,” Jones quipped. “They gave us more than we wanted today and we were fortunate to have that 98-yard drive.”
The Cowboys travel to the Jacksonville Jaguars next week for one more competition they’ll be favored in before a highly anticipated Christmas Eve game against the 12-1 Philadelphia Eagles.
Dallas likely won’t have a chance to catch Philadelphia in the division. But in the teams' first matchup with Prescott at the helm (he was out with an injury when the teams faced off on Oct. 16), expect the game’s tenor and competitive level to foreshadow playoff, if not NFC championship-level, competition.
If the Cowboys can hang around for a competitive fourth quarter, they may have a chance to implement the muscle they just flexed vs. Houston.
“I think we’re a better team than when we entered the game,” Jones said. “To drive 98 yards with the game on the line, I think any time you can live through that and have a positive result, you’re better for it.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein