Spagnola: Hey NFC, Here Come ‘Dem Cowboys. ARLINGTON, Texas – And here comes the exclamation point on the Dallas Cowboys winning the NFC East title:
Cowboys 56, Washingtons 14!!!
And they didn’t even need to do it to claim their fourth division title in eight years, the first since 2018, the 25th in franchise history. They already had won 10 games and just before the Cowboys came out for official warmups, Atlanta had done them a favor, beating Detroit, 20-16, and the Raiders did, too, beating Denver, 17-13, for the clincher.
So, from a potential tiebreaker standpoint, even if the Cowboys had lost their last three games and Philadelphia (8-7) had won their next two, the division title would have been the Cowboys anyway.
Strength of victory.
“That to me was irrelevant,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said.
But for good measure, if they need any more strength of victory for any other reason, wow, they pounded WFT like never before, leading 42-7 at halftime and finishing with 56 points, the most scored by a Cowboys team since the 59 in 1968 and 1980 and the fourth most Washington has ever given up in the franchise’s long history.
Please comprehend 42 points by halftime, the most points in a first half since 42 on Oct. 19, 1969, against Philadelphia.
Pounded them Easterners for 388 yards that half and 497 total.
Dak Prescott, letting everyone know once and for all that there is not a darn thing wrong with his foot, his calf or his head, completed 27 of 35 passes for 321 yards with four touchdown passes, no picks and a 142.7 QB rating in the first half and 28 of 39 for 330 yards, four TDs and 131.4 QB rating overall in just less than three quarters of fun before turning the game over to Cooper Rush.
One of those touchdown passes went to Ezekiel Elliott, proving there isn’t much wrong with that balky, braced-up left knee, also running for an 11-yard touchdown.
If Amari Cooper was wanting more targets, he might have felt as if one of those bull’s-eyes at a shooting range, finishing the first half with seven catches for 84 yards, and one, a 13-yard dart from Dak he finished with a little tap dance in the end zone with just 5 seconds left in the half.
Then CeeDee Lamb. Remember those drops last Sunday against the Giants? Like four of them? Well, in this one, those hands must have been coated with pine tar. Everything thrown his way stuck, those four first-half catches rather remarkable for 66 yards.
Oh, then there was Trevon Diggs, not wasting any time to prove my Friday _gut feeling_ that he would grab his 11th interception to tie Everson Walls’ franchise single-season interception record while moving past Hall of Famer Mel Renfro’s single-season best of 10 set in 1969. Because on the first Washington play from scrimmage, Taylor Heinicke for some reasons was trying to go deep to Terry McLaurin.
“Why? Why would you try that on the first play?” Dak asked, or as DeMarcus Lawrence said, “That was their best shot.”
And while doing all this, Diggs becomes the first NFL player with more than 10 interceptions in a single season since Walls pilfered his 11 in 1981. And how about this? In 15 games, too. Come on, that’s 40 years ago.
But wait, just for good measure, Lawrence wanted to make sure the defense didn’t fall too far behind in the bet for which side of the ball would score more touchdowns the rest of the way, the offense or the defense. Why, “D-Law” batted a Heinicke pass at the line of scrimmage with his right hand, corralled it and raced 40 yards for a defensive touchdown. What about going forward, “No. 90 is reporting eligible.”
If that wasn’t enough, special teams said, hey, we want into the competition, too, running back Corey Clement blocking a Tress Way punt that rookie Chauncey Golston recovered in the end zone for a touchdown with 6:06 left in the third quarter.
Talk about the worst dismantling of WFT. And to the post-Christmas delight of the 93,482 fans here at AT&T Stadium, already all riled up since this was the first game played at home in 31 days.
“Obviously, winning the division is something that you set a team goal to do at the beginning of the year and to get the T-shirts and hats,” Dak said, proudly wearing his NFC East championship hat. “That’s a cool thing, but I guarantee you that nobody in the locker room is satisfied with that.”
Yes, let’s remember, the Cowboys coming into this game had bigger fish to fry. Winning the East with a three-game lead with two to go was a mere formality. The Cowboys have that No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs in their sights. Sure, the 11-4 Cowboys are still one game behind the 12-3 Packers for that honor. But let’s remember it’s a huge honor. This year the top seed is the only team to receive a first-round bye.
“I think they clearly understand what’s in front of them,” said McCarthy, pointing out he did not talk to the players about having clinched the NFC East before the game even began.
This pounding of the Washington’s moves the Cowboys from the NFC fourth seed they were before the game started back to No. 2, sitting there in a three-way tie with Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Rams now, all 11-4 with two games remaining but the Cowboys owning the higher seed with their 9-1 NFC-record tiebreaker, 1.5 games ahead of the 8-3 Rams and 2.5 games ahead of 7-4 Tampa Bay.
But get this: If the Cowboys happen to end up tying Green Bay for the top seed, they currently have a one-game NFC tiebreaker record lead over the Packers (8-2). Green Bay still must play Minnesota and then at Detroit while the Cowboys have Arizona here this coming Sunday in a game McCarthy calls “playoff-like” and at Philadelphia.
But hey, if not, nothing wrong with extending themselves to finish with the No. 2 seed, meaning they would end up playing a home game the first weekend of the playoffs against the seventh-seeded wild-card team and guaranteed a second home playoff game if they should win.
“It means we accomplished one of our goals,” Lawrence said of winning the East. “Now it’s time to put it behind us and start moving on to our next goals.”
And what might that next goal be?
“Win every playoff game, go on to the Super Bowl, win the Super Bowl,” Lawrence said. “What’ve we got, six games left?”
And look, 56-14 sends a message to the rest of the NFC teams that they just might not want to mess with Dallas.
“I just think that we’re in-tune with the momentum that you need to build, the confidence that you need to build, in December,” McCarthy said. “That was what this opportunity tonight was about, and I think our guys hit the nail right on the head.”
And don’t come in here with any of that weak stuff, making excuses for Washington having to play without a half-dozen starters, several more out with COVID and several more assistant coaches in the virus protocol. Heck, after the punishment Heinicke absorbed on this Sunday – four sacks, 10 QB hits, two interceptions, six passes defensed – he might have felt the Reserve/COVID he had been on before late last week was a much safer place to reside.
Washington head coach Ron Rivera wasn’t about to take solace in excuses for what took place, saying, “I mean, if you look at the things that have happened in the last couple of weeks, we’ve dealt with a lot, but that’s football. That’s life. You’re going to deal with a lot in life. How you handle it, though, that’s the important thing, and we didn’t handle it very well tonight. That’s disappointing. We’ve got to be better than that.”
The Cowboys simply did to WFT what they should have done to a crippled team. Beat ’em up, beat ’em bad, and along the way rewarded these starved fans who didn’t budge an inch for three full quarters no matter the extent of the rout for spending the Christmas weekend with them. Why, one of Dak’s four touchdown passes went to offensive tackle Terence Steele, who started at left tackle in place of Tyron Smith, but reported in as an eligible receiver, lining up at tight end on third-and-goal at the 1-yard line and was wide open to catch Dak’s can of corn.
Oh, and then in the second half, there was wide receiver Malik Turner going cross country with a Rush pass for 61 yards to the 14, and then rewarded with a 9-yard TD pass from Rush two plays later when the Cowboys reached the 56-point mark, matching the third-most single-game points a Cowboys team has ever scored, and four more than they ever scored in any game I’ve covered since the middle of the 1984 season. And that would have been the 52 they put up in Super Bowl XXVII.
It’s a wonder all these folks at AT&T didn’t start singing, “Oh come all ye faithful” while the Cowboys benched WFT on their own hot seats they needlessly and maybe arrogantly brought with them, causing Lawrence to quip, “They gotta take ’em back with ’em, don’t they?”