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USATSI

Yes, the Dallas Cowboys defense is officially lights-out following the return of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore in December -- the unit roundly thumping the Washington Football Team in Week 14 en route to using a two-game win streak to rise to 9-4 on the season and gain a chokehold on the NFC East. That said, while you should never be upset about or apologize for a win (particularly one against a division rival), Dak Prescott and the offense need to turn the lights on and figure out where their mojo is hiding.

And then they need to attach a clapper device to it to ensure they never lose it again. The offense is suddenly trapped in the Upside-Down, and it's taking the superpowers of 11 to help save them on a weekly basis.

On Sunday, it was once again the defense having to save the day for the Cowboys, an inversion over what has often been the case since Prescott joined the Cowboys as a fourth-round pick in 2016. As recently as earlier this season, the return of Prescott from a season-ending injury suffered in 2020 was the fuel for a return to their prolific ways, while defensive coordinator Dan Quinn used record-setting play by rookie Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs -- along with a list of unusual suspects -- to perform admirably in the absence of several starters. 

As of late though, despite having seen their own starters return (i.e., Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb), the last several games have been an exercise in frustration. The unit scored just one touchdown against Washington and that means they were outscored by kicker Greg Zuerlein, who made your local Wendy's proud by going 4-for-4 on the day. Add a defensive scoop-and-score by defensive end Dorance Armstrong and a PAT by Zuerlein and that accounts for 19 of the 27 points scored by the Cowboys at FedEx Field.

And, to make matters worse, Prescott nearly threw the game away, literally. 

The two-time Pro Bowler has made very uncharacteristic mistakes as of late, and that now includes two interceptions against Washington -- the most egregious being a pick-six to linebacker Cole Holcomb that shrank the Dallas lead to just 27-20 with only four minutes to play in regulation. If not for the defense stepping up to stave off a potentially devastating comeback, thanks to an explosive play by Gregory to effectively help crush Washington's hopes, the outcome of the first 2021 matchup against an otherwise pummeled Washington team might've ended differently, the added irony here being in how Gregory's two biggest plays erased both of Prescott's errors (Gregory's first-quarter interception taking away the ball for Dallas on the drive that followed Prescott's first INT).

For his part, Prescott isn't skirting accountability for the recent offensive downturn or for his part in it.

"Obviously, we got to do a better job of finishing on offense, but, credit to our defense," he said after the game. "Two turnovers that I had, they got the ball right back. That's all I can ask for -- all you can ask for as an offense. As you said, we got it going pretty early, got a good lead, but then we just got to be able to finish it off and not let them back in the ballgame.

"... It's frustrating. We've got high standards and high expectations for ourselves so when you're not moving the ball, not scoring points, only scoring what, six points in the second half, it's not acceptable. We [have] got to be better than that in the latter part of the year, obviously, as we get ready to go play better teams, play division teams, and play in the playoffs."

Point of correction: Zuerlein scored three points in the second half, not six, and the offense scored none.

It's not that things have been all bad for Prescott and Co., it's that they've been bad more often than not. In November, they struggled to put points on the board, averaging 25.8 points per game -- a number buoyed by a 43-point shellacking of the Atlanta Falcons and a strong late-game offensive display by Prescott in an overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. The flashes are still there, but not nearly as they were earlier this season, when they averaged 32.1 points per game from Week 1 through Week 8. That's a touchdown fewer per game, and actually a smidge more when extrapolating for some defensive touchdowns (e.g., pick sixes).

So, with Cooper, Gallup and Lamb back on the field, what's the issue? There appears to be a newfound disconnect between Prescott and his hydra of receivers that shows itself at critical times while being absent in others. Whatever the problem is, it's clear it's much more mental than physical. 

"I got to go back and look at it," said Prescott. "It's tough to just say it raw without watching the tape, but we can always be better. Every throw, every rep, every play is a process and an experience. It's something that we can get better regardless of if it's completed, regardless if we feel good about the way that it happened. We can be better."

As for his late-game interception, one of the uglier plays ever seen from Prescott, he's owning it for as just that: ugly.

"At the end of the day I just got to take the sack, don't put the ball in harm's way, and that's the bottom line," he added. "No excuse for that. Period."

There's also a healthy helping of ire that must be aimed at offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, whose usually brilliant play calling has run into an arena of stale over the past month or more. It's possible Moore is simply refusing to dig too deeply into his playbook ahead of the playoffs, as to protect against putting certain things on film, just as it's possible he himself has entered the same type of funk as the offensive players he's coordinating. Either way, it's a rancid combination at times, and puts a ton of pressure on the defense to get the job done but, thankfully for them, the defense takes a lot of pride in doing just that.

It's now time for the offense to match serve, as they've shown they can but have lately been unable to.

"As I said, we've created these high expectations and high standards and we have them for ourselves," said Prescott. "So, I mean, just as much as the outside world isn't pleased, we're not. I guarantee we care a whole lot more than the outside world about what we're doing. I know I do. I know the guys on the field do, and I know the coaches do. 

"As I said it's all things, we can get better and learn from and it's much better to do that in a winning setting."

The NFL playoffs begin in just over a month from now and there are four regular season games remaining for the Cowboys, who sit at No. 4 in the NFC and, barring a historic collapse, will enter the postseason as the winner of the NFC East. That leaves a good amount of time for them to figure out things offensively before mid-January arrives, and they'll have the added benefit of having three more division games to use in their recalibration, and a pivotal Week 17 game against the top-seeded Arizona Cardinals to truly test their mettle.

"We have put ourselves in good position, but we just want to continue to get better, game in and game out, heading into this playoff race," said Prescott. "We need to make sure that we are playing our best ball when we need to. As I said, it was a struggle on offense, and we weren't exactly executing the way that we wanted to, especially late in the game. But, it's better [to learn after] a winning effort."

'Tis true, because you'd much rather work to improve when sitting at 9-4 overall with a 7-1 conference record and 3-0 in the division, than to look in the mirror with a losing record during a tailspin, as many other teams are forced to do at the moment.

"Some of the things are just simple decision making by me and I will clean those up," Prescott note. "As long as we are heading on the winning track heading into the tournament, we'll get a ring."