That sound you heard throughout the Dallas Cowboys' clash with the New England Patriots was Thanos, a.k.a. Bill Belichick, desperately trying to gather Infinity Stones to finally snap his fingers and make Dak Prescott flake away. Instead, Prescott became the football version of Iron Man -- snatching away the Gauntlet at the last possible second before snapping his fingers and turning Inevitability against Itself in overtime at Gillette Stadium. Only Prescott didn't perish, instead leaving with a massive smile on his face, knowing what he and the Cowboys had just achieved: the first win over the Patriots since 1996.
With their 35-29 victory over the Patriots on Sunday, the Cowboys are 5-1 on the season and enter the bye week with two weeks to rest, rehab and ready themselves for the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 31. Their fifth consecutive victory was a mixed bag of poor execution and excessive penalties made to not matter by big plays from several cornerstone players and others making cases to become ones, e.g., defensive end Randy Gregory.
series for the Cowboys, there's a longer list of those who must improve after Week 6 than in the weeks prior, but also a list of those whose stock was already climbing before going to work on the Patriots to push it even higher into the stratosphere.
It's time to see who's heading in which direction before a dance with the Vikings on Halloween arrives.
[Note: This list is unranked.]
It wasn't a pretty start for Prescott against the Patriots, but the finish was a Van Gogh painting. But instead of cutting off his own ear to paint the masterpiece, he sacrificed a small bit of his right calf.
The good news in Dallas is he and the Cowboys enter the bye week preparing to rest him for two weeks and currently see no reason he won't start against the Vikings in Week 8. That said, it's about appreciating how the two-time Pro Bowler continues to overcome adversity in whatever form it might come, and there was plenty of it to choke down at Gillette Stadium, from a second quarter that saw Prescott himself intercepted after a tip drill in the end zone, to a fumble on the goal line following a third-down quarterback sneak wherein he broke the plane but was instead ruled down (the second time that's occurred this season), to drops by receivers in critical situations, to Mac Jones using a 75-yard bomb to retake the lead late in the fourth quarter, etc. etc.
In the end, none of it mattered, because Prescott nuked the Patriots with 445 yards and three TDs -- the most yardage ever racked up by a QB against the Patriots in the Belichick era -- and added to his argument for a potential MVP nod.
No, Belichick didn't want any part of Lamb, who wound up cooking his goose on Sunday.
The former first-round pick took cornerback Jalen Mills out back and beat him like a dusty rug for much of the game, becoming Prescott's go-to weapon for Week 6 and delivering a blistering 149 receiving yards with two touchdowns. It was a career-best game for the record-setting wideout, who waved goodbye to a flustered Mills after reeling in the game-winning TD and then being pushed to the ground by Mills in frustration -- having allowed most of Lamb's yards over the course of the afternoon.
He wasn't perfect, but when it came time to make the big plays and then the biggest of the big plays, Lamb made sure the Patriots understood they had no one on their team who could do anything but chase his jersey as he was running away, time and again, finishing with a team-high nine catches on 11 targets from Prescott.
Someone should call animal services, because there's a dog on the loose in Dallas.
Diggs is something the Cowboys and league as a whole have literally never witnessed before. Having already set the record for most interceptions grabbed through the first five games of the season, he went to New England and kept his streak alive in harrowing fashion -- nabbing a pick-six on Mac Jones with only two minutes and 36 seconds remaining in regulation. That play gave the Cowboys a 26-21 lead and Diggs his seventh interception through six games along with his second pick-six of the year; his numbers equalling the likes of legendary coach Tom Landry, who was once an INT machine himself.
Diggs is now just four INTs away from tying the single season franchise record in Dallas with Everson Walls and seven away from tying the NFL single season record with Richard "Night Train" Lane. Neither is his focus, though, because he's looking to improve however he can, even if that means falling on his sword to protect his safety after Jones answered the pick-six with a 75-yard touchdown to put pressure back on Prescott to finish it out, which he did.
You couldn't blame Mac Jones and the Patriots if they decided to call law enforcement after seeing Gregory hound Jones on Sunday -- sacking the rookie first-round pick twice and hurrying him on several other occasions. One of Gregory's hits on Jones looked like more like a spear from WWE legend Goldberg than anything else, and Jones would immediately fumble and was slow to get up afterward. It was essentially the rookie's "welcome to the NFL" moment, courtesy of Gregory, who now has two multi-sack games in his last three outings while leading the Cowboys in pressures despite having missed a game due to COVID-19 and playing without the complement of All-Star pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence on the opposite edge.
The 28-year-old leads the Cowboys in sacks as well and shows no signs of slowing down. While Jones and the Patriots recover from what he helped do to them, Gregory is enjoying a nice merlot while staring at Kirk Cousins.
It's another week wherein Kearse left his imprint on a win for the Cowboys. The veteran safety was thrust into a heightened snap count when starting safety Donovan Wilson went down with a groin injury early in the year, and he's now earned his way to the role of starter. Over the past several games, he's consistently found himself near the top of the Cowboys' ladder in tackles and is seemingly always in the right place at the right time to break up a play or keep a big gainer from happening. Kearse tied with Diggs for most tackles against the Patriots (five) and also landed two quarterback hits on Jones, helping Gregory and the pass rush.
As Wilson works his way back from injury, having returned against the Patriots in a limited capacity, Kearse will continue to see a healthy snap count that will include some duties as linebacker in big nickel formations, especially if Keanu Neal finds himself in a rough patch after recovering from COVID-19.
They can beat you with the pass and they can beat you with the run, or they can beat you with both. It's something the Cowboys continue to show on a weekly basis and did again in Week 6, when they figured out New England was far more susceptible to allowing passing yards than rushing yards. But that doesn't mean Elliott didn't land his punches Sunday. The two-time NFL rushing champ was hot off of a dynamic last four outings that caused Belichick to scheme more for him than for Prescott, which allowed Prescott to have a field day while Elliott threw timely body blows as needed.
Did he light up the stat line as he has over the previous month? No, because he didn't need to, but runs like the one below helped the Cowboys offense keep moving the chains when they needed to the most, and also set up the walk-off touchdown in overtime -- when Prescott noticed the Patriots had set up to stop Elliott on first-and-10 from their own 35-yard line. It was a fatal error by the Belichicks, but one that wouldn't have happened if Elliott wasn't such a threat.
Wilson was dangerously close to being on the wrong side of this column this week, after consistently seeing his stock travel north over the past several weeks. It was an uncharacteristic game for Wilson in New England, one that saw him drop critical passes from Prescott that could've created distance for the Cowboys had he pulled them in. But when his number was called with the game on the line and only 90 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, on fourth-and-4, Wilson deleted his mistakes with a leaping catch that gave the Cowboys a pivotal first down and helped them move into position for kicker Greg Zuerlein to exorcise a demon of his own by way of making a 49-yarder to tie the game.
If this target becomes another drop for Wilson, the Cowboys likely lose this game, 29-26, and he'd be added to the list of things that went wrong at Gillette Stadium instead of those that went right to overcome everything that went wrong. This one catch doesn't outnumber his mistakes, but the timing of it and degree of difficulty sure do.
Wilson isn't the only offensive weapon who is usually lethal but has recently suffered a few drops. Schultz joins him in that regard, having another against the Patriots, but kudos to him for that being his only of the game. Schultz grabbed the other five of his six targets from Prescott for 79 yards -- second-most behind only Lamb -- and bounced back nicely after seeing his stock dip a smidge last week, albeit still an honorable mention at the time.
He's become the favorite tight end target of Prescott and it's incumbent upon him to delete his random miscues to continue building upon what's becoming his coming out party in 2021, a year that also happens to be his contract year. At 359 receiving yards and three touchdowns on the season, Schultz is behind only Lamb and Amari Cooper in both categories.
Speaking of Cooper, all he does is deliver when asked and doesn't complain when the day belongs to someone else. In Week 6, it was all about Lamb, but the four-time All-Pro was ready and waiting when called upon -- adding 55 yards on five catches (11 yard per catch average) to the bottom line of the Cowboys' overtime victory. It was also the timeliness of his catches that keeps his stock high going into the bye week, helping to extend key drives for Dallas in what became a back alley brawl at Gillette Stadium. He's been so consistent and effective that it's easy to forget he's nursing a fractured rib and a hamstring issue.
Why? Because, again, he never complains. He just suits up and gets the job done, then goes home and plays chess after the Cowboys land their latest checkmate.
It's now been five games since the Cowboys lost starting right tackle La'el Collins to suspension, and Steele has wildly exceeded expectations during that time. This is yet another week that sees him on the "stock up" portion of this writeup, and he's earned it each and every week. He's not been immaculate, but he's keeping Prescott clean off of the right edge and helping in the run game as well -- allowing only two QB hits and six hurries with no sacks in five starts. Collins remains the starter in his return to practice (to come) when the Cowboys start preparing for the Minnesota Vikings, but potentially not immediately, after having been absent for more than a month after playing just one game this season.
And as they work Collins back in, they can feel good knowing there's no desperation to the right of Prescott, something they couldn't say of Steele in his rookie 2020 season. Kudos to offensive line coach Joe Philbin for what he's done with Steele, and to Steele himself for putting in the work and making the progress he's made, because it's night-and-day over last year.
It's not been the best start to 2021 for Biadasz, but he took a bit of a step forward on Sunday. The Patriots presented a very big test for the second-year talent and first-year starter at center, and he mostly answered the bell. Much maligned for his issues with snaps recently, there were no errant ones in New England, and Biadasz also permitted no sacks on Prescott, and also just one pressure and was penalized only once -- a five-yard false start penalty in the third quarter that the Cowboys overcame easily on the same drive and went on to a successful 45-yard field goal from Zuerlein.
All Biadasz has to do now is keep building, because he still has a good bit of work to do. But after seeing his stock plummet over the first five games, he wasn't an issue in the sixth, and that matters for a young starter hoping to build confidence and stave off a potential change at the position.
There are quite a bit more honorable mentions this week than in weeks past, and that's for good reason. It took the entire village stepping up in key moments to overcome the adversities facing the Cowboys in New England, and one of the biggest momentum shifts came thanks to Gifford, who blocked a punt in the second quarter to give the Cowboys the ball at the Patriots 17-yard line as they tried to overcome a 14-10 deficit. The next few plays would spell disaster for the Cowboys -- i.e, an overturned TD for Prescott followed by his aforementioned fumble at the goal line -- but that didn't negate Gifford's impact. And then there was Zuerlein, who made good on his late-game FG attempt to force overtime to overcome an earlier 51-yard attempt that would've given the Cowboys the lead with less than three minutes to play.
Toss in the contributions of Basham, Parsons (whose block cleared a path for Diggs' pick-six), Pollard, Jarwin (who grabbed his second TD in three weeks), Odighizuwa and an impressive outing by Noah Brown -- along with others -- and it was the collective effort that gave Prescott the chance to drive the dagger into the heart of Belichick and Jones.
It's been an uneven year for Vander Esch, and his roller coaster dipped Sunday after climbing the week(s) prior. He made a good tackle or two in the game but was also out of place at times and took the wrong angle toward the ball carrier on one or two occasions -- allowing for a bigger gain than should've occurred. He's better than what he put on film in Week 6, so it's expected he'll right the ship two weeks from now.
Vander Esch remains key to what the Cowboys want to do at the linebacker position, with their fronts and rotations, and the better he is, the better they'll be on defense. And considering this is also a contract year for him, the sooner he becomes consistent, the more money he can begin looking forward to, be it with the Cowboys or another club.
Kazee has been a stalwart on this column since Week 1, but always on the other side of it, because he's proven he can help force takeaways in Dallas and is an emotional leader for the defensive unit on the whole. He's opened himself up to criticism this week, however, due to the 75-yard TD from Mac Jones to Kendrick Bourne that deleted Diggs' pick-six as the fourth quarter neared its close.
Bourne used a double move to try and get past Diggs, and did, but Diggs was still in position to make a play on the ball, choosing to instead pull up once he saw Kazee flash to Bourne. Diggs' faith in his safety was penalized when Kazee overran the entire play, and while both own fault there, Kazee admits he misplayed it and opened up the door for Bourne. And having now been arrested on an allegation of DWI to start the bye week, Kazee's stock is taking a major hit at the moment.
No, Williams has not been bad this season, despite what you might've heard. Granted, he's not Zack Martin, but outside of Quenton Nelson, who's remotely close to Martin? All Williams has to prove is that he's a viable starting guard in the league, and he has, but what happened in New England can't continue.
It's not that Williams allowed any sacks on Prescott (he didn't) or failed to open up lanes for Elliott (he opened them at times); it's the lack of discipline that nearly torpedoed the would-be Cowboys' comeback. The fourth-year lineman landed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with only 38 seconds left in the fourth quarter, setting the Cowboys back to third-and-25. He was saved by a 24-yard catch from Lamb on the next play, and then Zuerlein's make thereafter, but losing his temper nearly lost the game for Dallas.
When Urban joined the Cowboys in free agency, it was a smart move by both parties and one that helped bolster confidence in their potential ability to stop the run. He's not necessarily been poor in his production, but he's also not one who's name you've heard as one of the great additions to the defensive unit. Instead, it's the rookie class of defensive linemen drawing all of the praise, and soon the Cowboys will also welcome the return of starting tackle Neville Gallimore back from injured reserve.
Urban had just one tackle against the Patriots and saw his defensive snap count drop to a season-low (19), which could or could not have something to do with him suffering a triceps injury at some point during the game. But considering he has just three combined tackles this entire season, the last thing he can afford is to miss games or to be less effective in them because he's not healthy.
Canady returned in 2021 after opting out due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and he stole the show as one of the best defensive backs in training camp and the preseason. Since then, however, he's been a no-show on the defensive side of the ball, and that's saying a lot when considering how inconsistent Anthony Brown has been. Things won't get any easier for Canady now that rookie second-round pick Kelvin Joseph has been designated to return -- beginning the 21-day window on his potential activation from injured reserve -- and that means Canady could find himself pushed further down the depth chart at some point soon.
Like Urban, Canady is a veteran who can't afford injury, but now he's dealing with a concussion suffered against the Patriots in a contest during which he logged zero tackles and zero defensive snaps for the second time in six games. He's now being relegated mostly to special teams, and that's dwindling as well. This is not what the Cowboys had him pegged as when they signed him.
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