Just when it seemed like all hope had been lost, the Cowboys have climbed their way out of the hole they dug for themselves. After a huge win over the Eagles a week ago, the Cowboys went into Atlanta and emerged with an equally important 22-19 win over the Falcons on Sunday. Suddenly, at 5-5 and only one game back in the division, the Cowboys are very much a factor in the playoff race.
To get to this point, Ezekiel Elliott rumbled for 201 total yards and the Dallas defense limited the Falcons' offense to one touchdown. We expected a close game, but we didn't expect a low-scoring, close game in which both passing attacks struggled to make an impact. The kickers, Matt Bryant and Brett Maher, dominated the scoring. At halftime, the Falcons led 6-3. That's what kind of game it was, until the offenses showed up in the fourth quarter.
The first touchdown wasn't scored until Dak Prescott gave the Cowboys a 12-9 lead with just over 14 minutes to play. A minute later, after an interception by Leighton Vander Esch, Elliott turned that one-score lead into a two-score advantage with a 23-yard touchdown run. In a span of two minutes, the Cowboys scored two touchdowns after registering six points through the first three quarters. They turned a measured marathon into a sprint. And the Falcons kept up, scoring 10 points on their next two drives and tying the game with 1:52 remaining courtesy of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, who provided a wicked game-tying touchdown -- with Maher's missed extra point earlier in the fourth quarter looming large.
Maher redeemed himself. After the Cowboys drove into field goal range, Maher snuck a 42-yard field goal just inside the upright to give his team a crucial win at the final buzzer.
RT if you're celebrating this #DallasCowboys win #DALvsATL pic.twitter.com/pQOKhYcitd— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) November 18, 2018
Two weeks ago, when the new-look Cowboys got dismantled by the Titans in primetime, it certainly looked as if their season was over. They were 3-5. The most interesting conversation surrounding the team pertained to Jason Garrett's job security. But two huge wins have propelled them back into the playoff conversation. The Cowboys are alive, and a vital game against the Redskins, who lost Alex Smith to a devastating injury during their narrow loss to the Texans on Sunday, awaits. With the Eagles also still breathing, there's plenty of work to be done. But they're at least in a position where the remainder of their games matter. After 11 weeks, the Cowboys matter.
On the other end, the loss likely ends the Falcons' playoff aspirations. At 4-6, they need to win out to get to 10 wins. Given their inconsistencies, they likely won't do that. In that sense, Sunday's game felt like a playoff game for both teams. Once again, the Falcons came up just short in a big moment, which has been a theme of Dan Quinn's tenure in Atlanta.
Zeke powers Cowboys offense
A week after gashing the Eagles for 187 yards from scrimmage, Zeke kept on rumbling against the Falcons.
In all, he totaled 201 yards from scrimmage, averaging 6.7 yards per touch. He didn't rip off many huge plays, but what he did was steadily pick up four or five yards in a defensive slog of a game. According to NFL Research, he's now totaled at least 100 yards from scrimmage in 24 career games, which is the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2016.
His 34-yard screen -- his biggest play of the afternoon -- set up a field goal in the first half.
Feed Zeke!— NFL (@NFL) November 18, 2018
📺: FOX #DallasCowboys @ezekielelliott pic.twitter.com/olETXAqMjs
His important contribution came late in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys, leading by three, just picked off Ryan. On their ensuing drive, Zeke gashed the Falcons up the gut for a touchdown that put them ahead by two scores.
.@ezekielelliott... IN!— NFL (@NFL) November 18, 2018
📺: FOX #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/fOo1o2cUZ2
Without Zeke, the Cowboys would've been absolutely lost on offense. Prescott didn't turn the ball over, but he averaged only 6.5 yards per pass attempt. Amari Cooper was limited to three receptions and 36 yards. Cole Beasley led the receivers with 51 yards, but he also dropped a touchdown in the early going. Zeke didn't just lead the team in rushing with 122 yards. He also led the team with seven catches and 79 receiving yards.
Even Prescott's touchdown in the fourth quarter came on a zone-read, which forced the Falcons to take away Zeke and opened up a lane for Prescott to exploit.
.@Dak in the end zone 🙌#DALvsATL pic.twitter.com/nw836RkVZx— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) November 18, 2018
Zeke single-handedly powered the Cowboys offense on Sunday.
Cowboys' defense stymies Falcons
Credit the Cowboys' defense for slowing down the Falcons' offense and limiting them to field goals until the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys notched three sacks, and DeMarcus Lawrence was responsible for half of them. Ryan threw for 291 yards, but his only touchdown came late in fourth quarter. He was under duress for much of the afternoon, often scrambling and buying time in the backfield as an onslaught of pass rushers hurried after him.
Cowboys rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch continues to impress.
Leighton Vander Esch might just make it in the league pic.twitter.com/JUsyNXdMo7— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) November 18, 2018
He registered eight total tackles, one quarterback hit, three passes defended -- including a crucial broken up pass near the goal line in the fourth quarter -- and the interception that led to a Cowboys touchdown.
THE WOLF HUNTER🐺— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) November 18, 2018
Gets the big pick off Matt Ryan! #DALvsATL pic.twitter.com/jFSr7HBYc1
What's especially notable about that interception is that the ball bounced off the hands of Falcons rookie receiver Calvin Ridley. In the lead up to the draft, most pundits expected the Cowboys to use the 19th overall pick on a receiver -- like, say, Ridley. Instead, they drafted Vander Esch. Ridley fell to the Falcons at No. 26. But on Sunday, both Vander Esch and Rildey contributed to the Cowboys' win.
It goes without saying that one play doesn't justify the Cowboys' decision. It doesn't make Vander Esch the right choice. It doesn't make Ridley a bust. Both players have experienced successful rookie seasons. Both players were worthy of their draft positions. Both players look like future stars.
Julio Jones: Elite WR and DB
The Falcons lost, but Julio Jones continues to dominate. Not only did he rack up 118 receiving yards on six receptions, but he also made one of the game's best defensive plays.
Late in the first half, Ryan chucked up a deep ball that flew way over Jones' head. But Jones didn't stop running. He tracked down the would-be interceptor like an All-Pro defensive back. As the ball landed in the arms of Cowboys safety Jeff Heath, Jones timed his hit perfectly, dislodging the ball out of Heath's arms and forcing an incompletion with exemplary form. The hit forced Heath into the blue medical tent on the sidelines before he returned to the game later on the series.
Julio Jones was an All-Pro safety in another life... pic.twitter.com/NI7d4x13uM— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) November 18, 2018
In the fourth quarter, as the Falcons tried to complete the comeback, Jones came down with an awesome grab for a 34-yard tying touchdown. It's a reminder that Jones remains unguardable, and he's finally finding the end zone. Jones now has a touchdown in his past three games after going touchdown-less through the first seven games of the season.
JULIOOOOOOOOO!— NFL (@NFL) November 18, 2018
📺: FOX #InBrotherhood pic.twitter.com/CnVkbw52Wt
The Falcons lost a few minutes later on a walk-off field goal. Maybe they should've played Jones on defense for that final series.
Vic Beasley finally comes alive
One good sign for the Falcons is that Vic Beasley's sack drought came to an end.
Beasley exploded for 15.5 sacks in 2016. But entering Sunday's game, Beasley had brought down opposing quarterbacks only six times in 23 games over the past two seasons.
On Sunday, he was responsible for the Falcons' only two sacks.
OKAY @VicBeasley3 👀 pic.twitter.com/oxAw1tx9fZ— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) November 18, 2018
Another one! @VicBeasley3pic.twitter.com/PDKiVbUX3K— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) November 18, 2018
Beasley, 26, should be entering the prime of his career. He's also nearing the end of his rookie contract. So, the rest of the season will be huge for him, even if the Falcons likely won't be able to make a late postseason push.
The most important game of their season awaits the Cowboys, who will host the Redskins in a pivotal NFC East matchup on Thanksgiving. If the Cowboys win that game, they'll draw even with the Redskins atop the division. If the Redskins win, they'll extend their lead to two games and also secure the head-to-head tiebreaker over Dallas.
What's important -- perhaps more important than the Cowboys' win on Sunday -- is that the Redskins lost Smith to a serious-looking injury. So it'll likely be Colt McCoy under center next week. Suddenly, the Cowboys might just be the new favorites in the NFC East. How fast fates can change in the NFL. Two weeks ago, the Cowboys looked dead.
The Falcons, meanwhile, get a difficult game against the Saints in New Orleans, also on Thanksgiving. A loss would pretty much guarantee a playoff-less season.