Cowboys Gameplan: 10 Steps To Storybook Win

ARLINGTON - In the front office. In the meeting rooms. On the sideline. On the field. A top-to-bottom Cowboys playoff win over the Lions on Sunday required top-to-bottom execution. Except, as more than a few Cowboys told me (to paraphrase): 'This didn't quite go according to plan.' Nevertheless, a 10-step inside story of how Dallas advances:



1. Tradition matters

Those who fail to understand Dallas Cowboys history cannot be blamed. This either matters to you ... or you are ignorant of it.

The Cowboys moved ahead of the Steelers for most playoff wins in NFL history thanks to this somewhat improbable 24-20 victory. (Dallas has 34 wins, Pittsburgh 33.) Why does this matter? Why does it matter that the Cowboys entered Sunday having as many playoff home wins (19) as Detroit has playoff appearances dating all the way to 1935?

It needed to matter to the 91,000 people in AT&T Stadium waving those white rally towels, to the 91,000 people who didn't sell their tickets to Niners fans or Saints fans or Giants fans. It needed to matter to the millions of Cowboys fans who watched, and who now watch Dallas move onto to the next round, Sunday in Green Bay.

And it did.

"Complete credit to the crowd,'' Jeremy Mincey told CowboysHQ.com. "They wanted it as back as we did.''

Home-field matters. Home crowds matters. History matters. Tradition can matter to the players, too, even those too young to fully grasp the fact that this is the first Dallas playoff appearance and victory since 2009. ... but there were a lot of playoff appearances before that.

Smile

"You can't be in the Dallas Cowboys organization if you aren't indoctrinated in the Ice Bowl,'' said owner Jerry Jones, looking forward to noon next Sunday in Green Bay. "I sure feel good right now about going to Green Bay.''

History matters. Cowboys fans on Sunday helped history happen. You matter.

2. Strength vs. Strength

How stout would the Dallas O-line be, boasting its three first-or-second-team All-Pros? Even against Suh and the Lions’ top-notch defensive front?

The Cowboys came in with a great deal of confidence here, for a series of reasons. First, in terms of protecting the QB, they've been here before. In '13, with Mack Bernadeau at right guard and rookie Travis Frederick at center, Dallas played the Lions and didn't allow a sack. Now they have Zack Martin and a more experienced Frederick and a more seasoned Tyron Smith and Ron Leary playing at a high level ... along with a less predictable offense.

Second, Romo was sacked just six times in December thanks to this O-line, a monthly low. That continued a season-long trend of being able to deal with the very best fronts in football, from Seattle to St. Louis and all the rest.

Smile

And third, while the public got caught up in the "intimidating'' Suh, the Cowboys saw no reason to think that Martin and Co. couldn't/wouldn't be the offensive bad-ass versions of Suh and Company, only without the illegalities.

It took a long time for Dallas to be proven correct here.

Romo was severely battered throughout the game by exotic blitzes that looked straight from the Redskins playbook. He was sacked a ridiculous six times -- again, around here, with this line, that's a month's worth -- and felt himself reverting into behind-the-back/spin-around/underhanded/rodeo-cowboys hero mode ... and the nasty habit shoved Dallas out of good field position repeatedly even in the second half, as Romo, to his credit, led his Cowboy to 10 fourth-quarter points and the win.

"Credit to their front seven,'' said Martin. "They're a great group, especially Suh. He's a special player. It really took everything I had to get him blocked.

3. Staff unity

There was panic on the street (or, at least, on national TV) over this staff leaving? Why can't folks understand that what might happen to this coaching staff is nature-of-the-beast stuff?

You go 4-12 you get fired. You go 12-4 (now 13-4), you get plucked. Marinelli, Callahan, Linehan, McClay … they are suddenly more attractive than they were a month ago, a year ago. ...

But panic because like head coach Jason Garrett, they’re not under contract? Know this:

When Bill Parcells re-signed with Dallas under the terms of a new deal, the date was Jan. 6, 2005. When Wade Phillips did the same, it was Jan. 21, 2010. When Garrett retained the job after an interim period, the date of his new contract was Jan. 5, 2011.

After the season. After the season. After the season.

I have reported that Rod Marinelli's connection with best friend Lovie Smith will be a player in his possible desire to go to Tampa Bay, and that inside Valley Ranch, the thought is that Matt Eberflus is ready to advance. When it comes to retaining Scott Linehan and most others, if it comes down to finance, that's not a Jerry Jones problem. (If it comes down to Linehan getting a head-coaching job, more power to him.) I am learning that personnel boss Will McClay is unlikely to leave this offseason (though his time to be a GM someday will likely come.)

So breathless reports aside (ProFootballTalk.com speculated at halftime that being behind 17-7 might be a fire-able offense, the sort of take that comes from somebody who has never stepped foot inside Valley Ranch) ... there is nothing new about good teams being plucked of talent. And there is nothing new about the Cowboys letting their coaches coach -- and then working to re-up them. In the meantime, way before you "work to re-up them,'' you let them do their work.

Their work continues in Green Bay.

4. More man

In the secondary, against Marinelli's habitual likes, Dallas was going to have to play more man. It’s worked lately, most notably against the Colts. It's a way to give Brandon Carr some level of comfort (after having been victimized a year ago by Calvin Johnson) and it's a way to unleash Orlando Scandrick at what he does best.

Smile

Dallas goofed up an early coverage to allow Golden Tate's opening 51-yard TD, but otherwise, the weaponry was largely kept at bay. The fearsome Johnson had just five catches for 85 yards, with Carr actually stepping up nicely to handle him.

Carr told CowboysHQ.com: "My mentality was not about redemption. This is a different team, different guys, different in the way we call plays. I knew I had my hands full against one of the best in the game. I just wanted to prove to myself and my teammates I'm worthy of that spot.''

5. Vulnerable tackles

Detroit entered the game missing its miscreant center and with terrific young guard Larry Warford hurt. The two tackles, Dallas thought, were ... vulnerable. The Cowboys wanted to power pass-rush the tackles, with a healthy Tyrone Crawford (after a Friday illness) and a hungry Jeremy Mincey able to win there.

Result?

Mincey got four tackles, a sack and a tipped pass that was intercepted. Crawford had three tackles and a pass defensed. And rookie end Demarcus Lawrence was all about the storybook with a fumble recovery following a Spencer sack in the final moments that would've sealed the win ... except the kid tried to run with the ball and fumbled it right back to the Lions.

And then the storybook.

Lawrence got the chance to recover another fumble, deeper into the final two minutes of the game. A sack. A strip. A recovery. And the offense marched onto the field for the Landry-Shift Victory Formation.

"We’re trained to scoop and score, but with an opportunity like that you have to know what kind of situation you’re in,'' Lawrence said from the winning locker room. ""It was a rookie mistake, but I learned from it a lot."

6. A run-first offense

This was going to be a run-first Cowboys offense, something that served as the season-long foundation. DeMarco came in bidding for an eighth straight 100-yard rushing game against a 4-3 front, and the Cowboys came within a sliver of being the No. 1 third-down-conversion team in football ... in large part because of early-down success on the ground.

Down 14-0 early, Dallas wasn't quite able to fulfill its wishes here. Murray totaled 75 yards on 19 carries. But it was enough to give Dallas a slight edge in time of possession (something that looked like it has no chance of happening early) and it was something the Cowboys stuck with.

"I thought we ran well,'' Murray said. "There were 10 guys in the box all night. But I thought we found some lanes and ran through some tracks and ran hard.''

7. It's a QB game

And yet, no matter the gameplan wrinkles, this is a QB game. And if we understand that, we see what Las Vegas almost certainly saw in making Dallas a 6.5-point favorite: Forget the stale Tony Romo memes and know he's experiencing one of the greatest seasons in quarterbacking history. And respect Matthew Stafford's gifts while knowing that he came into Sunday with a record on the road against winning teams of, astoundingly, 0-17.

Smile

Romo was 19 of 31 for 293 yards and two TDs. Stafford was 28 of 42 for 323 yards but just the one score. It would be a gross oversimplification to say this result was all about those two guys and their performances. But ... well, Romo is now undefeated in games this year in which he was rested and healthy (13-0). And Stafford, in addition to being 0-18 against good teams on the road, in career games against a Marinelli-coached defense ... is 1-4.

But for a moment there, Stafford looked ready and Romo did not.

Said Tony: "You just have to stay in the moment and understand the game. It doesn't end after the first quarter, second quarter. You just have to keep calm. I've played enough games to understand that. Maybe I didn't do that as well when I was younger.”

8. Zebra watch

The Lions are now 3-10 when Pete Morelli referees their games. Dallas is 9-5 when he works. You never want the officials to be THE determining factor in a game. But when you consider the Suh-spension story and then you consider the Tate/Church/Sean Lee "revenge'' angle ... Morelli's crew was going to have a profile here in some manner.

And it sure did, on a late-game pass-interference call against Anthony Hitchens that the zebras decided to reverse, thus stalling the Detroit drive and leaving open the Cowboys' winning window.

"I've never seen anything like that,'' said the Lions' Dominic Raiola. "I've never seen a PI overturned.''

The Cowboys can argue that one of the reasons Hitchens didn't turn his head is that the Detroit receiver had a grip on Hitchens' facemask. We might also argue that while Raiola is right about the unorthodox nature of the ruling ... Suh's "un-suspension'' was also unorthodox.

So ... we're even?

Seriously, here's Morelli's explanation: The head linesman overruled the back judge's initial call because he saw it was face-guarding and not interference. "Face-guarding is not a foul. It's a penalty in college but not in pro football.''

Morelli conceded that he probably should've met with his crew before announcing the PI but that "the better view was from the head linesman.''

9. Measuring brainpower

Did the Cowboys get "outcoached'' in the first half? It'd a cliche, but that's conventional wisdom so let's go with it.

But if you buy it ... it means the Cowboys outcoached the Lions by an even bigger margin in the second half, including a ballsy decision to go for it from midfield on fourth-and-6. Everybody punts there, right? But Garrett and staff thought it was do-able, and Jason Witten's misdirection stutter-step route freed him up for a game-continuing, confidence-building play.

"That's the play of the game to me,'' Dez Bryant said of the 21-yard gain that set up eventually game-winning Romo to Terrance Williams score. "That was big-time.''

Added Garrett: "It was fitting that it went to Witten. He's the most reliable player I've ever been around.''

10. Dez vs. Megatron

Reasons to worry about Calvin Johnson? Of course. You know his reputation and the last time you saw him, you know what Brandon Carr was unable to do. But my belief was that Detroit need be even more worried about Dez Bryant.

Smile

Well, they were. So much so that Dez was limited to three catches for 48 yards. And yet ... the attention on Dez meant freedom for so many others. Jason Witten caught five for 63, including that gutsy fourth-down ball. Cole Beasley survived vicious hits with four for 63. And Terrance Williams was huge, with three catches for 92 yards, including TDs of 76 and 8 yards.

"Stay together, play together,'' Bryant said. "Don't look at the scoreboard. Just keep on fighting. Keep fighting. Stay together. ... I'll take it all in tonight and I'll let it all leave tomorrow. And we'll get ready for the Packers.''

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