It’s tough to win on the road in the NFL.
Just ask both the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans, as each faced road tests on Sunday afternoon despite squaring off against each other. The Texans literally, and the Cowboys figuratively, had to deal with the perils of a different type of road rage, in a battle of the NFL’s two surprise teams. Both clubs entered the contest with similar 3-1 records, but Dallas was able to overcome a Texans-tinted crowd and their own miscues to escape with a 20-17 overtime victory.
In the extra stanza, Dallas was able to stop a Houston team who had scored 10 points on it’s final two drives of the fourth quarter, and had seemingly solved the Cowboys defense. After forcing a punt near midfield, Tony Romo would find Pro Bowl wideout Dez Bryant before the pressure reached home, leaving Bryant to make a spectacular juggling 37-yard catch with CB Jonathan Joseph in perfect coverage. The catch was Bryant’s ninth of the game and set up Dallas for the game-winning kick.
Given the circumstances, Bryant’s impressive catch will be remembered for a while.
There will always be anecdotal talk of being “mentally strong” and of “winning close games” being a testament to the team. However history shows that close games tend to even out over a length of time; so the Cowboys should consider themselves lucky to come out with another victory that could have easily gone the other direction in a game they dominated for much of the contest.
The win moved Dallas to 4-1 on the young season, and has the Cowboys sporting the league’s best record almost a third of the way through the 2014 season. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty.
Dallas turned the ball over three times, twice inside the opponents red zone, and still managed to win. Dallas allowed over 150 yards and two scores on the ground, and still managed to win. Dallas blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead, and still managed to win. Dallas missed a game-winning field goal attempt, and still managed to win. Dallas only scored three points in the first half, and still managed to find a way to win.
This was because Dallas offset these shortcomings with several categories on the opposite side of the ledger. Dallas was 8 for 14 on third down conversions, good for 57% for the club that entered the contest second in the league. Dallas ran 19 more plays than the Texans and outgained them 456 to 330. They doubled Houston’s net passing yardage 316 to 154.
|3rd Dn Efficiency||4-13-31%||8-14-57%|
|Time of Poss.||31:08:00||36:07:00|
K Dan “Split’Em” Bailey missed the 53 yarder at the end of regulation wide left, snapping his streak of 30 consecutive makes. However, the focus and grizzled four-year vet collected himself and calmly booted a 49 yarder right down the middle in overtime for his ninth career game-winning kick.
It’s sometimes said that in a matchup where one team has a distinct advantage at the quarterback position, that team needs to ensure it comes out victorious.
Tony Romo continued his stretch of stellar play and accomplished just that for the Cowboys, barely. Showing he was superior to Texans’ journey starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, Romo threw for over 300 yards for the first time on the season. He finished 28-41 for 324 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. Along the way he accrued a 98.0 passer rating on the day while adding a few plays to his career highlight reel, The Romodini Chronicles. The overtime win was Romo’s franchise-leading 25th game-winning drive.
While many fans might not have believed the Texans were worthy of their 3-1 record, their defense had been impressive all season, specifically against the pass. They ranked 12th in the league in defensive DVOA, and were ranked as high as 5th in Defensive Passing EPA; two advanced metrics considered highly indicative of team strength. The Texans boast a very productive pass rush, led by All-Pro and former Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
While Watt was able to best franchise left tackle Tyron Smith as well as the Cowboys other offensive linemen, Romo was able to escape the game being sacked only once, and not by the “evil that knocks”. On one particular play, Romo broke bad and spun out of a would-be Watt sack to heave a beautiful strike to Terrance Williams.
Despite dropping two potential scores, Williams brings in this catch for his team-leading fifth touchdown of the season.
Williams would avoid being tripped to sky and haul in the pass in the end zone for the team’s first touchdown of the game and a 10-7 lead. It would be Williams fifth touchdown on the season, matching his total from his rookie campaign in 2013, just five games into this season.
Romo has just completed a huge 34 yard pass over the top of the defense to Jason Witten to get the club in Houston territory. Witten, the club’s all-time leading receiver, passed the 10,000 receiving yard mark for his career with that catch.
Romo’s play wasn’t perfect however, as he thwarted a Dallas fourth-quarter scoring drive by throwing off his back foot to the Texans goal line, getting easily plucked DB Kendrick Lewis. Dallas’ lead was a precarious 10-7 at that point, as the offense had struggled most of the game turning yards into points.
Fortunately for them, the defense was ready for the challenge and they responded as they had for most of the evening. Linebacker Rolando McClain continued his outstanding season of reclamation, being the ignition switch for Rod Marinelli’s unit. Unfortunately, McClain reinjured his groin and missed a series in the third before being ruled out of most of the fourth quarter and all of overtime.
The impact that McClain has on the game is evident to all offenses, and cemented whenever he’s not on the field. Just ask The Lorax.
When he was on the field though, he led a spirited effort. Dallas shut out an opponent for the entire first half for the third time in the last four games. It was their fourth scoreless half of the season (albeit the fourth coming in the second half in a blowout loss to the 49ers). Each time Marinelli’s defense was put in a tough position, it seemed to respond.
The Cowboys gained 0 yards from their 10 on their opening possession, giving the ball back to the Texans near midfield. The defense pulled their second consecutive three and out. After allowing the Texans to take the lead in the third quarter, then regaining it on Terrance Williams touchdown, the defense forced a three and out to maintain momentum. After Romo was intercepted to start the fourth quarter deep in the Texans’ end, another three and out.
The Texans capitalized on McClain’s absence, scoring all 17 of their points when McClain wasn’t in the game. The difference was obvious, as huge running lanes magically appeared that had been clogged up throughout the game. These drives allowed Houston RB Arian Foster to best the league’s leading rusher on the day, as he outgained DeMarco Murray 157 to 136 on the day. Foster also scored two touchdowns as Murray was kept out of the end zone for the first time all season. He did, however, join Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson as the only backs in league history to rush for 100 yards in each of their team’s first five games of the season.
Murray also fumbled, again in the first quarter. This was his fourth fumble in five games, and fifth in six games dating back to last season. All five fumbles were in the opening quarter. The impact of these fumbles is negating the fact that Murray leads the league in total rush yards by a considerable margin. Pending tonight’s matchup between Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch, Murray is already over 200 yards clear of his closest competitor. His 670 yards through five games puts him on pace to surpass Eric Dickerson’s NFL record 2,105 yards set in 1984.
However, with the fumbles Dallas only sports a +2.6 Run EPA (expected points added), good for just 10th in the league. The fumbles are syphoning points off of Dallas’ potential.
The Cowboys won Sunday despite the miscues, and raise their record to 3-27 in games where they are -2 in turnovers in the Tony Romo era (stat courtesy of Bob Sturm).
Dallas’ passer rating differential was a commanding +33.6 and their ANY/A differential, another key metric that correlates highly to wins, was +3.0, another resounding domination.
The Cowboys never sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick, but harassed him throughout the contest. They tallied 6 quarterback hits, and added 7 quarterback hurries, leaving the Texans passing game rendered inept and ineffective.
Pro Football Focus’ preliminary game grades (updated once All-22 film is released to the public) shows that Tyrone Crawford was once again the most effective Cowboys defensive lineman. Crawford graded t +1.9 on 43 snaps, thanks to his effective run stopping. He was aided by a surprise performance from weakside lineback Justin Durant, who was filling in for Bruce Carter and his quad strain. Durant had four stops (plays that kept the offense from accruing enough yards to call the play a success), and hasn’t missed a tackle in 171 snaps.
Orlando Scandrick, who collected the team’s sixth interception on the young season, earned a +1.7 grade for the game in his second consecutive start.
On offense, left guard Ron Leary recorded his highest graded game of his career with a +5.8.
The Cowboys will now start to prepare to for the reigning World Champion Seattle Seahawks, who face off against NFC East foe Washington on Monday night. It seems just that with Dallas having to make the long trek to the Pacific Northwest that Seattle will have to fly cross-country ahead of a shortened work week.
With the difference in how the Dallas defense played without Rolando McClain, all eyes will be following the practice reports throughout the week for his and Bruce Carter’s status. The Cowboys passed their first test of the season last week against New Orleans, and avoided the trap against in-state rival Houston. Now, their second big test of the year is upon them.