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2022 NFL season, Week 17: What We Learned from Cowboys' win over Titans on Thursday night

Dallas Cowboys
2022 · 12-4-0
Tennessee Titans
2022 · 7-9-0


  1. Cowboys overcome sluggish start to outlast shorthanded Titans. The Cowboys had more to play for in this game than the Titans, weird as that was, but it didn’t necessarily look like it early on. Dallas took a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter then strangely let the Titans back in it. The Cowboys’ final three possessions of the first half were a fumble on a bad center exchange, an interception (off Peyton Hendershot’s hands) and another pick (either a bad read by Dak Prescott or a sloppy route by Dalton Schultz, hard to tell). Tennessee added a pair of field goals and went into halftime with a shot to pull off a stunner, quarterbacked by a journeyman making his first NFL start. Even with the Titans insisting on making self-inflicted errors, including 10 penalties (a few of them killers), the Cowboys tried their darnedest to match them mistake for mistake. Once the second half got underway, Schultz (two touchdowns), CeeDee Lamb and T.Y. Hilton took over and the Cowboys defense stepped up when it had to.
  2. We could see Joshua Dobbs starting in Week 18 with the AFC South on the line. Two different sources on Thursday night confirmed to me that Dobbs is a better quarterback right now than rookie Malik Willis: my left eye and my right. On Dec. 21, the Titans signed Dobbs off of the Detroit Lions’ practice squad. On Thursday, Dec. 29, he was their starting QB. This is a team that was already staring reality squarely in the eyes with Ryan Tannehill landing on injured reserve and Willis struggling. Dobbs’ last start also came at Nissan Stadium -- in the Music City Bowl, in Dobbs’ final college football game at Tennessee. Prior to Thursday night, Dobbs’ regular-season NFL experience was relegated to mop-up appearances for the Steelers in 2018 and 2020, nearly running for as many yards (31) as he’d thrown for (45) in 10 career outings. Yet he still looked better than Willis, who has been with the team since April, had in his three starts. Dobbs’ pocket awareness and ball security were a little scary early, taking a few sacks he didn’t need to and nearly throwing a pick-six to Dallas’ Trevon Diggs. But Dobbs also threw a few really nice balls -- including a drop by Robert Woods, a 39-yard dime to Racey McMath and Dobbs’ first career TD pass to Woods. Two turnovers can’t go overlooked, but this was the best the passing game had looked since a healthy Tannehill was playing. The Titans certainly could turn back to Willis (or use both QBs) in the end-all, be-all Week 18 game at Jacksonville, with a home playoff game at stake. But it just feels like Dobbs will get the ball next Sunday after his 232-yard performance. 
  3. Dak Prescott’s turnovers becoming an issue? All in all, this was a tough game to put a lot of stock in, as the Cowboys were on the road on short rest, were sitting leading rusher Tony Pollard and lost center Tyler Biadasz to an ankle injury midway through the game. Of course, the Titans rested several key players, including Derrick Henry, with nothing at stake in this game. But even with the compounding factors, Prescott’s recent ball-security issues are something to keep an eye on. In his past six games, Prescott has 10 interceptions (and at least one pick in each of them) as well as four fumbles (losing one). Prescott has thrown for 1,600 yards over that stretch, completing more than 70% of his passes, so we can’t say that he hasn’t been potent at times. Plus, at least two of his three turnovers against the Titans arguably were the blame of others. But as the margin of error shrinks the closer we get to the postseason, the more that turnover number looms large.
  4. Cowboys forced to make personnel changes on the fly. Losing Biadasz wasn’t what you’d call a positive development for the Cowboys, even after he’d struggled in this game more than most in recent memory. But it did give Dallas a chance to see what a patchwork offensive line group might look like. After Biadasz left the game, the Cowboys shifted left guard Connor McGovern to center, moved left tackle Tyler Smith to left guard and brought in Jason Peters at left tackle. At no point did we expect to see both Tyler Smith and Tyron Smith together on the field, but that change was necessary at the time -- and the Cowboys’ O-line responded nicely in closing out the game. The other offensive switch was more of a subtle one, as the recently struggling Noah Brown ceded some reps to the newly signed Hilton, who responded with four big catches (on five targets) for 50 yards. After his 51-yard catch Sunday on third-and-30 against the Eagles, Hilton now has earned a role down the stretch after being unemployed until early December. The hallmark of a good team is the ability to adapt on the fly, and the Cowboys did a nice job of that Thursday night.
  5. What does this say about Malik Willis? It’s certainly possible that Willis could start in Week 18 against the Jaguars, and who’s to say he can’t play his best game at the biggest time? But after his struggles and Dobbs’ relatively better performance, it’s hard not to think that this is a setback for the rookie QB. The Titans can sell the giving-him-rest narrative all they want, but this felt like a benching -- and a changing of the guard, at least for one week. In a game that strangely didn’t mean that much for the Titans, one might be tempted to write this one off and see what happens down the road for Willis, who still has plenty of time to develop. After all, most third-round QBs are projects to a degree, and Willis is no different in that regard. But when Dobbs can go out there and have more pass yards at halftime (143) than Willis had in any of his three starts, alarm bells -- at least for the short term -- must be sounded. We’ll see where this goes, but this should be notice for Willis this offseason that he needs to develop much further to impact this team positively in 2023 and beyond.

Next Gen stat of the game: On Dak Prescott’s 10-yard TD pass to Dalton Schultz, the throw had an air distance of 30.6 yards and a completion probability of 26.8%. It was Schultz’ fifth receiving TD when going in motion since 2021, which is tied for the second-most in the NFL behind only Dawson Knox (six).

NFL Research: Ezekiel Elliott now has nine straight games with a rushing TD. He is the fifth player since 2000 with such a streak in a single season, joining Jonathan Taylor (11 straight games in 2021), Shaun Alexander (nine straight in 2005), LaDainian Tomlinson (12 straight in 2004) and Priest Holmes (11 straight in 2002).

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