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Despite Second-Half Momentum, Cowboys Should Be Concerned Heading into Week 18 Finale

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxCorrespondent IDecember 30, 2022

Cowboys QB Dak Prescott
Cowboys QB Dak PrescottWesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys earned a decisive 27-13 win over the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night. For now, they remain alive for both the NFC East title and the conference's No. 1 seed.

One might believe that the Cowboys feel pretty good heading into their Week 18 finale against the Washington Commanders, but they shouldn't.

While the final score might indicate the sort of clean and complete performance Dallas wants to see heading into the postseason, it wasn't that. The Cowboys surged in the second half, but they played a mistake-filled first half that provided more questions than answers.

Quarterback Dak Prescott committed three turnovers in the first half, and Dallas limped into halftime with a mere four-point lead.

Ed Werder @WerderEdESPN

A three-turnover first-half for the Cowboys. Dak Prescott's pass behind Dalton Schultz and intercepted by Kevin Byard, his second of the game. Prescott also suffered a deflected INT and fumbled a snap.

It's easy to chalk up Dallas' slow start to the emotional aftermath of last week's big win over the Philadelphia Eagles. However, it continues a troubling trend for the Cowboys. Yes, they beat the Eagles—though Philadelphia was without star quarterback Jalen Hurts (shoulder)—but before that, they narrowly escaped the lowly Houston Texans and blew a big lead to the Jacksonville Jaguars to lose in overtime.

It's not as if the victory over Philadelphia was truly that much of a feel-good moment either. With backup quarterback Gardner Minshew II running the offense, Philly dropped 442 yards and 34 points on the Dallas defense.

Of course, the Cowboys did gain a little momentum by beating Philadelphia, and they should have been able to add to it against the Titans. Tennessee has been slumping—it has now lost six straight—and entered Thursday night without several key players, including standout running back Derrick Henry.

TURRON DAVENPORT @TDavenport_NFL

<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Titans?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Titans</a> inactives for Thursday Night Football vs. Cowboys<br><br>RB Derrick Henry<br>CB Kristian Fulton<br>DB Josh Thompson<br>S Amani Hooker<br>LB Dylan Cole<br>OL Nicholas Petit-Frere<br>DL Denico Autry<br>DT Jeffery Simmons

This should have been a bigger blowout than it was, especially considering the mistakes Tennessee made.

The Titans turned it over twice and committed a whopping 10 penalties for 124 yards. Despite Tennessee's miscues—and Dallas winning the time-of-possession battle by nearly seven minutes—the Cowboys only had a 44-yard advantage offensively.

Despite Henry's absence, Tennessee still rushed for 97 yards and averaged 4.0 yards per carry. With quarterback Joshua Dobbs making his first-ever NFL start, the Titans matched Dallas' 4.9 yards per offensive play. Though the Titans had nothing to play for in this game—their Week 18 game against the Jaguars will settle the AFC South regardless—the Cowboys struggled to put them away until late.

Given Tennessee's offensive personnel, this marked the third straight game in which Dallas' defense has played poorly. It has now surrendered 87 points over its last three games. That isn't ideal.

Dallas has given up at least 300 yards of offense in six consecutive contests.

Prescott's streak of turning the ball over is far from ideal, too. He's now turned it over in six straight games and is tied for the league lead in interceptions. This is despite him missing five games earlier in the year with a hand injury.

Todd Archer @toddarcher

Dak Prescott has been intercepted 14 times in 11 games this season. His previous high was 13 in 2017 when he started all 16 games. Not all of the picks are on him but it doesn't matter. The Cowboys can't play this sloppy against playoff team and expect to win.

While Prescott did finish with 282 passing yards and two touchdowns, that was to be expected. The Titans have been atrocious against the pass and entered Week 17 ranked 31st in passing yards allowed and 29th in passing touchdowns surrendered.

The Cowboys cannot expect to turn the ball over frequently, play lackluster defense and still get past teams like Philadelphia (with a healthy Hurts) and the San Francisco 49ers in the postseason.

What might be most frustrating is that there isn't much for Dallas to learn from Thursday's game. Good teams learn from bad performances, something linebacker Micah Parsons touched on between the loss to Jacksonville and the win over Philadelphia.

"Really, every loss is a chance to learn and get better," Parsons said, per Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. "Losing close ones sucks, but there's always something you can look at and learn from it."

What is there to learn from outlasting a short-handed Titans team that hasn't won a game since before Thanksgiving? Aside, possibly, from the fact that T.Y. Hilton (four catches, 50 yards) can be a factor or that CeeDee Lamb (11 catches, 100 yards) can beat a bad secondary, not much.

On top of everything, the Cowboys potentially suffered another serious injury-related loss when center Tyler Biadasz exited with an apparent ankle injury.

Michael Gehlken @GehlkenNFL

Initial belief from the Cowboys is that center Tyler Biadasz suffered a high ankle sprain tonight against the Titans, a person familiar with situation said. It being a Thursday game helps him. More time to recover before playoffs.

Injuries were already a concern for Dallas, as running back Tony Pollard (thigh) and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (neck) both missed Thursday's game. Parsons is dealing with a hand injury, while cornerbacks Anthony Brown (torn Achilles) and Jourdan Lewis (Lisfranc) are on injured reserve.

In the postseason, it's often the healthiest teams that have the best chances to go far. It doesn't look like Dallas is going to be one of those teams. That's a major problem, as is the fact that the Cowboys stumbled through a sloppy win on Thursday.

The reality is that this may have been the Cowboys' last chance to gain some real momentum before the Wild Card Round. If the Eagles get past the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Dallas will have nothing to play for in Week 18.

The Cowboys could use the Washington game to rest their starters and prevent further injuries. Their last truly dominant win came in Week 13 against the Indianapolis Colts, and that feels like a lifetime ago.

Dallas cannot possess the confidence of a true title contender. The chance to change that was there on Thursday, and the Cowboys didn't grab it.

Instead of riding high away from an efficient and complete performance, Dallas limps toward the postseason with concerns about its ability to beat teams that aren't missing their best players.