ARLINGTON, Tex. — The loss of their kicker to a leg injury turned the Seattle Seahawks into gamblers by necessity, go-for-brokers. And that might have broken the Dallas Cowboys in their NFC first-round meeting. But this is an entirely different Cowboys outfit than the overpromising, underachieving one that has shown up in previous playoffs. These Cowboys have as much grit as glamour, and they advanced to the NFC divisional round with a 24-22 victory over the Seahawks at AT&T Stadium.
They’re the youngest team in the playoffs, and they might be the scariest.
They’ve got a howling wolf of a defense, a pure bully in running back Ezekiel Elliott, and a young fury of a quarterback in Dak Prescott, whose decisive one-yard scoring run with 2:08 to go came just after he practically cartwheeled into the end zone to cap a 16-yard dash on third and 14. It was merely the final gut shot to the Seahawks. “He was going to get it done,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.
It ended a siege-like drive that ate up more than five minutes and what little realistic hope the Seahawks still had, after being largely manhandled for most of the night, and losing kicker Sebastian Janikowski to a strained leg at the end of the first half. The Cowboys’ defense, led by their super-predator linebackers, rookie Leighton Vander Esch and 23-year-old Jaylon Smith, allowed the Seahawks to convert on just two of 13 third downs (15 percent) and held them to 73 yards rushing. Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ offense controlled the ball for nearly 10 more minutes, thanks in large part to Elliott’s brawling runs, what Garrett called “a lot of dirty yards,” 137 of them in all.
“We ran and hit,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “You hit the will out of somebody, they ain’t going to want to run no more.”
So often in the recent past the Cowboys had been promising but turned out to be more flash than substance. They had won just two playoff games in the last 21 years, always seeming to do less with more. But this team is different. They are more tough than pretty, with a punch in the mouth quality, and their motto and hashtag is “#finishthisfight.” They are clearly a team with “conviction,” as Garrett put it.
“We are living in the moment,” Prescott said earlier in the week. “Don’t know what happened last year. Don’t care what happened last year.”
The combination of new muscularity and the sheer shine and glare of the hostile stadium seemed to disconcert the visitors, the gleaming reflective glass and metal building filled by 94,327, the ceiling crowned by that massive diamond-vision scoreboard that acts as sort of a mirrorball. “It’s a real glitzy place, you know,” Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll said before the game. “When you come out of a football locker room ready to play football and you go into a night club — it’s kind of like we’re in the club, then wait a minute, you’ve got to play ball . . . it’s unusual.”
The Seahawks counted on the superior experience and the slow pulse of Russell Wilson to help them deal with it. “A pillar,” receiver Doug Baldwin called Wilson. He was the man they looked to “in those crucial moments for a stabilizing, calming presence,” Baldwin said. Wilson had experience and know-how on his side: this was his sixth appearance in the playoffs in seven seasons, including two Super Bowls, and he had a 4-0 record in previous opening-round games. He was seeking his ninth playoff victory.
But the Cowboys startled the Seahawks by holding Wilson to minus-8 passing yards in the first quarter. After three consecutive three-and-outs, they had a grand total of five yards of offense on nine plays. “Bully ball,” defensive tackle Maliek Collins branded it.
Still, Wilson managed 233 passing yards and two touchdown passes after that debacle, making desperate throw after desperate throw. Take the third-quarter drive to their first touchdown of the night. It might never have happened if they’d had a healthy kicker. They faced a fourth- and-five from the Dallas 39. With no kicking leg to rely on, they had no choice but to go for it. And so, Wilson looked to Baldwin, who made a spectacular toe tapper of a 22-yard catch, dragging his cleats along the sideline. Four plays later, Wilson took off out of the shotgun for a four-yard scoring run. Again, with no place kicker, they gambled on a two-point conversion, and Mike Davis jammed it into the end zone, for a 14-10 lead.
The Cowboys might have been shaken. Instead they were responsive. Prescott marched them straight down the field to retake the lead. He fired a 34-yard pass to Amari Cooper, danced around for a 10-yard gain to the one yard-line, and from there Elliott steam-pressed his way into the end zone. They never trailed again, and Prescott had the first playoff victory of his career.
Asked afterward if he ever doubted it, Prescott said instantly, “No. No, no.”
Elliott gave Prescott the ultimate compliment in a postgame interview on Fox, calling his quarterback “a grown-a-- man.”
Has there been a more dramatic midseason turnaround than theirs? After their first eight games they were a fizzling 3-5. But their young guys grew up, and now they’ve won eight of their last nine games. They’re exciting and excitable, a team youthful enough that they pogo-jumped on the field before kickoff, and again when it was over. “This bunch, especially so young, now knows forevermore that they can play in and win a playoff game,” team owner Jerry Jones said. What’s more, they are still growing, and before they’re done, they may approach something like completeness. “We have the best ‘D’ in football, and a pretty damn good offense, a lot of weapons,” Elliott said last week. “I think we have the right recipe to make some noise.”