No good team needed a huge win more than Dallas. The Cowboys were down 10-0 early, tied it at 17-17 before halftime, then got down 27-17 in the third quarter, tied it at 27-27 to start the fourth quarter, then scored 13 points in the last six minutes. So: Dallas 40, Philadelphia 34. Most impressive to me was Dak Prescott throwing a pick-six on his second straight drive (closing the loss at Jacksonville last week, and on the opening Dallas drive in this game), then coming back in the last 54 minutes to complete 78 percent of his throws with three touchdowns and no picks while getting beat up pretty consistently. Loved Prescott hanging in there. After the game, I asked him about his mental state after throwing the 42-yard pick-six to Josh Sweat that put the Cowboys in a 10-0 hole.
“Thinking about that,” he told me, “I’m thinking about the way I was raised. Being the little brother, there’s a lotta times I got my ass kicked and things didn’t go my way. The only chance I had against them was to forget about what just happened, come back, respond, and beat ‘em. Sometimes I’d find my mother, I’d be crying, and she said, ‘If you can’t play with the big dogs, stay on the porch.’ So in a situation like today, early in the game, it’s about staying focused, understanding what’s happened is done. So I made a bad throw. What can I do about it? Respond. And I know I will.”
Coming off of two unimpressive performances — outscored 63-61 across the narrow win over the Texans and loss to the Jags — the Cowboys needed some offensive explosiveness. To advance in the NFC, they need to do what they’ve done recently: four times in their last eight games, Dallas has scored 40 or more. Though Jalen Hurts didn’t play for the Eagles Saturday, Gardner Minshew was spunky and productive if not as safe as Hurts. And Dallas put up 40 against a D that had allowed more than 22 points only three times all season.
How the Cowboys stole Christmas from the Eagles 🎄🎁 #SomosCowboys pic.twitter.com/UPN8VDmM5R
— Somos Cowboys (@SomosCowboys) December 25, 2022
“It’s how we won that I think will help us,” Prescott said. “Down 10 in the first half, down 10 in the second half. Coming back both times. You think that doesn’t mean something big to us? We fought, we trusted, we gained confidence against the best team in the league by fighting back over and over.”
Running can be sexy, to some. The Panthers rushed 43 times for 320 yards, a 7.4-yard average, and the result was predictable: Carolina 37, Detroit 23. Talk about bursting the bubble of all the good feels for the Lions, who came in on a 6-1 roll. It’s the 6-9 Panthers who exited this game looking like much more of a playoff threat than the Lions. And, of course, Carolina can win the NFC South by sweeping games at the Bucs and Saints. Pretty crazy, after starting 2-7.
“We’re not sexy,” interim coach Steve Wilks (5-5, stunningly) told me post-game. “We’re not the classic NFL team that’s going to throw it all over the place. But like I’ve told [offensive coordinator] Ben McAdoo, there’s nothing more demoralizing to a defense than not being able to stop the run.” The Panthers, lately, have added some misdirection and more motion to the run game because, as Wilks said, “You look around the league, and you see window-dressing and misdirection causes problems for the defense in the run game.”
Rushing for 320 yards is pretty damn demoralizing. And what Wilks has done with his team is to prioritize what they do well – run – behind a strong line and a renewed sense of pride in his 11 weeks as coach. “I’ve told our guys, ‘Act like a champion every day,’ and I think they’ve responded well to that. That’s how they’re acting.”
So, whatever happens in the last two games, Wilks has restored the pride in the franchise. I asked him if that should be enough to be seriously considered for the full-time job. “Straight honestly,” he said, “I don’t look at it that way. I’ve done this job before [in Arizona, for one season], and even though it was only for a year, I understand what’s important. Stay in the moment. Win today. Try to beat Tampa. That’s all that matters.”
Now that’s a gift 🎁 pic.twitter.com/6QblYc9zNt
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 24, 2022
The Bengals won fairly ugly, but in this stretch, who really cares? Cincinnati bolted to a 22-0 lead at Foxboro and hung on, thanks to one of my Goats of the Week, Rhamondre Stevenson, getting the ball punched out by safety Vonn Bell inside the Bengals’ 10-yard line to clinch the game late. Cincinnati 22, New England 18.
Think of what the Bengals have done in their seven-game winning streak. Every one of those wins except Cleveland at home has come against a team currently fighting for the playoffs, or a team that’s qualified for the playoffs. Amazingly, the Bengals might have the toughest last two games: Buffalo and Baltimore, both at home. The Bengals, 11-4, are a game up on 10-5 Baltimore, but the Ravens own the tiebreaker after a week five win over the Bengals.
When I asked Zac Taylor about it Saturday night, he said, “We keep winning, we’ve won seven in a row, and you look where we are and what’s ahead of us … it may not be enough,” he said.
Seems likely the Bengals will be either the three or five seed. If they lose the division and are fifth, a Wild Card game at Tennessee or Jacksonville awaits. As the three seed, they’d host some team from the seven-team moshpit of AFC teams with eight or seven wins currently. “We qualified for the playoffs Thursday night,” Taylor said, “and the thing I noticed with our team is no one really had any emotion about it. Making the playoffs isn’t good enough for us. And now, going into the playoffs, we can’t afford to lose any games.”
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column