The Titans’ slide is over. It turns out, all they needed to stop their three-game losing skid was to visit Jerry’s World. On Monday night, the Titans went into Dallas, survived a tumultuous opening quarter that involved fumbles on their first two series, remembered that they’re playing a really bad Cowboys team, and proceeded to run away with a 28-14 win.
As a result, the Titans are very much alive in what’s shaping out to be a feeble AFC South. The Texans are 6-3, but they’ve been anything but impressive during their six-game winning streak. The Jaguars remain dangerous, but they’re presently in utter disarray. The Colts are rebuilding. The Titans might not be sexy or, well, that good, but they’re 4-4 after Monday night’s win, which means they’re only one game behind the Texans in the loss column.
Marcus Mariota played well, especially within the pocket, making a ton of key throws on third downs. Dion Lewis made it crystal clear that he’s the best running back on the Titans’ roster. And the defense took the ball away from Dak Prescott in key areas of the field, and rendered the Cowboys’ offense utterly useless in the second half.
The Titans entered the game averaging 280.9 yards and 15.1 points per game, both of which ranked in the bottom three of the league. They finished with 340 yards and 28 points against a defense that came into the game ranked 11th in DVOA. It’s the most points they’ve scored this season. It’s also the first time they’ve dropped at least 28 points since Oct. 16 of last year, when they put 36 on the Colts. The Titans started slow, but over the final three quarters, they looked like a team that’s at least good enough to challenge for the playoff spot reserved for the AFC South. The defense shutout the Cowboys in the second half.
Speaking of the Cowboys, they appear to be dead. They’re 3-5. No, the NFC East isn’t any good — especially not after the first-place Redskins got hit with the injury bug this week — but the Cowboys aren’t any good either. Amari Cooper is a good player who helped their offense on Monday night, but he’s not good enough to transform one of the most predictable, boring, lackluster attacks in football. Ezekiel Elliott remains dangerous, but he can’t do it all alone. Prescott still has upside, but he’s not getting any help from his coaches.
The Cowboys needed to beat the Titans to remain in the mix for the NFC East crown, and they had their chances to do exactly that. But they squandered those opportunities.
Cowboys waste chance to bury Titans
The Cowboys had a chance to bury the Titans in a hole in the early going, but they failed to capitalize on two huge opportunities.
For starters, they began the game by missing a 38-yard field goal. Mariota promptly fumbled, which gifted the Cowboys an easy touchdown a couple plays later, and then the Titans fumbled again on their next series.
But the Cowboys’ ensuing series, which had a chance to turn a seven-point game into a two-score advantage, ended with an end zone interception. Instead of leading 17-0 or at the very least 13-0, the Cowboys led 7-0 and then they watched the Titans tie the game immediately after that pick.
The game was tied in the second quarter even though two of the Cowboys’ first three drives started in Titans territory and all three of those drives journeyed into the red zone. The Cowboys let the Titans back into the game, and the Titans eventually made them pay for that mistake.
Titans waste chance to bury Cowboys late
The Titans returned the favor in the fourth quarter.
Leading 21-14 with around 11 minutes remaining, the Titans had a chance to ice the game, but blew their red-zone series. On third down from the 9-yard line, Mariota spotted Corey Davis all alone in the end zone. But he threw high and wide, and the ball fell incomplete. Kicker Ryan Succop came onto the field for a 28-yard field goal that would’ve at least pushed the lead to 10 points. Given the state of the Cowboys’ offense, that margin probably would’ve been enough for the Titans to coast to a win. But Succup missed the field goal. It remained a seven-point game.
In other words, it looked like two 3-4 teams were playing each other.
Eventually, though, the Titans finished off the Cowboys. Over the course of the game, they were the better team. And they wore down the Cowboys slowly, but efficiently after that sloppy first quarter.
Mariota solid, especially on third down
After the early issues, Mariota and the Titans settled down. Mariota actually played very well. He finished 21 of 29 for 240 yards, two touchdowns, no picks, and a 119.9 passer rating. He also rushed for 32 yards and a score.
He put the Titans ahead with this touchdown “pass,” though the credit should be given to offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur for the play design.
Late in the fourth quarter, after Mariota missed Davis on what should’ve been the put-away touchdown, Mariota sealed the win with a touchdown scamper. Mariota picked apart the Cowboys with his arm, but he won the game with his legs.
What was especially encouraging was his work from the pocket. He was also nearly flawless on third down — outside of that Davis miss, of course. The Titans went 11 of 14 on third downs, and Mariota played a huge role in their ability to keep drives going.
Mariota the Magician ✨ pic.twitter.com/qUHQsyEhcv
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Mariota made some mistakes, which we’ve already highlighted, but Monday night was a step in the right direction. It was progress. It was development.
Most importantly, it was good enough for a win.
Cooper makes strong first impression
Amari Cooper, who got traded from Oakland to Dallas ahead of the trade deadline, made his debut on Monday night.
It didn’t take him long to establish himself as the Cowboys’ best receiver. He caught his first pass on the second play from scrimmage. On the Cowboys’ second series, after the defense forced a takeaway, Cooper caught his first touchdown.
?: #TENvsDAL on ESPN #SaluteToServicepic.twitter.com/woIej2zuAw
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Cooper finished with five catches, 58 yards, and that one touchdown.
Zeke powers Cowboys offense
Don’t blame the Cowboys’ woes on Zeke, who looked spry on Monday night. He totaled 112 yards on 21 touches.
Unfortunately for Zeke, he’s stuck on a bad offense. And he’s not good enough to save the Cowboys on his own. No running back would be.
Dak makes two critical mistakes
Prescott’s final numbers were actually pretty good. He completed 21 of his 31 passes for 243 yards, two touchdowns, one pick, and a 99.2 passer rating.
But he made a couple key mistakes. He threw an awful interception — trying to force the ball into Cooper — in the red zone that kept the Titans within one score at a point in the game when it felt like the Cowboys should’ve been up by three scores.
In the second half, Prescott’s fumble preceded the Titans’ go-ahead touchdown.
Those two turnovers proved to be costly. But don’t blame the loss on Prescott — or any one player, for that matter. The Cowboys’ offensive problem is systemic — not individualistic — in nature.
Their play-calling is so annoyingly predictable. They rarely, if ever, used any zone-read, option type of plays with Dak and Zeke, which at this point, should be the focal point of their offense. Instead, they love to run the ball until they create third-and-long situations for Prescott. In case you haven’t noticed, the Cowboys’ receiving group, even with Cooper around, isn’t a strength of the team.
Keep on clapping, but it’s not helping.
Lewis is the Titans’ best running back
The Titans’ backfield belongs to Lewis. On Monday night, Lewis supplanted Derrick Henry as the Titans’ top running back, dominating both the carries and the targets in the passing game.
Lewis totaled 23 touches for 122 yards. Henry went for 32 yards on eight touches. Give the advantage to Lewis by a country mile.
Still, Henry managed to vulture away a touchdown from Lewis.
But Lewis got his.
In terms of both reality and fantasy, Lewis is the best back on the Titans’ roster. And it should stay that way. He’s just as good of a runner as — if not better than — Henry. Plus, he’s a great outlet for Mariota coming out of the backfield.
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to get paid
When the Cowboys franchise tagged Lawrence in the offseason, Lawrence took the exact opposite approach of most tagged players. He almost seemed happy that he would be playing under a lucrative one-year deal, calling it an “opportunity to really break the bank next year.”
He’s probably not wrong. He’ll probably get a fat contract after the season. He entered the game with 5.5 sacks, but none of those sacks came in his past three games.
The drought ended against the Titans. In the first quarter, Lawrence strip-sacked Mariota to create a takeaway that placed the Cowboys at the Titans’ 15-yard line, which the offense promptly turned into a touchdown.
Malcolm Butler’s struggles continue
It was Butler who got beat on Cooper’s touchdown in the first quarter. That should be a familiar sight.
It was also Butler who got burned by Allen Hurns late in the first half for a 23-yard touchdown.
Maybe that’s why the Patriots felt no need to re-sign Butler and let him walk on over to Tennessee, where he earned a five-year, $61 million contract. So far, he hasn’t lived up to that deal.
Kevin Byard channels T.O.
When Titans safety Kevin Byard picked off Prescott in the end zone, he sprinted straight toward the Cowboys’ star in the middle of the field, where he proceeded to do his best Terrell Owens imitation. One day after Saints receiver Michael Thomas paid tribute to Joe Horn with a cellphone celebration, Byard gave us this gem.
WHAT A PICK! @KB31_era
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I feel like I’ve seen this before pic.twitter.com/aacvsoO0y3
If Deion Sanders still didn’t know who Byard is, he should by now.
Jason Garrett remains awful at challenges
There isn’t a coach who loves to embarrass himself on national television more than Jason Garrett. Ignore the Cowboys’ anemic, mistake-prone offense. Forget about their inability to stop a bad offense. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate Garrett’s inability to use his challenge flags wisely.
He did it again on Monday night, challenging a Titans’ first-down completion that had no chance of being overturned.
Sean Lee leaves hurt
This won’t exactly come as shocking news, but it is notable that Cowboys All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee — often regarded as the quarterback of the defense — left early in the third quarter with a non-contact hamstring injury. Lee missed time earlier this season with a hamstring injury. This isn’t a new development.
In his career, Lee has never made it through a season unscathed. He’s played in 91 of 144 possible games.
The Eagles await the Cowboys next week in a huge NFC East showdown between two teams trying to catch the 5-3 Redskins in the NFC East. The Titans, meanwhile, have the unfortunate honor of hosting the Patriots in Week 10. Despite their struggles, the Titans aren’t out of the AFC South considering they still play every team in their division at least once down the stretch. And it’s worth noting that the Titans already beat the Texans and the Jaguars earlier this season.
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