This is how dynasties are born: with the luckiest of breaks, with everything breaking exactly the right way at the exact right time, with defeat flipping to victory at the last possible moment.
This is how dynasties die: by being a step too slow, by missing the target by just an inch, by watching as fortune and luck leap across the field to cozy up to the opposition.
Sunday afternoon’s Cowboys-Patriots game wasn’t just the best game of the season to date, with five lead changes and ties in the final 10 minutes of game play. It might just be the point at which two of the league’s most storied and decorated franchises passed each other going in opposite directions.
Yes, it’s a long way from here to Super Bowl glory for Dallas. And any team that has Bill Belichick on its sideline is a team worth taking seriously. But still … we saw a Dallas team that made its own luck and capitalized on its own immense skillset, and a New England team that struggled to do more than just stay on beat for most of the game, and how often has either of those circumstances happened in the last two decades?
Dallas won 35-29 in overtime, capping off a frenetic final 10 minutes in which both teams appeared to have the game completely locked up only to watch it slip through their fingers. Talent won out — yes, just barely, but talent won out all the same. Listen closely, and you can hear the Cowboys bandwagon’s shocks starting to groan as eager fans pile aboard.
Cowboys up …
This is, on paper (or phone screen, whichever) arguably the most talented team Dallas has fielded since the days of Aikman/Smith/Irvin. Ezekiel Elliott looks like the Ezekiel Elliott you always expected to get when you drafted him first in fantasy. The receiving corps led by CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper can catch anything still in earth’s atmosphere. Trevon Diggs singlehandedly tilts the entire field from the secondary the way Deion Sanders once did. And Dak Prescott is proving he was worth the monster contract he signed earlier this year … as long as he’s healthy, that is.
This is a team with legitimate postseason ambitions, and not just because they play in the otherwise-woeful NFC East. In an up-for-grabs NFC, the Cowboys might just be … yes, really … a Super Bowl favorite.
But don’t celebrate yet, Cowboy fans … this team still has plenty of problems, all of which were on display Sunday. Dumb mistakes that drew a laundry basket’s worth of penalty flags. Missed assignments and defensive miscues that would have easily cost Dallas the game against a better opponent. And at the top of the garbage pyramid, play-calling so conservative it bordered on catatonic … none worse than a late-game decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-two in New England territory despite moving the ball with ease up to that point. The field goal sailed wide left, and it sure seemed like that was it for the Cowboys … until, of course, it wasn’t.
“Give Dallas credit,” Belichick said after the game. “They’re a good team, well coached. We just came up a little bit short. I thought we went toe-to-toe with them for 60 minutes. They just made a few more plays than we did. Let’s give them credit for that and move on.”
… Patriots down
That’s a whole lot easier grumbled than done. The fact New England even had a chance to win at all is a testament to Belichick’s personnel genius. Belichick is rooting through a refrigerator at three in the morning, trying to salvage something out of old lunch meat, dried mustard and out-of-date milk. But that just gets you through to daylight, it won’t feed you long-term.
Mac Jones may be the answer at quarterback for New England, but he’s not there yet. All of the New England trademarks are in place — bruising running backs, acrobatic receivers, efficient pocket passer … but this feels like a cover version of the classic Patriots teams, a fuzzy shadow of past greatness.
The signs abound. New England is now 2-4, potentially three games behind Buffalo for the division lead pending tomorrow night’s game. The team has lost four home games in a row, the first time that’s happened since 1993. Prescott threw for 445 yards Sunday, the most ever — ever — against a Bill Belichick-coached team.
Four months from now, this game might be little more than a remember-when? from early in the season. Or it might be something else, something more … the last gasps of one dynasty, and the first steps of another.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]