By the time the season ended, the Cowboys were among the NFL’s youngest teams and its hottest entering the playoffs, which is why owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett feel so good about the team.
And they didn’t have a starter over 30.
“I’m excited about our team. I’m excited about what we have,” Garrett said recently. “We have a lot of young players that got valuable playing experience this year and they grew over the season. There’s so much to build on.
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“One of the points of emphasis is we believe this young team can do it now. I think our team believed that. Unfortunately, we came up short, but that doesn’t change our belief about that and the kind of guys we have. I think we built the team the right way with the right kind of guys.”
Those guys helped the Cowboys overcome a 3-5 start and win a league-high nine games by eight points or less.
Of the 2,254 plays in the Cowboys’ 2018 season, some were clearly more important than others. In any season, the difference between making and missing the playoffs is a play here or there.
That said, here’s a look at the 10 plays that shaped the Cowboys’ season, with the biggest play being No. 1:
10. The Throw
Situation: Fourth-and-15 from the New York Giants 32 with 1:19 left
Play: Cole Beasley’s 32-yard touchdown catch
Taylor’s Take: The Cowboys needed a miracle to get their 10th win and Dak Prescott and Cole Beasley combined to provide it. Prescott, feeling pressure, spun left and threw a pass just as he was about to cross the line of scrimmage toward Beasley. The 5-10 receiver made a diving catch along the back of the end zone and managed to get a knee down in the end zone. The play was originally ruled incomplete, it was overturned.
9. The Kick
Situation: Fourth-and-4 from the Atlanta 24 with :03 left
Play: Brett Maher 42-yard field goal attempt
Taylor’s Take: The Cowboys had blown a 19-9 fourth-quarter lead, but Prescott had driven Dallas from its 25 to the Atlanta 24. The key play was a 19-yard completion to Cole Beasley on a nifty touch pass that moved the ball to the Atlanta 30. Three runs later, Maher drilled a 42-yard field goal as time expired. It was his second game-winning kick of the season and moved the Cowboys to .500
8. The Catch
Situation: Second-and-10 from the Dallas 41 with 1:23 left
Play: Ezekiel Elliott 34-yard catch
Taylor’s Take: Trailing 24-23 in a game they needed to win to avoid a 1-3 start, Elliott motioned into the right slot and ran a fade. Prescott launched a perfect pass and Elliott made a terrific over-the-shoulder catch to the Detroit 25. Three plays later, Brett Maher hit the first game-winning field goal of his NFL career -- a 38-yarder as time expired.
7. Turkey Trot
Situation: Second-and-nine from the Dallas 10 with 2:27 left in the third quarter
Play: Amari Cooper 90-yard touchdown catch
Taylor’s Take: The Cowboys, trying to move above .500 for the first time this season, led Washington 17-13. Cooper ran a deep in and Prescott threw a perfect pass between two defenders. Cooper immediately changed direction and sped the remaining 60 yards for a touchdown, giving the Cowboys a lead they never relinquished.
6. The Tackle
Situation: Third-and-2 from the Dallas 30 with 2:00 left
Play: Leighton VanderEsch open-field tackle
Taylor’s Take: The Cowboys’ defense had allowed consecutive touchdown drives, but Dallas had just taken a 27-20 lead. The Eagles were driving and Carson Wentz hit Corey Clement in the right flat. He had two blockers in front of him, but Vander Esch eluded them and dropped Smallwood for a five-yard loss in a play that seemed destined to go for a lot more.
5. The Replay
Situation: Opening kickoff against Philadelphia Week 14
Play: Jourdan Lewis fumble
Taylor’s Take: In a game that would essentially decide the NFC East title, Lewis fumbled the opening kickoff and Philadelphia appeared to recover the ball. But officials ruled their was no clear recovery even though Philadelphia linebacker Kanu Grugier-Hill, who had labeled the Cowboys chokers earlier in the week, appeared to have the ball. Instead of having an early scoring opportunity, the Eagles fell behind 9-0 in the third quarter before mounting a rally. Dallas won 29-23 in overtime on Amari Cooper’s 15-yard touchdown catch that positioned Dallas to win the NFC East.
4. The Goal Line Stand
Situation: Fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 1 with 10:04 left in the second quarter.
Play: Alvin Kamari stopped for no gain
Taylor’s Take: The Saints had won 11 straight games, and no one expected the Cowboys to beat New Orleans and slow down one of the league’s best offenses. Dallas led 10-0 when Kamara went off left tackle and flounder no room. DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford and Leighton Vander Esch stuffed the play and Dallas wound up holding the Saints to 176 yards in a 13-10 upset win.
3. The Penalty
Situation: Second-and-eight from the Washington 29 with three seconds left
Play: L.P. Ladouceur penalized for illegal procedure
Taylor’s Take: The Cowboys played from behind all day, but rallied from a 20-10 fourth-quarter deficit to position themselves to tie the score. Brett Maher lined up for a 47-yard field goal that would’ve tied the score, but Ladouceur was penalized for moving the ball. Ladouceur said he didn’t do anything differently with the ball then he’d done in his 221-game career. Brett Maher’s field goal hit the left upright and Washington won the game 20-17.
Situation: Fourth-and-1 from the Los Angeles 35 with 15:00 left in the fourth quarter.
Play: Ezekiel Elliott stopped for no gain.
Taylor’s Take: Although the Cowboys had been thoroughly outplayed, they were within a touchdown. They needed a conversion to continue the drive, so Jason Garrett said they called their best running play. Elliott never had a chance on the play, and he was stopped for no gain. Then the Rams drove 65 yards for a touchdown that gave them a 30-15 lead.
1. The Run
Situation: Third-and-14 from the Seattle 17 with 2:33 left
Play: Dak Prescott 16-yard run
Taylor’s Take: The Cowboys were nursing a three-point lead and all a field goal would’ve done was give Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson an opportunity to direct a game-winning drive. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called a quarterback draw and Prescott maneuvered through a labyrinth of defenders in the middle of the field and launched himself toward the end zone from the Seattle 3. He helicoptered into the end zone, but was ruled down at the one. He scored on a quarterback sneak on the next play to secure his first playoff victory, 24-22.