The Dallas Cowboys did it the hard way.
Yes, by Thursday night’s end, they had beaten the Tennessee Titans 27-13 to improve to 12-4 and keep their NFC East title hopes alive at least three more days.
But the Cowboys know: The recipe they rode to this victory will not carry them in the playoffs.
Three first-half turnovers kept this game dangerously close. For those who appreciate diversity, the turnover scenarios indeed offered some.
Cowboys center Tyler Biadasz snapped a first-quarter ball that never reached quarterback Dak Prescott’s hand, and the Titans recovered the fumble. Prescott later threw a 14-yard pass to tight end Peyton Hendershot that was in the rookie’s grasp before it bobbled out yet again — a worrying trend for the Cowboys — bouncing into the hands of All-Pro safety Kevin Byard for an interception that represented turnover No. 2.
And Byard wasn't done, eager to handle the ball again. He jumped a risky pass that Prescott intended for tight end Dalton Schultz but admittedly threw into traffic with 21 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Suddenly, rather than the Cowboys positioning themselves for a field goal to extend their 10-3 lead before halftime, Tennessee was driving and kicking to cut it to 10-6.
“Trying to force a throw right there I shouldn’t make,” Prescott told the Amazon postgame show. “The flat defender that was playing Zeke was starting to fall off and I couldn’t lead him like I wanted to. Just got to move on from that throw to Zeke and throw it out of bounds.
“Live and learn.”
Despite the Titans resting several starters and starting a quarterback signed just eight days prior, the Cowboys led by just 4 points at the half.
Joshua Dobbs, Titans' QB solution?
Credit that Titans quarterback, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2017 fourth-round pick Joshua Dobbs, with keeping Tennessee competitive.
Dobbs was poised throughout the game, his first NFL start and first regular-season action since 2020. Dobbs often neutralized the Cowboys' pass rush with quick releases and pocket movement as he completed 20-of-39 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown. Some of those incompletions were dropped by his receivers.
Perhaps Dobbs' most explosive stretch came in the second quarter. Drives resulting in two field goals and a fumble didn’t reflect the potential he showed. That period alone, Dobbs completed three passes of 30-plus yards, each to a different teammate.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity that I really embraced and had a lot of fun with,” Dobbs said. “There are definitely things (that) I can be better in, especially situationally. … But I thought how we fought throughout the game, I mean, shoot, we’re throwing routes we haven’t even thrown in practice with it being a short week.”
Titans QB Josh Dobbs equated first start in 6 NFL seasons to Algebra class. Test every Friday.
"You prepare, you do all the homework on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. You go through the process, do the extra work, go to after-hours. Then Friday comes& you just don't take the test."
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) December 30, 2022
Dobbs found running back Julius Chestnut in the backfield on a savvy screen pass that Chestnut powered to a 33-yard gain before the Cowboys caught up.
Dobbs sailed a 39-yard completion downfield to wide receiver Racey McMath, a later strip-sack quashing the drive but not erasing the reality that Dobbs dropped the pass into the hands of a receiver sandwiched between two Cowboys defenders.
And a 30-yard ball to receiver Treylon Burks? Dobbs found the receiver 11 air yards down the right sideline and led him to allow Burks to rack up further yardage.
So while Dobbs’ stat line would ultimately include a lost fumble on a second-quarter strip sack as well as a fourth-quarter interception on which the Cowboys failed to capitalize, Dobbs mounted a compelling case for the Titans' lineup in next week’s AFC South title game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Third-round rookie quarterback Malik Willis had failed to reach 100 passing yards or throw a single touchdown in any of his three starts. Dobbs more than doubled that mark even without the complement of three-time Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry, who missed Thursday's game due to a hip injury.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel was surprisingly tepid in his praise for Dobbs, saying he “did some good things but not well enough.” The Titans coach did acknowledge he felt “offensively, I thought we got into a rhythm. We kept competing.” But he wouldn’t bite on any of several questions about Dobbs’ edge over Willis nor the expectations he exceeded. Vrabel did lament Tennessee’s 10 penalties for 124 negative yards.
Allow Amazon play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, albeit before Dobbs’ interception, to speak more openly.
“I think there’s one question he’s ultimately answered,” Michaels said of Dobbs with 2:32 to play in the second quarter. “Who starts next week in Jacksonville.”
What went right for the Cowboys
There were brighter spots for a Dallas team that was favored by 13 points and won by 14. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence thoroughly busted the Titans’ first drive, hustling for a batted pass, a run stuff and a downfield tackle. The Cowboys nabbed two takeaways for their fifth-straight multi-takeaway game, an opportunism that helps dull the impact of some busted coverages and an increasingly injured secondary.
And most of the night, Prescott was sharp. He completed 70.7% of his passes, his connection with Pro Bowl slot receiver CeeDee Lamb humming to the rhythm of 11-of-14 completions for 100 yards while December addition T.Y. Hilton caught four more passes for 50 yards in his second Cowboys game.
Even Prescott’s chemistry with tight ends improved over the evening. Both first-half interceptions had come on targets to the group, one of which was the bizarre but increasingly common bounce that has repeatedly and almost unbelievably plagued Prescott and his receiving group.
This became a Titans interception pic.twitter.com/PLYkuqvq7e
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) December 30, 2022
But in the second half, Prescott found Schultz for not one but two touchdowns. The first around the left side was executed smoothly enough to make it look easier than it no doubt was. The second came on a play in which Lamb, per Schultz, was actually the intended read. But Prescott liked his chances on a 10-yard, back-shoulder fade to Schultz. The beautiful throw had just a 26.8% completion probability, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Schultz secured the airborne catch with just 0.7 yards of separation from the nearest defender.
— NFL (@NFL) December 30, 2022
Dallas iced its victory with Brett Maher’s second field goal of the night, the kicker’s 137 points this season now leading all NFL players.
The Cowboys escaped again. But could they, against better competition?
What’s next for Dallas
If the Philadelphia Eagles win Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, the Cowboys’ seeding is locked in — they would be the fifth seed, on track to travel to a wild-card matchup against the NFC South champion.
The Cowboys seem far more talented than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Carolina Panthers team they’re most likely to face.
But if they repeat a performance like Thursday night’s, they shouldn’t feel overconfident. One could debate whether to blame the botched snap on the quarterback or center, whether Prescott could have helped Hendershot any more than he did on the first interception.
But regardless which player is “most” responsible, the Cowboys’ collective offensive unit must acknowledge: They have not played a turnover-free contest since Nov. 20.
Opponents will capitalize on this unbecoming trend if the Cowboys can’t self-correct. Prescott declined to discuss the playoff pressure specifically on Thursday night, saying he wanted to lock in on the moment and the next obstacle. But he also didn’t shy away from the high-expectations reality. Surrounded by screaming fans late Thursday night, he embraced it.
“I have the highest expectations for myself, more than any of these guys or these fans out here,” he said. “This fanbase, they have similar expectations. So that just allows you to never get complacent, to raise your expectations. When you’re playing proud, tough football for an organization, you’re as good as your last game.
“So you’ve got to show up each and every game and prove it. I think that makes me better.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein