The Dallas Cowboys opened Sunday by kicking the football out of bounds.
They ended by essentially kicking the Rams out of the playoffs.
Such is the up-and-down nature of America’s Team, whose season has lurched in unpredictable directions from week to week, or even play to play.
And then came Sunday, when the Cowboys finally put together a complete game, making good on the robust potential of their roster and decisively crushing the postseason hopes of the rising Rams.
“That’s just what the doctor ordered to get you out of whatever you’re in,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.
“We saw a lot of pride out there tonight, and hopefully we’ll see that as we go forward into our second season here.”
There’s plenty of work remaining. The Cowboys can clinch the NFC East by winning Sunday at Philadelphia, a struggling team Dallas beat by 27 earlier this season.
The Rams, meanwhile, face astronomical odds of reaching the playoffs for a third consecutive season under coach Sean McVay. They would need to win their final two games, at San Francisco and home against Arizona, and have Minnesota finish 0-2 in home games against Green Bay and Chicago. The Vikings have yet to lose at home this season.
This could be a tease by the Cowboys. They’re perfectly capable of imploding. Or they could be getting hot at precisely the right time, which is not uncommon. The New York Giants beat New England in the Super Bowl twice that way, getting on a roll after Thanksgiving when their coach was all but fired. And Philadelphia won the Super Bowl two years ago after the Eagles lost quarterback Carson Wentz, and backup Nick Foles directed an unlikely march to the Lombardi Trophy.
While it’s wildly premature to suggest the Cowboys are on their way to a special season, it’s worth noting they have the capability to do serious damage. They came into the game Sunday with the league’s No. 1 offense and No. 9 defense, but precious little to show for it. They were like an IKEA dresser with no instructions; all the pieces are there, but they had no idea how to put it together.
“When I see a team that can take it on the chin the way this team has, then turn around and have a game like today against a team like the Rams, it shows me that it’s there,” Jones said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve seen these guys individually, and I’ve seen them as a team really handle adversity.”
The Rams, and their star running back in particular, had been a problem for the Cowboys. Todd Gurley had 215 yards from scrimmage in a 35-30 victory here two years ago, an early indication that the Rams were a reborn franchise under McVay. And at the Coliseum in the NFC divisional playoff round last season, Gurley ran for 115 yards in a 30-22 win over the Cowboys — his last (positively) impactful performance of the season.
On Sunday, the Rams could neither run nor stop the run. Gurley gained 20 yards in 11 carries, whereas his Cowboys counterparts Tony Pollard (131 yards, one touchdown) and Ezekiel Elliott (117 yards, two touchdowns) had monster days.
“We know what type of men we have in this room,” Elliott said. “We know how good our offensive line is. We’re pros just like them. So when we go out there and handle our business, when we go out there and execute, we’re hard to stop.”
It doesn’t help the Rams’ cause when Cowboys tight end Jason Witten makes a one-handed catch for a touchdown as effortlessly as plucking a Nerf ball out of the air, or when Tavon Austin is absurdly wide open on a 59-yard score because two Rams defenders crashed into each other Keystone Kops-style.
It wasn’t just a loss for the Rams, but a humiliating one, on par with the lopsided defeats at the hands of San Francisco and Baltimore. The game got so ugly, most of the Cowboys fans at AT&T Stadium already had left as the final few minutes ticked away.
Not so long ago, Jones helped lead the Rams back to Los Angeles. Now, in all likelihood, his team has sent them home for good.