ARLINGTON, Texas — Micah Parsons likes motivational speeches and he really likes animals.
So permit the Cowboys star rookie, who often compares himself to a lion, to explain his team’s weekend through that lens.
“We’re not alligators who get paralyzed after we eat,” Parsons said after the Cowboys’ 56-14 win over Washington at AT&T Stadium. “We’re just showing that we’re staying hungry.”
The Cowboys kicked off vs. Washington at 8:20 p.m. ET with two fates assured: a playoff berth and their division title.
NEVER MISS A SNAP:Follow our NFL newsletter for exclusive content
NFL WINNERS, LOSERS:Josh Allen’s Bills on track to win AFC East, WFT embarrassed by Cowboys.
Now what? Well, plenty. Their first drive showed promise, wide receiver Amari Cooper catching a 7-yard pass on the first snap and quarterback Dak Prescott sneaking for 4 yards on a third-and-1 shortly after. Two glimpses of hope after Cooper had conceded frustration with limited opportunities in recent weeks and Prescott’s mobility had oscillated during a rocky offensive stretch. But then Washington sacked Prescott on consecutive snaps. Cooper dropped a lateral attempt on third-and-16. The Cowboys punted.
Or was it?
On Washington’s first snap, quarterback Taylor Heinicke dropped back and sailed a ball 50 yards down the right sideline. Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs tracked the ball with more precision than Washington receiver Terry McLaurin. Diggs hauled in his team record-tying 11th interception of the season. He thought to himself: “Wow, they really just did that.” Diggs said he was “in his feelings” after Washington tempted him.
“The message was clear and vivid,” safety Jayron Kearse said. “‘We’re not coming to play (around). We’re not coming to play.’ If that’s what you want to do, put the ball in the air, we’re going to take the ball. It’s just that simple.
“It was mind-boggling for me. Of all people, you test him.”
The Cowboys would ace all three phases for the remaining 56 minutes of play. Complementary football, they say. Before long, Dallas had its 11th win and fourth straight.
The Cowboys’ offense turned their Diggs-gifted possession into a touchdown. Prescott sliced up Washington’s defense methodically, completing passes to Cooper, tight end Dalton Schultz and ultimately running back Ezekiel Elliott on Dallas’ first touchdown. Prescott scrambled again on the nine-play, 71-yard drive, threatening with his arm and legs. After a month of red-zone inefficiency, Prescott found a wide-open Elliott cutting right for a 5-yard touchdown around the right side.
“Give credit to Kellen on those, dialing all those up at the right time,” Prescott said. “Great play calls at the right time, knowing what the defense is doing. Made my job easy getting the ball to the open guy.”
Prescott was called on again.
Washington’s second drive lasted longer than in its initial interception-and-out series, but not by much. The Football Team managed one first down before punting. The Cowboys subsequently engineered another eight-play, 74-yard drive. Receiver CeeDee Lamb, a week after describing his three-drop game as “terrible,” caught consecutive passes for 14 and 22 yards in traffic. Prescott sold the handoff before rolling out to nail Schultz for this score.
But arguably the most spectacular of the Cowboys’ three first-quarter scores came via defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence dropped back in coverage, tipped Heinicke’s pass up the middle, secured an interception and stiff-armed a defender as he high-stepped his way 40 yards to the end zone. The 2014 second-round draft selection scored his first pick-six.
“I don’t know how I made it to the endzone,” Lawrence said. “I got to show the young boys I still got it.”
The rout continued for three more quarters until the Cowboys had exacted their biggest beatdown of Washington, the 44-point victory edging out a 35-point win in 1993. Dallas’ 56 points were the most a Cowboys team had amassed since 1980, their 42 first-half points tying a 1969 game for most in team history. The records continued, but Cowboys players were focused less on how they stacked up to the past and more on what their performance means for their immediate future.
“We showed ourselves that we can play a complete game,” Lawrence said.
The complete game featured a bevy of highlight reels. Lawrence was one of two defensive linemen to reach the end zone, rookie defensive end Chauncey Golston snatching a blocked punt for a score halfway through the third quarter. The Cowboys also piled points on touchdowns from Cooper, receiver Malik Turner (Turner’s 61-yard weaving reception that nearly netted a loss was perhaps even more impressive than his score), Elliott again on the ground and offensive tackle Terence Steele.
Steele was, Prescott confirmed, the first read on the touchdown play. Prescott became the first NFL quarterback in the regular season, the team said, to throw touchdown passes to a receiver, running back, tight end and offensive lineman in the same game.
The Cowboys’ 6-of-6 red-zone performance Sunday was a far cry from their previous 4-of-13 December mark.
Cooper, who caught seven passes for a game-high 85 yards, credited Dallas’ up-tempo play style as key to outlasting Washington.
“They were really tired,” Cooper said. “Two weeks ago when we played them, one of their D-lineman said to me, ‘Y’all slow this thing down.’ I think it really affected them.”
The Cowboys’ offense had entered the weekend No. 1 in production and No. 2 in scoring but Prescott “would agree I wasn’t playing my best ball” during the last two months in which their defense powered wins. Prescott’s completion percentage since injuring his calf in Week 6 had fallen to 64.9%, passing for 255 yards per game while throwing nine touchdowns to six interceptions in that stretch. On Sunday, Prescott completed 72% of passes (28-of-39) for 330 yards and four touchdowns to zero interceptions, also rushing four times for 21 yards before the Cowboys rested him the final quarter of the game.
Is Prescott out of his slump?
“You tell me, I never said we were in a slump,” Prescott said late Sunday. “I think it’d be hard for you to say that now.”
At 11-4, the Cowboys welcome two more chances to secure their NFC seed (they currently sit at No. 2) and crescendo toward the complementary football of which head coach Mike McCarthy believes this team is capable.
The Cowboys’ offense had shown early in this season its talent. Their defense, under coordinator Dan Quinn, had wreaked havoc of late. And special teams had quietly but steadily cut down on penalties and enhanced positive plays. The Cowboys strung all three together in an indication of their postseason potential Sunday before an announced crowd of 93,482. All three phases now pose a threat, echoing the message plastered atop the metallic sweatshirt Parsons wore postgame. “WARNING,” it read. “THIS IS NOT A SAFE PLACE.”
The Cowboys, NFL teams were reminded Sunday, are not a safe opponent to face.
“They kicked our ass,” Heinicke said, “in all three phases of the game.”
NFC East Champions hats and T-shirts dotted the team locker room, players posing for pictures with their newly earned swag.
But work awaits.
“We accomplished one of our goals. Now it’s time to put this behind us and start moving on towards our next goal,” Lawrence said. “Win in the playoffs. Make it to the Super Bowl. Win the Super Bowl.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein