The Cowboys and Titans entered Monday night at desperation’s door. With both coming out of their bye at 3-4, Dallas and Tennessee could aptly be described as “not quite out of it … but getting close.” The wide-open NFC East, currently led by the 5-3 Redskins, has kept Dallas in the hunt while the Titans trail only the surging Texans in the AFC South. Though hardly ideal, 3-4 is a hole you can dig out of. On the other hand, 3-5 is considerably more daunting and that threat gave both teams a heightened sense of urgency heading into Monday night’s madness in Big D.
In the end, Tennessee played with a little more fire in its belly, dealing the Cowboys a 28-14 loss at Jerry’s World. The Titans, who evened their record at 4-4 with Monday night’s triumph, couldn’t have done it without the help of Marcus Mariota, who blasted Dallas for 240 yards and two touchdowns on efficient 21-of-29 passing (72.4 percent). For good measure, the Titans signal-caller added another 32 yards on the ground while contributing his second rushing touchdown of 2018.
It was a powerhouse performance by Mariota, who overcame a rough start to deliver one of his best outings of the year. The 25-year-old (he celebrated his birthday last week) began the night in an utter fog with turnovers on each of his first two possessions (both were lost fumbles) but quickly snapped out of it, slinging touchdown darts to Dion Lewis and Jonnu Smith before icing the game with a fourth-quarter rushing score. Smith’s touchdown was a wonderful piece of trickery with Mariota hitting him on a slick shovel pass after getting Dallas to bite on a fake handoff to Dion Lewis.
Speaking of Lewis, the former Patriot had his fingerprints all over Monday night’s win, leading the Titans in both rushing and receiving yards while out-touching backfield-mate Derrick Henry by a convincing 23-8 margin. That’s two strong outings in a row for Lewis, who has supplied 277 yards from scrimmage (153 rushing, 124 receiving) on 42 touches during that span.
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As for Mariota, Monday may have been the healthiest he’s looked all season. A pinched elbow nerve has affected Mariota’s grip throughout the year, but if the injury bothered him at all on Monday night, he sure didn’t show it. After his early turnovers, the former Heisman Trophy winner took the momentum back from Dallas by leading an exhausting 15-play, 80-yard scoring drive spanning nearly nine minutes of game clock. Henry capped it off by hammering home a goal-line touchdown, knotting the game at seven with 9:35 to play in the second quarter.
Not to be outdone, Mariota orchestrated another scoring sequence on the next possession, masterminding a seven-play, 69-yard touchdown drive with time winding down in the first half. Lewis put the scoreboard operators to work with his end-zone cameo, but without Mariota’s 36-yard laser to Darius Jennings, the drive would have died on the operating table. The completion to Jennings was a masterpiece in execution as Mariota made poetry with his right arm by seamlessly fitting the ball between three defenders. Injuries and the absence of go-to target Delanie Walker have been difficult hurdles for Mariota to leap. But against the Cowboys, the quarterback stood tall, surviving an avalanche of early mistakes to claim a much-needed victory for the Titans, who were able to put the brakes on a three-game losing skid. It was Mariota’s dual-threat skill set that made him such an appealing prospect coming out of Oregon and many of those same traits were on display Monday night in Dallas.
Obviously, the Cowboys were hoping for better results after having the bye week to recalibrate their broken offense. Dak Prescott did get off to an encouraging start, threading the needle to newcomer Amari Cooper for the game’s first touchdown. Cooper dusted Malcolm Butler on the play, beating him to the outside after faking a slant route. Butler conceded another big play later on, losing Allen Hurns on a walk-in, 23-yard touchdown. The 28-year-old joined the Titans after putting pen to paper on a monster five-year, $61 million free agent contract this offseason, but he’s yet to deliver on that promise. So far Butler has allowed a league-high seven touchdowns while earning PFF’s No. 103 grade out of 111 qualifiers at cornerback. Bill Belichick drew plenty of heat for benching Butler in last year’s Super Bowl but now that we’re seeing the former Patriot come apart at the seams, maybe Emperor Bill was right to doubt him.
After having the bye week to absorb the team’s playbook, Cooper played a full complement of snaps in his Dallas debut (50-of-59), while leading the team with eight targets. His insertion into the lineup came at the expense of Cole Beasley, who finished with a disappointing 3-16-0 receiving line and wasn’t even targeted until the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys shuffled the deck by firing OL coach Paul Alexander and replacing him with Marc Colombo during the bye week. That move did not pay immediate dividends as the Cowboys’ line took another beating at the hands of Tennessee, yielding five sacks in the defeat while struggling to create running lanes for bell-cow Ezekiel Elliott (17 carries for 61 yards). Meanwhile Prescott offset his two touchdown throws by committing a pair of costly turnovers including an ill-advised red-zone interception (Kevin Byard paid homage to Terrell Owens’ famous celebration by running it back to the star at midfield).
Most kickers thrive indoors but that wasn’t the case Monday night as Ryan Succop and Brett Maher both had tough games on the kicking front. Maher came up empty on his lone field goal try—a 38-yarder on the Cowboys’ opening drive—while Succop clanked a 28-yarder off the uprights. That was a rare miss for Succop, who had converted 55 straight attempts from inside of 40 yards prior to Monday’s slip-up. Both teams will have their work cut out for them in Week 10 with Tennessee hosting New England and the Cowboys heading to Philadelphia for a Sunday night date with the reigning Super Bowl Champs.
Quick Hits: Dez Bryant has yet to resurface since his release from Dallas, though the three-time Pro Bowler has a workout scheduled with the Saints on Tuesday. The Ex-Cowboy turned 30 on Sunday … Sony Michel is on track to return this week after missing New England’s last two games with a knee injury. Michel has rushed for 422 yards this season, fourth-most among rookies … Le’Veon Bell tweeted a farewell message to the city of Miami, where he has been residing throughout his holdout. The running back has until November 13 to sign his franchise tender … Chris Johnson has decided to hang up his cleats, retiring after 11 seasons spent with the Titans, Jets and Cardinals. Johnson’s crowning achievement came in 2009 when he rushed for 2,006 yards, the sixth-highest single-season total in NFL history … Hunter Henry was expected to miss all of 2018 after tearing his ACL in minicamp, but now there’s a chance he could be back for the final month of the regular season, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The Chargers tight end has had no setbacks in his recovery and recently resumed running and squatting … In a predictable move, the Chargers pulled the plug on struggling kicker Caleb Sturgis, replacing him with practice-squadder Mike Badgley. Sturgis sealed his fate by missing a field goal and two extra points Sunday against Seattle … A.J. Green will avoid surgery on his injured toe but is still expected to miss at least two games. On a more positive note for the Bengals, Giovani Bernard and John Ross both returned to practice on Monday. Bernard has been bothered by a sprained MCL while Ross is working back from a groin injury … Cincinnati is the latest team to wash its hands of Christian Hackenberg, who was let go following an uneventful stretch on the Bengals’ practice squad. The 2016 second-rounder has yet to play an NFL down … Seahawks coach Pete Carroll doesn’t expect Chris Carson to “do much” at practice this week. Carson lasted only 10 snaps Sunday against the Chargers before exiting with thigh and hip injuries … Despite his recent struggles, the Ravens will stick with Joe Flacco at quarterback when they return from their Week 10 bye. Former Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson will continue to hold the clipboard for Flacco, who has posted an underwhelming 77.3 quarterback rating during Baltimore’s current three-game losing streak … Leonard Fournette took part in individual drills during Monday’s practice. Hamstring woes have limited the second-year back to 45 offensive snaps this season … Geronimo Allison could be headed for season-ending core surgery. With Allison sidelined, Packers rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling will continue to work in two-wide sets opposite Davante Adams … Bruce Arians said he would consider coming out of retirement to coach Cleveland. Arians has history with the Browns, having served as their offensive coordinator from 2001-03. Vikings OC John DeFilippo, Packers coach Mike McCarthy, Patriots OC Josh McDaniels and Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley have also been mentioned as possible replacements for Hue Jackson, who was let go last week … The Lions brought Brandon Marshall in for a workout on Monday. The veteran spent time with Seattle earlier this year, delivering 11 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown on 23 targets. Marshall’s next team will be his seventh since arriving as a fourth-round pick in 2006 … Paul Richardson has been placed on injured reserve and will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. He’ll be joined on I.R. by Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff, who needs surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle … Keke Coutee has missed Houston’s last two games and plans to continue sitting until his hamstring is back to 100 percent. Injuries have limited the rookie to four games this year … D’Onta Foreman was expected to resume practicing this week, though Texans coach Bill O’Brien remains unsure of his timetable. The running back hasn’t played since suffering a torn Achilles late last season … Charles Clay came out of Week 9 with a hamstring injury, which could affect his availability for Sunday’s game against the Jets. The veteran tight end hasn’t caught a touchdown since Week 3 of last season.