INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- With just over 8 minutes remaining in the third quarter Sunday afternoon in SoFi Stadium, the Cowboys faced a fourth-and-5 from the Rams' 22-yard line. Every fiber in coach Mike McCarthy's body was twitching for him to go for it, the result of spending decades on the offensive side of the ball. In fact, if a staff member had told him to be aggressive, he might have done so. The urge was that strong.
But reason and discipline prevailed. With only a 6-point lead and a backup at quarterback, McCarthy chose to play to his team's strength, to the defense. He knew a field goal would make it a two-score game, and on this day, a 9-point lead was as good as a 28-point advantage, considering how Micah Parsons, Demarcus Lawrence and other defenders had hog-tied the Los Angeles offense.
So he sent out Brett Maher for a 40-yard field goal that was icing on Dallas' 22-10 victory before a partisan Cowboys crowd. The performance wasn't sexy or dramatic, but it was numbingly sound, which in many ways describes Dallas' four consecutive wins after a season-opening defeat against Tampa Bay.
The Cowboys, as they have done all season, leaned on a defense that has not allowed more than 19 points in any game -- opponents have scored just five touchdowns ... total -- and got another mistake-free performance from Cooper Rush, who has been a revelation while subbing for the injured Dak Prescott.
The former undrafted quarterback from Central Michigan University has been just what Dallas needed, steady though unspectacular. He has thrown for 4 touchdowns the past 4 games with no turnovers, prompting some to wonder aloud if he should keep the starting job even after Prescott is ready to return, which could be this coming weekend against the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles.
Rush has been good, no question. He has done what has been asked of him. But at some point, the Cowboys are going to play a quality opponent who will require them to score 31 points or more to win a game. Rush is not that guy. Nothing in his history says he is that guy.
The Cowboys have not scored more than 25 points in any of his five career starts, and he has never thrown for more than two touchdowns in a game. That's not to say you can't win with him; obviously, to this point, he has shown you can. But you cannot win in the same way you can with Prescott, who has guided an offense that ranked in the top six in scoring two of the previous three seasons, including No. 1 last year. Dallas entered Sunday ranked 27th in scoring with Rush at the controls for all but one game.
Only those who see trees instead of forests believe this is a topic worth discussion. Full disclosure, when asked to write about it, I agreed only if allowed to highlight the ridiculousness of the suggestion. And before you tell me that owner Jerry Jones was the one who fanned the flames a few weeks ago when he said he welcomed the debate, let me stop you.
Jones loves a good circus. He loves publicity. He loves people talking about him and the Cowboys. So he knew what he was doing at the time. So did his head coach and players.
McCarthy immediately phoned Prescott after to calm any potential turbulence. In essence, he told him that he was his guy. Prescott hadn't heard the owner's comments, but he assured McCarthy that no assurances were necessary. Everyone understood what was going on.
Don't believe it? Listen to Jones on Sunday when I asked him categorically if Prescott is the starter when healthy?
"Dak is the No. 1 quarterback," he said. "Dak is our guy."
I'm not the only one who believes it is disrespectful to even consider the question of whether there should be a debate. Running back Ezekiel Elliott didn't run from the topic when I asked him about it.
"We're the Cowboys, we're used to the disrespect," he said. "People always got something to say about us. But, I mean, f--- 'em. All we care about is what's in this locker room and what's in our building. We don't really care about the outside noise."
The truth is that the Cowboys have not asked a lot of Rush, which is no disrespect to him. It's a sign of smart coaching to play to a team's strength. For instance, the Cowboys had run 36 offensive plays through three quarters; 23 of them were rushes. Rush attempted only 16 passes overall, completing 10 for 102 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
The physical difference in his game and that of Prescott could be seen early in the fourth quarter, when Rush attempted to throw back-to-back deep digs along the sideline. The first one was off target and the second took so long to get there that defensive back Grant Haley had time to close and break it up.
They were throws that Prescott has the arm talent to make. They are the type of plays that extend drives and contribute to points, that provide breathing room or turn a tight game into a laugher. Jones said afterward that Prescott is expected to throw a lot this week in practice; the biggest factor that will determine whether he plays against the Eagles is his ability to grip the football for a full four quarters.
"Dak is going to get better this week," Jones said. "I have no idea whether he will line up against Philadelphia or not, but he'll get better."
It's hard to imagine the Dallas defense getting much better. It entered Week 5 ranked seventh in yards allowed, sixth against the pass, and tied for second in sacks. It was tied for eighth in third-down percentage and tied for fifth in red-zone efficiency. Oh, it also was third in points allowed, surrendering just 15.5 a game.
The beauty of the unit is that it has talent at every level, and players who can fill specific roles. Start with the front, which on the opening series Sunday featured a Dorance Armstrong sack and forced fumble that was returned 19 yards by Lawrence for a touchdown.
At linebacker, Parsons remains a strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year, recording two sacks, a forced fumble, three quarterback hits and a tackle for loss. His spectacular play often overshadows -- but does not minimize -- the contributions of Leighton Vander Esch, who is having a career resurgence, and Anthony Barr, who is a valuable role player.
In the secondary, Trevon Diggs continues to be a ballhawk, though he was victimized twice on Sunday, surrounding a 54-yard completion on a beautifully placed deep ball from Matthew Stafford to Tutu Atwell to set up a field goal, then giving up a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown to Cooper Kupp midway through the second quarter, as the Rams took their only lead at 10-9.
Outside of those two plays, it was a rough day for Los Angeles, which has lost two in a row while falling to 2-3. One week after yielding seven sacks to the 49ers, it surrendered five more to Dallas while losing another offensive lineman to injury. Guard David Edwards, who sat out the previous week's game while in concussion protocol, left the game to be evaluated for a concussion after colliding with Stafford and Lawrence early in the fourth quarter.
Sunday marked the third time this year the Rams failed to score more than 10 points in a game -- which might not be as significant if they could limit their opponents' scoring. But they have now allowed 22 points or more in all but one game, including 27 or more in two. The good news is that they get the struggling Panthers this coming weekend and a bye the following week.
Whether they can right themselves remains to be seen. The questions facing the Cowboys are much different. They revolve around just how good Dallas really is, and how far it can really go. Time will tell, but this much is certain: The quarterback leading them there will be Prescott, not Rush, which is how it should be.