Cowboys not satisfied even as wins come and expectations grow

ARLINGTON, Texas -- As Dak Prescott spoke following Sunday’s 36-28 win against the Carolina Panthers at AT&T Stadium, the fans in the adjoining Miller Lite Club starting pounding on the glass to the interview room and chanting.

Prescott’s smile grew wider as he spoke and the yelling fans, which included a young boy wearing the Dallas Cowboys quarterback’s No. 4 jersey, became louder and louder.

“For it to be a noon game, they’re ready to go,” Prescott joked.

This is what happens when the Cowboys win. Expectations grow. Dreams get wilder. Thoughts of deep playoff runs and the potential of the first Super Bowl trip since 1995 start dancing in the minds of just about everybody who loves the team and maybe those who hate it as well, hoping for an inevitable spill when the games get bigger as the season grows older.

After knocking off the previously undefeated Panthers, so much seems possible.

The Cowboys have an offense that can throw it all over the yard. Think back to the Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Prescott threw for 403 yards and three touchdowns with wide receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb going for more than 100 yards. And they have an offense that can run it through just anybody, too. Look at what running back Ezekiel Elliott did to the Panthers. Entering the game, Carolina allowed 135 yards rushing in their first three games. Elliott had 20 carries for 143 yards and a touchdown.

The Cowboys have a defense that can take the ball away. Look at cornerback Trevon Diggs. With two interceptions of Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold, Diggs leads the NFL with five in four games. He is the first Cowboy in 60 years to have picked off a pass in each of the first four games (Don Bishop, 1961) and the first Cowboy to have five interceptions in the first four games since Chuck Howley in 1968.

The last player to have five picks in the first four games of a season was former New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper.

The defense may allow too many yards, but in the second half Sunday it had four straight stops that saw a 14-13 halftime deficit turn into a 36-14 lead four seconds into the fourth quarter. The unit sacked Darnold five times, led by Randy Gregory’s two.

“We needed to win early this year,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “That was clearly evident coming off of last year [when the Cowboys were 6-10]. We’ve had some adversity. It’s been good to win having this adversity. We have a lot of things we can be better at. That’s the way we’ll approach it. We’ll still evaluate the same way, win or no win. I’m not really big on comparables. It’s not rally fair to this team or teams in the past. I love the vibe of our group. I’ve said that since the spring. Their work ethic is top notch.”

In the past, perhaps the Cowboys would have been consumed by their success.

“We’ve played really well this first month of the season, but the biggest thing I want to see us do is play a complete game,” Elliott said. “We shouldn’t but we get up and I think we kind of let our foot off the gas pedal. I think our next step as a football team is going out there and choking a team out.”

As Elliott spoke, Gregory sat shoeless on the floor of the interview room, not 25 feet from his teammate.

“We played so well for three quarters and I think guys kind of relaxed a little bit. We can’t have that,” said Gregory after the third multiple-sack game of his career. “We have the ability to really shut teams out and finish them out. I think we had the opportunity to do that this week, just like last week, and we didn’t capitalize on that. I think that’s probably the aspect of our game as a whole that we need to get better at.”

In the past, owner and general manager Jerry Jones would more than dip his toes into the hyperbole after a big win or two. Even he was constrained after beating the Panthers.

“This is one by one here,” Jones said before ducking into an elevator.

The Cowboys are 3-1 and only the Arizona Cardinals have a better record in the NFC. Dallas leads the NFC East, but McCarthy won’t consider his team at the quarter mark until after next week’s visit from the New York Giants. History tells him the Cowboys have a lot of work to do.

His players know that as well.

“What we talk about as a group and as a unit is creating that winning culture,” Prescott said. “As I'm pretty sure that coach McCarthy hit time and time again with y'all. I know y'all saw it in 'Hard Knocks,' but we want to be the best. We want to win. And we want to win late in the year. And we want to go play in the last game [Super Bowl LVI] out in California. So we got to continue to build on this culture week in and week out no matter what situation we're in in the game."

As he walked off the stage toward the locker room, Prescott acknowledged the fans, asking them to get louder.