Each NFL game is made up of about 125 to 135 plays, usually the ones that get all of the attention are the headline-grabbing touchdowns or game-deciding plays in the last few minutes, but what about all of the crucial plays that led up to those moments? What about the overlooked plays that had a significant bearing on the direction of the game but are usually forgotten in favor of flashy highlights? Here is a look at five plays that may get lost in the wash, but ultimately were critical in shaping the Cowboys 31-26 victory over the Redskins.
Play: Holding Penalty on Ty Nsekhe, Nullifying an Incomplete Pass
Situation: Second and 13 from the Dallas 22
Score: Dallas leads 7-0
Time: 6:08 remaining in the first quarter
Impact: Instead of accepting the result of the play and looking to get off the field on a third and 13 Jason Garrett decided to accept the penalty in an attempt to push the Redskins out of field goal range. On the next two plays the Redskins would gain seven yards, setting up a 43-yard field goal attempt from the Dallas 25. It stands to reason that the Redskins would’ve gained at least a few yards on a third and 13, similar to the meager gains on second and 23 and third and 17 on the two plays that followed the holding penalty. Kicker Dustin Hopkins narrowly missed the field goal attempt, and it’s very possible that the 5 or 6 yard difference thanks to accepting the holding penalty made the difference. This sequence of events set the tone for the first three quarters where the Redskins moved the ball but failed to capitalize with touchdowns.
Play: Incomplete Pass to Jordan Reed
Situation: Third and goal from the Dallas 6
Score: Dallas leads 7-0
Time: 14:16 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: This was one of the rare times where the Cowboys defensive line was able to get quick pressure on Kirk Cousins, as Tyrone Crawford forced Cousins out of the pocket where he is far less accurate and efficient. He attempted to find a leaping Reed in the back of the end zone but it was a very low percentage attempt that fell incomplete. This set the stage for a day where it felt the Redskins were consistently chasing points after missing field goals and failing to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. This pursuit of missed chances likely led to over-aggressive play-calling, such as the first onside kick and the 55-yard field goal attempt that set the Cowboys offense up with excellent field position.
Play: Ezekiel Elliott 21-Yard Run
Situation: First and 10 from the Dallas 25
Score: Dallas leads 17-12
Time: 14:54 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: After having the ball only once in the third quarter the Cowboys offense had to respond after the Redskins had taken some of the momentum as they finally converted a red-zone opportunity into a touchdown. The Redskins had done a nice job of bottling up Elliott after he gained nearly 50 yards on the first drive of the game, although that didn’t stop the Cowboys here from going to him on the first play of a critical drive. Elliott and the offensive line responded with one of his biggest gains of the day, immediately giving the offense rhythm and momentum. On the next play Elliott took a dump-off from Dak Prescott for 19 and the Cowboys were suddenly in field goal range after just two plays. Five plays later Prescott capped the drive off with a touchdown run, pushing the lead back to double digits.
Play: Onside Kick Recovered by Damien Wilson
Situation: Redskins Kick-Off
Score: Cowboys lead 24-19
Time: 9:22 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: After cutting the lead to five the Redskins apparently had little faith in their defense’s ability to stop the Cowboys offense. They attempted to catch the Cowboys special teams unit sleeping, and it nearly worked as the ball bounced directly towards Gavin Escobar who was passively waiting for the ball and didn’t look particularly interested in diving head-first into several oncoming Redskins sprinting at full speed. Wilson did a great job of cutting in front of Escobar, attacking the ball and cleanly coming through with the recovery despite being surrounded by Redskins. This set the Cowboys offense up near midfield and eight plays later the drive was capped off with a touchdown run by Elliott.
Play: Dak Prescott 7-Yard Rush
Situation: Third and 7 from the 50
Score: Dallas leads 24-19
Time: 8:37 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: This was arguably the biggest play of the game as the Redskins offense clearly had momentum on their side after cutting the lead to just five. After two Redskins touchdowns in a row you felt the offense needed at least a field goal here as they were faced with a third and long on the very first set of downs of the drive. Prescott did a great job here of feeling the rush and making a quick decision to run once he saw open space. He easily got the first down, and to add insult to injury the Redskins were called for a personal foul penalty as a defender dove head-first into a sliding Prescott, setting the Cowboys up inside the Redskins 30. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the absolutely fantastic play that Prescott made on a third and 9 just a few plays later where he found Dez Bryant all the way down to the one, I just didn’t include it here because the Cowboys would’ve had a first down regardless of the outcome of that play thanks to a defensive holding penalty that was ultimately declined. This conversion wouldn’t have happened without Prescott’s ability to feel the pocket closing around him and find open space to run for the first.