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 35-10 victory over the Browns.
Play: Incompletion to Andrew Hawkins
Situation: Third and 8 from the Cowboys 13
Score: Tied 0-0
Time: 12:55 remaining in the first quarter
Impact: After quickly moving down the field on their first drive, primarily thanks to something of a trick play that resulted in a 44-yard reception to Isaiah Crowell, the Browns faced a third down in the red zone. Cody Kessler did a nice job of avoiding the rush, buying time, and finding Hawkins with some space along the far side of the end zone. The ball hit Hawkins right in the hands, although as he went to his knees in an attempt to make the catch he let what should have been a mostly routine reception bounce off his hands and fall incomplete. The Browns settled for a field goal and on the next drive the Cowboys offense marched down the field for a touchdown, grabbing a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Play: Incompletion to Terrelle Pryor
Situation: Third and 2 from the Cowboys 23
Score: Cowboys lead 7-3
Time: 15:00 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: The Browns had again driven deep into Dallas territory and were set up with a very favorable 3rd and 2 on the edge of the red zone. Instead of running the ball or looking short for the first down, Kessler opted to take a deep shot to a well-covered Pryor deep down the sideline in the end zone. It was a very low percentage play, and you have to give Brandon Carr credit for having great coverage here and forcing a physical receiver in Pryor so close to the sideline that even if he had caught the ball he would’ve been out of bounds. The Browns settled for a 41-yard field goal attempt that bounced off the upright. This was a drive where the Browns could’ve potentially taken the lead, instead they failed to get points and on the next Cowboys drive they would push the lead to 14-3. The Browns would never get within single digits again.
Play: Jason Witten 10-Yard Reception
Situation: Third and 6 from the Browns 20
Score: Cowboys lead 7-3
Time: 10:48 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: The Cowboys were excellent on third down all day and this was yet another example of that. Facing a third and medium, Dak Prescott did an excellent job of standing in against a blitz and firing a dart to Witten cutting across the middle. The pass was accurate and on time, and it had to be as the window of opportunity for a completion was small; Witten had found a soft spot in a zone between two defenders that quickly closed with the safety arriving as soon as the ball hit his hands. Witten did a great job here of hanging on to the ball with the safety draped on his back. On the next play Ezekiel Elliott capped off the drive with a 10-yard touchdown run.
Play: Offside Penalty on Tyrone Holmes
Situation: Third and 9 from the Browns 19
Score: Cowboys lead 21-10
Time: 12:07 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: After the Browns cut the lead to 11 going into halftime the Cowboys received the second half kick with the hopes of pushing the lead back to three scores. They quickly drove into the red zone, although the drive seemed to be stalling as they faced a third and long. Prescott looked for Cole Beasley on the left sideline, but the pass fell incomplete and it seemed as if they would have to settle for a field goal. Instead they were given a second chance thanks to an offside penalty where a lineman lined up in the neutral zone, one of several such penalties against the Browns on the day. Facing a more manageable third down Prescott again looked to Witten for yet another big conversion to extend a drive. Like the previous touchdown drive, Elliott capped it off with a touchdown run on the very next play following the third down conversion.
Play: Justin Durant Sack
Situation: Third and 8 from the Browns 32
Score: Cowboys lead 28-10
Time: 7:57 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: The previous time the Browns had the ball they drove it 80 yards for a touchdown in just 1:30 to end the first half. It seemed that their offense still had some rhythm here as they were able to dig out of a 2nd and 18 hole for a first down. On the next set of downs though they were forced into a third and long, and that’s when the Cowboys defense stepped up. Only rushing three linemen and blitzing Sean Lee, Durant dropped into a short zone. Kessler had time to throw, although the coverage downfield was great as he had nowhere to go with the ball and started to look for a running lane. Durant reacted to Kessler pulling the ball down and closed on him immediately, dragging him down for the sack. It was a play that typifies the Cowboys defense as it was not a spectacular individual play, but a team effort with the linemen and Lee maintaining integrity in their rush lanes, the secondary had excellent coverage, giving Kessler nowhere to go with the ball, and Durant did his job by finishing off the play. The Cowboys defense was off the field and on the next drive the offense would again score a touchdown, pushing the lead to 25. At that point the game was effectively over.