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 17-15 victory over the Vikings.
Play: Holding on Alex Boone, Negating a First Down Conversion
Situation: Third and inches from the Dallas 21
Score: Tied 0-0
Time: 3:08 remaining in the first quarter
Impact: To be fair, this wouldn’t have been a first down conversion without Boone holding Terrell McClain who exploded through the line of scrimmage for what likely would’ve been a tackle for loss. With that said, this sequence of events was absolutely huge in that the Vikings, an offense that severely lacked for big plays, quickly moved down the field on 17-yard and 16-yard receptions by Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen and seemed primed to start the scoring off with a touchdown. This third down truly was the definition of “and inches” as the ball was actually spotted right along the unofficial yellow line to gain. Instead of having a first down inside the 20, McClain’s play forced the Vikings into a third and 10 from the 30, which they would not convert, and eventually they would settle for a 48-yard field goal.
Play: Dak Prescott 14-Yard Run
Situation: Third and 13 from the Dallas 13
Score: Vikings lead 3-0
Time: 9:18 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: The Cowboys were backed up, facing a third and long as all of the momentum was behind the Vikings and their defense, which had stifled the Cowboys offense for the most part. It seemed as if this drive was destined to end in a punt, although on third and long Prescott went into the shotgun with a spread formation. He couldn’t find an open receiver, started to feel pressure, and in a Romo-esque play he spun around to his left, got to the edge and just when it looked like a Vikings defender had an angle he cut back up field and dove for the first. Just four plays later Prescott would find Dez Bryant for the biggest gain of the night, a 56-yard pass down to the Vikings one yard line. Ezekiel Elliott would cap off the drive with a one yard plunge on the next play, giving the Cowboys a 7-3 lead.
Play: Clipping on Gavin Escobar/Holding on Gavin Escobar
Situation: First and 10 at the Dallas 28, and then later at the Dallas 35
Score: Cowboys lead 7-3, then 7-6
Time: 9:11 and :45 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: These are two separate plays on two separate drives but the similarity of the penalties and their similar impacts should be noted. On each of the first two Cowboys drives of the second half it seemed that the offense was gaining momentum. On each drive the offense gained a first down after just two plays. The third play of each drive was an Elliott run, the first of which would’ve set up a second and about 4 while the next would’ve set up a second and about 6. Instead, thanks to Escobar’s inability to block Brian Robison, the Cowboys were faced with a first and 24, and then a first and 20, respectively. Those are tough holes to climb out of on the road against a very good defense. The Cowboys converted neither into first downs and the Vikings scored a field goal on the ensuing drive each time, taking a 9-7 lead. In fact, the Robison strip-sack came on the first play following the Escobar holding penalty, which set the Vikings up inside the Cowboys 20. The third quarter started with the Cowboys up 7-3, and it ended with the Vikings getting the ball at the Cowboys 19, down 7-6 and looking to take the lead. The offense only had the ball twice that quarter, and both drives were torpedoed by Escobar penalties just as it looked like the offense was getting into rhythm.
Play: Ezekiel Elliott 30-Yard Run
Situation: First and 10 at the Dallas 46
Score: Cowboys lead 14-9
Time: 6:37 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: The Vikings defense did a good job of bottling up Elliott all night, 40+ yard run that was negated by a questionable holding call on Doug Free aside. Yet on the first drive after the Cowboys had reclaimed the lead Elliott made a great jump-cut and exploded through the right side of the line for a 30-yard gain. Elliott was about a half-step away from breaking it all the way for what would’ve certainly been a game-clinching touchdown, but Eric Kendricks just barely caught him by the ankle at the last moment. The drive stalled just outside of the red zone, but nevertheless this run set up a 39-yard Dan Bailey field goal that pushed the lead to eight and made it so that the Vikings couldn’t win the game with a touchdown, and would have to go for two just to tie it.
Play: False Start on Jeremiah Sirles
Situation: Two-point conversion after touchdown
Score: Cowboys lead 17-15
Time: :25 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: This one is obvious, but it couldn’t be left out as the impact it had on the game cannot be overstated. Let’s first mention that the Vikings only had an opportunity to tie the game here due to a fortuitous set of circumstances that included a botched snap on third and 1 by Travis Frederick and Prescott on a play that could’ve iced the game, as well as a Vikings recovery of a muffed punt by Cordarelle Patterson on the very next play where the ball bounced around and could’ve been recovered by any of several players on both teams. With that said, the Vikings offense mounted their best drive of the night to cut the lead to 17-15. Of course they were forced to go for two with barely any time remaining, but the Sirles penalty pushed the point after attempt five yards back, from the two to the seven. This five yard difference cuts the likelihood of converting the attempt significantly, especially when you have a quarterback in Sam Bradford who isn’t particularly adept at throwing strikes down the field. Cedric Thornton would get great pressure in Bradford’s face, forcing a panicked throw that seemed to theoretically be a jump-ball to Kyle Rudolph, but ultimately it sailed through the back of the end zone, giving Rudolph no chance to catch it. Game over.