It should not have been close at all. After leading by as much as 13 points early, the Dallas Cowboys managed to get badly outplayed in the second half to lose to the Los Angeles Rams by a final score of 35-30. Despite some early success, the Cowboys’ defense, missing Sean Lee, seemed to wear down at the same time the Rams’ offense began to find its footing. And parallel to this, the Dallas offense, which had been excellent in the first half, suddenly began to struggle, unable to convert third downs. Things were sealed when Dak Prescott tried to convert a third and nine, with the team down by five, only to have it tipped and intercepted at Dallas’ own 29 yard line. Although the Cowboys were able to hold them to a field goal, it made the lead eight points, and with less than ten minutes left in the game, there was just not enough time for Dallas to come back. They nearly did, with a quick drive leading to a James Hanna touchdown, but a two point conversion was wiped out by a holding call on Travis Frederick, that FOX color commentator Daryl Johnston flatly stated was in error. Then the defense just could not find a way to stop the Rams’ attack, letting them move the ball and eat clock while looking at that two point deficit on the scoreboard. The Rams would add one more field goal, their sixth of the game, to push the score to the final margin.
The game ended on a fourth down play where Ezekiel Elliott could not get to the first down marker to keep a drive to take the lead and win alive, but it came up just short, which largely described the entire game for Dallas.
The first half was almost completely dominated by the Cowboys, but the team should have had a much bigger lead than the 24-16 margin they took into the locker room. Special teams miscues gave the Rams 10 points. First, a long kickoff return put them almost immediately into field goal range. Then Ryan Switzer muffed a punt, setting up an easy touchdown pass for Jared Goff. The Dallas defense also played a too soft just before halftime, letting the Rams push the ball into range for another field goal.
But otherwise, it was nothing but good things for the Cowboys in the first 30 minutes. Dallas scored on every possession. starting with a field goal after the opening kickoff, then putting up touchdowns on their next three possessions. Dak Prescott was again very efficient, completing 11 of 15 passes, including two touchdowns. And he set the tone right out of the gate, competing a 36 yard pass to Dez Bryant on the first snap of the game. Ezekiel Elliott took no time establishing himself, getting a fifteen yard carry on the first series, and accumulating a total of 96 yards running and receiving, including two touchdowns, one on the ground and one through the air. Alfred Morris had the play of the half with a 70 yard run to set up one of the Cowboys touchdowns, but almost as impressive was Prescott taking a hit from Aaron Donald and just shaking it off to escape and find Bryant for a first down completion. Dallas totally dominated the stats, with a total yards gained advantage of 287 to 131, and a time of possession edge of 18 minutes exactly to 12.
Dallas felt like it was in complete control, but the mistakes in the kicking game really kept Los Angeles in the game. And the Cowboys defense was fairly quiet, with no sacks or takeaways. They did manage to force the Rams to settle for field goals repeatedly, and Goff had to get rid of the ball repeatedly under some heavy pressure. But the failure to deliver a knockout blow early let Los Angeles stay around, and when the Cowboys’ offense went cold in the third quarter, the Rams put up 10 unanswered points to take their first lead of the game at 26-24. The go-ahead score was a 53 yard Todd Gurley reception that fully exploited the depleted secondary and linebacking corps of the Cowboys. Lee’s absence was likely the most significant.
There was a general letdown by the defense, which had played so well the previous week. Although Demarcus Lawrence was credited with one sack when he knocked the ball loose on one play, the Cowboys just were not able to get to Goff effectively. And he began to find his rhythm as the game progressed just as the Dallas defense seemed to be wearing down. At the same time, Prescott and the offense seemed to get out of sorts in the third quarter, unable to convert third downs and repeatedly giving the Rams the ball back.
There was a definite lack of consistency in the second half for Dallas. Had they not made those mistakes on special teams in the first half, they would likely have been able to overcome them, but they let Los Angeles accumulate just too many points early, and then could not find a way to stop them often enough. It was a hugely disappointing end to the game after such a promising start. For a half, the Cowboys looked like they had solved their basic issues. But inconsistency was their eventual downfall.