It couldn’t have gone much worse for the Dallas Cowboys as they were soundly beaten by the Atlanta Falcons, 27-7. The narrative you will hear in much of the press was that it was the loss of Ezekiel Elliott to his repeatedly-delayed suspension that led to such a terrible showing. But that is a lazy analysis, and not at all reflective of what really happened. Now Dallas sits at 5-4, and face a tremendous challenge to make the playoffs, even as a wildcard. With the 8-1 Philadelphia Eagles up next, it is going to be very tough to salvage this season, that seemed to hold so much promise last summer.
Almost the Cowboys certainly missed Elliott, they missed Tyron Smith even more. Chaz Green, trying to fill in for him, was simply overwhelmed repeatedly by Adrian Clayborn, who repeatedly snuffed out Dallas drives. Clayborn would have six sacks by the time the game ended, one a strip sack late in the game. The relentless pressure, including a lot of hits and close escapes, made it basically impossible for the passing game to get going. The Dallas coaching staff finally realized it was not working, and put Byron Bell in for him. It appeared to be an improvement in pass protection, and one that might have had an effect if made earlier. As it turned out, it was too little, too late, and Bell would give up a sack on what was the last gasp for the Cowboys with 4:12 left in the game as well as the strip sack, putting a final nail in what was a lost cause already. The Falcons would get nine total sacks by the end of the game, and that is almost impossible for any offense to overcome.
Just as badly missed was Sean Lee, who re-injured his hamstring and missed the last three quarters of the game. All the Falcons’ points came after he left the game, and the damage was clear as the Atlanta running game immediately picked up. Matt Ryan was also able to pick the Cowboys apart in the short to medium passing game, where Lee also has a big role.
Don’t forget Dan Bailey. Mike Nugent had a chance to get it back to a one score game in the third quarter, but doinked it off the right upright. And Jeff Heath left the game shortly after that, although it is hard to say just how badly that impacted the team.
And, yeah, we have to admit that they could have used more from the running game. Rod Smith was not effective, nor was Darren McFadden. Alfred Morris did not really get on track until the third quarter, and the inability to stop the Atlanta offense at that point made the running game more or less irrelevant.
The game started off with some promise as Xavier Woods got an interception off a the carom caused by Anthony Brown, setting the offense up at the Atlanta 21. Prescott was able to run it in to cap off the short drive, giving the Cowboys a 7-0 lead. They then held the Falcons to a field goal on their next possession. But then the sacks started piling up and Ryan started finding his receivers. He was particularly effective on third downs, converting 7 of 11 at one point, including all of their touchdown drives.
The calculus was just against the Cowboys. They were without three of their top players, perhaps three of the four most important ones for the team. Prescott was the only real weapon they had left, and he just was not able to do enough by himself. The defense was playing well enough before Lee was injured, and recorded six tackles for a loss, plus a Demarcus Lawrence sack, to go along with Woods’ interception.
In a way, the Cowboys were overdue. They had been one of the healthiest teams in the league up until this week. And a series of legal machinations had kept Elliott on the field. But with the suspension finally started and the injuries to Smith and Lee, they were now facing what has crippled so many teams this year: The loss of key stars. That just ground them down in this game. The Falcons and the Cowboys both came into the game needing a win badly to improve their hopes for the playoffs, but the Falcons were the ones who prevailed.