It did not eliminate the Dallas Cowboys from the postseason. But the 28-6 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, which seemed so much like a replay of the last two embarrassing defeats, makes it seem impossible for them to recover. The Cowboys were impotent through much of the game, getting badly outgained in the first half. They only remained close due to the inability of the Chargers to put up more than three points before halftime.
Dallas is not just a team with issues. It is struggling to even be competitive for a full game. Looking at the math may say one thing, but anyone watching these games dispassionately has to think that this year is now over for them.
The Cowboys’ offensive struggles continued, as they were unable to keep the chains moving over and over. They never got more than three yards into the Chargers’ end of the field in the first half. They had some success running the ball, but Dak Prescott was only completing short passes. And they also had drives stymied by lost yards and penalties. In the second half, they finally got something going and drove down to the Los Angeles 34. But an apparent touchdown run by Prescott was negated by a hold on Tyron Smith, taking Dallas from 3rd and 2 to 3rd and 12, which the Cowboys were unable to convert as heavy pressure forced Prescott to evade and then throw the ball away.
The defense fought hard, somehow limiting the Chargers to only those 3 points in the first half. But as they have in the past two games, they gave way in the third quarter, allowing the Chargers to score touchdowns on their first two possessions after halftime. And throughout the game, the pattern was that the defense would make some really good stops, only to yield a long pass play to allow LA to keep the chains moving. The fact was that while the Chargers never had much of a running game going, Philip Rivers was at times simply superb, particularly on some perfectly placed back shoulder throws to defeat good, tight coverage. He was equally good whether operating from a clean pocket or evading pressure. Dallas was unable to get to him, and it was largely due to the perfect blocking technique exhibited by the LA offensive line. It must have been perfect, because the streak continued, and the Cowboys are now up to 34 consecutive quarters where no opposing offensive linemen have been called for holding. Obviously the officials know how to call offensive holding - they flagged the Cowboys at least twice. But the Chargers were of course immune. And they say there is an offensive line crisis in the NFL. Obviously, it doesn’t exist - if you are playing the Cowboys.
The Cowboys finally found a little life in the fourth quarter with a Rod Smith touchdown from the 2 after a penalty-aided 81 yard drive. But the next LA drive ended in a way we are far too familiar with this year. After getting into Dallas territory, they faced a 3rd and 6. If the Cowboys could have gotten off the field, they might have still had a real chance. But Rivers hit Keenan Allen with a short pass that was good for the first down, and Allen then just wove through the Cowboys’ secondary to go into the end zone. Multiple players had a shot to stop it, but bad angles and bad tackling led to another Rivers touchdown pass.
Dallas still had a chance at that point. The score was 22-6, thanks to the problems the Chargers had kicking extra points with Nick Novak injured (they misses three of four XPs). But after getting to the Chargers’ 13 yard line, Prescott missed on a throw to Cole Beasley and it was picked off by Desmond King, who evaded Prescott and took it all the way for the pick six. From that point, it was just a matter of the Chargers slowing Dallas down and running out the clock, which was down to 7:41. And a second interception of Prescott a couple of plays later would feel more like beating up a helpless kid than a football game.
The big question is just why the Dallas offense has struggled so much over the past three games, and the obvious answer seems to be that Ezekiel Elliott finally started his suspension. The return of Tyron Smith didn’t change that, although it didn’t help to lose Zack Martin to a reported head injury late in the second half. But with Elliott out, Dallas just has not had an answer. What is most disturbing is how Prescott has seemingly wilted under the pressure of needing to carry the team. He has been bad the past three games, missing receivers and throwing picks. It seems so unlike the player we saw last season - but that was when he had that superstar running back to lean on. This is now a major concern. If Prescott does not find his game again, it could have massive implications for the future beyond the likelihood of missing the playoffs this season.
There are still five games to play, and there is still a chance for the Cowboys to right the ship and start winning again. However, it is hard to have much hope after seeing what they have done the past three games. There were certainly a lot of things this year that made it harder. But Dallas totally failed to overcome those challenges. This is just not a very good team right now.