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What does the Cowboys history against Denver tell us about their chances Sunday?

Can Dallas avoid early-and-late-game issues?

Denver Broncos v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I’m a bit of a Cowboys history junkie. The franchise has a long and storied past and virtually every matchup is another page in an already interesting chapter. However, the Cowboys history against the Denver Broncos is one of the thinnest chapters in the team’s history book. Dallas has faced Denver only 12 times with the Cowboys coming out on top in five of those 12 games.

That makes Denver one of only seven franchises against which the Cowboys have a losing record. In fact, the team’s 0.417 winning percentage against Denver ranks next to last among all NFL teams (behind the Baltimore Ravens, who have beaten Dallas four times out of five). So what does the team’s history against Denver tell us about Sunday’s upcoming matchup?

First of all, history tells us Dallas hasn’t fared well recently, losing the last five matchups and seven of the last nine. A review of those seven losses shows a couple of clear trends the 2017 squad will need to overcome in order to achieve victory:

  • An early-game “blitz” that leaves the Cowboys playing catchup
  • Denver out-executing Dallas late to win hard-fought contests

The following table documents the Cowboys’ seven losses to the Broncos since 1980:

Note: To read the chart, match up the “Situation” column with the “Early Score” column to get a sens of how the Cowboys fell behind early in most of these games.

So many things to note here:

  • The blue-hued games are those when the Cowboys fell behind deep and early. All but one of those games came on the road.
  • The green-hued games are those where Denver simply executed better in late-game situations and won the game in the final minutes.
  • Some games (namely the 2001 contest) included both an early-game deficit and late game failures.
  • The Broncos have averaged nearly 33 points per game across the seven games, which is a head-shaking number. I doubt giving up 33 points Sunday will result in a win for Dallas.
  • The Cowboys’ 23 points per game is fairly healthy, although many of those points came in catch-up situations where the defense was willing to give up points for time off the clock.

A brief review of each game well illustrates how early-game deficits and/or late-game execution have been the Cowboys’ downfall in all of these games.

  1. 1980 @ Denver: a week two, late-afternoon matchup at Mile High Stadium (sound familiar?) resulted in a classic road shellacking. The Cowboys’ endured a quick 17-0 deficit and rebounded with a touchdown and a stop, giving fans some hope. But a fumble returned for a touchdown gave the Broncos a 24-7 lead and the Cowboys never really threatened thereafter.
  2. 1986 @ Denver: a week five, late-afternoon matchup at Mile High Stadium resulted in a classic road shellacking (sound familiar?). The Cowboys were non-competitive for the entire first half, falling behind 22-0 as Gerald Willhite (really, Gerald Willhite?) scored three first-half touchdowns.
  3. 1998 @ Denver: a week two, late-afternoon matchup at Mile High Stadium resulted in a classic road shellacking (stop me if you’ve heard this before). Two long Terrell Davis runs gave Denver a 21-7 lead three minutes into the 2nd period. Dallas was game and responded but every score was matched by another Broncos score.
  4. 2001 @ Texas Stadium: a Thanksgiving contest that featured all the dysfunction of the Dave Campo-era of the Cowboys. First, Dallas was thoroughly outclassed for three quarters, falling behind 26-3. Dallas responded in surprising fashion, scoring two touchdowns within two minutes to make the score 26-16 with 7:29 remaining. The obvious decision at that point was to go for two points to potentially create a one-score game. Campo, in a 100% Dave Campo maneuver, instead kicked the extra point to make it a 26-17 game. Naturally the Cowboys got a stop then scored a touchdown with 1:10 remaining to make the final score 26-24. Had Dallas gone for two and succeeded on the previous possession, the team would have been lining up for a potential game-tying two-point conversion in the final minute. Moreover, had they failed the first two-point conversion the outcome would not have been affected. It was one of those mind-numbing, head-scratching decisions that was emblematic of that dark period of top-to-bottom organizational dysfunction.
  5. 2005 @ Texas Stadium: a second consecutive Thanksgiving matchup was competitive throughout. Trailing 21-14 early in the 4th quarter Drew Bledsoe threw a game-tying touchdown to Jason Witten. That was followed by a defensive stop and a drive to the Denver 15-yard line. Billy Cundiff, however, missed a 34-yard field goal that would have secured a Cowboys’ lead. The teams then traded punts until the Broncos won the overtime coin flip to secure first possession. On the second play of overtime Ron Dayne (really, Ron Dayne?) ran 55 yards to the Dallas 6-yard line and two plays later Jason Elam kicked the game-winner.
  6. 2009 @ Denver: A week four game in which Dallas jumped out to a 10-0 lead in a physical, defensive-minded contest. A Tony Romo sack and fumble gave the Broncos possession at the Dallas nine which was quickly converted in a Denver touchdown. Still, the Cowboys led 10 -7 midway through the 4th quarter when a Matt Prater FG tied the score. Four minutes later Brandon Marshall took a Kyle Orton pass 51 yards for a touchdown and 17-10 Broncos lead. Predictably Tony Romo then led a furious comeback, marching 78 yards to give Dallas a 2nd-and-goal from the Denver two. Unfortunately the team needed an 80-yard drive and three straight incompletions resulted in yet another loss.
  7. 2013 @ Jerry World: the historic game in which Tony Romo threw for 500 yards, five touchdowns and amassed a 140 passer rating and somehow ended up with a loss. The game had everything you would expect from a 51-48 contest. The Cowboys led by seven points with seven minutes remaining but the final three drives of the game were:
  • 73-yard touchdown drive by Denver.
  • Tony Romo interception at the Cowboys 24-yard line.
  • 9-play drive using up entire clock and resulting in a game-winning field goal by Denver.

For those keeping score, in the first four losses Denver outscored the Cowboys 86-10. In the final three losses, Denver scored the final 30 points in games that were decided by a total of 13 points. In other words, Denver used either an early, devastating blitzkreig to put games away early or simply out-executed Dallas late to win closely fought games.

Dallas has not lost a game started and finished by Dak Prescott or Tony Romo by more than five points since Thanksgiving of 2014 (which is pretty remarkable when you think about it). To maintain that streak the Cowboys must successfully run their offense and avoid turnovers, mistakes and big plays by Denver early in the game to prevent another Denver “blitzkreig” defeat. Then, if the game is close late Dallas must execute and make the plays down the stretch to grab a quality road win. Otherwise, we’ll be adding another chapter to the sad tales listed above.