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 42-17 loss to the Broncos.
Play: Demaryius Thomas 27-Yard Reception
Situation: Third and 4 on the Broncos 28
Score: Tied 0-0
Time: 11:59 remaining in the first quarter
Impact: The first Broncos drive of the game was a sign of things to come. The defense looked solid enough on the first two plays, forcing Denver into a third and medium, but as would happen all day, the defense crumbled on the money down. Trevor Siemian found Thomas for 27 yards into Dallas territory and only five plays later the Broncos found their way into the end zone, setting the tone for how the game would go all day, with the Dallas defense holding their own on first and second down before falling apart on third.
Play: Unsportsmanlike Conduct Penalty on Demarcus Lawrence
Situation: Fourth and 22 on the Cowboys 32
Score: Tied 7-7
Time: 6:42 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: The defense seemed to be finding their footing and the momentum looked to perhaps be turning on this drive following the Dez Bryant touchdown that tied the game. The Broncos managed to work the ball deep into Dallas territory, converting several third downs along the way of course, but on 3rd and 9 from just inside the red zone Lawrence came up with a huge sack of Siemian, forcing the Broncos into a long field goal attempt. Brandon McManus nailed the 50-yard attempt, but Lawrence was flagged for using the long-snapper as leverage in an attempt to block the field goal. It was a 15-yard penalty and gave the Broncos a first down at the Dallas 17. Three plays later Jeff Heath was embarrassed by C.J. Anderson on a simple “out and in” pattern en route to a 16-yard touchdown catch on 3rd and 9. The defense seemed to never recover the rest of the day.
Play: C.J. Anderson 9-Yard Rush
Situation: Third and 6 on the Broncos 29
Score: Broncos lead 21-10
Time: 14:21 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: The Broncos opening second half drive began very similarly to the first with the defense looking decent enough on first and second down, forcing Denver into third and medium, before inevitably allowing the conversion on third. The Broncos ran about as vanilla a third down play as you’re going to find in the NFL, a simple shotgun draw to the running back, and somehow the Cowboys defense was unable to make the stop as Anderson converted with ease. The defense had a chance here to get the ball back to the offense with some momentum following Dan Bailey’s 56-yard field goal at the end of the first half, instead they were forced to remain on the field, once again allowing Denver to extend a drive.
Play: C.J. Anderson 12-Yard Reception
Situation: Third and 11 on the Cowboys 30
Score: Broncos lead 21-10
Time: 9:49 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: Very rarely do I have two plays from the same drive on this list but that’s how egregious the defense’s play was to start the second half. If the running back draw is the most vanilla third down play in football, the screen to the running back is the second most vanilla, and somehow the Cowboys allowed the Broncos to convert two third downs on the same drive using these two simple plays. The defense consistently rolled over on third down all game long, including an astounding five times on this drive alone, but this one may have been the worst. Initially backed up to 1st and 20 thanks to a holding from Ronald Leary the Broncos were faced with 3rd and 11 on the edge of field goal range. Denver seemed content to gain a few yards and settle for a shorter field goal attempt by running the screen but the Cowboys defense amazingly allowed Anderson to wriggle away for the first. Four plays later the Broncos were in the end zone, the score was 28-10, and for all intents and purposes the game was over.
Play: Incomplete Pass to Jason Witten
Situation: Third and 3 from the Dallas 26
Score: Broncos lead 35-17
Time: 11:51 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: For as dominant as the Broncos were on third down all game long, the Cowboys were just as bad, and whatever faint hope Dallas may have had of a comeback essentially ended here. After finally getting a quick three and out from the defense following Witten’s 28-yard touchdown the offense got the ball back needing a score of some sort given the three score deficit that they faced. After getting seven yards on the first play the offense failed to gain another yard, ending the drive on a fake zone-read to Elliott with a quick slant to Witten off the backside. Von Miller sniffed it out, getting his hands up to bat the ball away, and backed up deep in their own territory the Cowboys were forced to punt.