It went to overtime, and the Dallas Cowboys, who had so often come up with a stop when they absolutely had to, let DeShaun Watson hit DeAndre Hopkins on a pass where he evaded multiple Cowboys tacklers to get the Houston Texans into range for the field goal that gave them the 19-16 win.
It was a huge missed opportunity. The Cowboys came into the game having already gotten some help. Narrow losses by the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles earlier in the day put Dallas in a position to move into no worse than a tie in the win column for the NFC East, pending the outcome of the Washington game against the New Orleans Saints. But the many woes that had plagued Dallas at various times this season reared their ugly heads again, including inability to convert third downs, poor play from their quarterback, and an inability to get to the opponents’ quarterback.
The game never would have gotten to overtime, except for Xavier Woods breaking the Cowboys’ season-long drought of interceptions with just 20 seconds left on the clock, as the Texans were driving down to get in position to try and kick a game winning field goal.
This was largely the defensive struggle the score indicated. Both teams turned the ball over twice in regulation, but Dallas was very unproductive on offense once again, only amassing 259 yards in the first 60 minutes to 390 for Houston. Deshaun Watson was far superior to Dak Prescott statistically, but key stops by the defense combined with some highly questionable play calls by Bill O’Brien in the red zone kept them from getting more points. Ezekiel Elliott was never able to really get on track, and came up limping in overtime on a run for a first down. He was repeatedly stuffed for little or no gain, including on a 3rd and 1 in overtime that forced the Cowboys to punt it way to give Houston the chance to win with any score.
An important turn of events came on either side of halftime. Before intermission, the Texans got an interception of Prescott when a somewhat high pass went off the hands of Tavon Austin, giving them the ball at the Cowboys’ 31 yard line. They marched right down the field as time wound down in the half. But then after a saving tackle by Jeff Heath left the Texans with a fourth and goal on about the four inch line, Bill O’Brien decided to call for a play out of the shotgun. Deshaun Watson was unable to find a receiver, then Jaylon Smith came roaring down the line to knock him out at the 2 yard line. The Texans settled for no points. Then on the first possession of the third quarter, DeAndre Hopkins had the ball knocked loose by Anthony Brown after he caught the ball at the Houston 32. Jourdan Lewis recovered and returned it to the 16. From there, the Cowboys were able to get in for a touchdown, with Prescott finding Hurns in the back of the end zone form the 3. That got the Cowboys to a 13-10 lead at a time when they really needed something to go their way.
But things would swing back the other direction after the Cowboys forced a three-and-out on the following Texans possession. A pass from Prescott was deflected up in the air and intercepted by Justin Reid. That set Houston up on the Dallas 29. Watson got them inside the five, but the defense, particularly Byron Jones, stiffened and held them to a 21 yard field goal to tie the game up.
Prescott seemed to revert back to bad habits a lot during the game, and the Texans kept Ezekiel Elliott bottled up early on. At halftime, he only had 30 yards on nine carries. Meanwhile, the tight ends were the only real receiving threats. Geoff Swaim had the longest catch of the first half, a screen he turned into a 43 yard gain. Blake Jarwin had a very impressive catch and run for a first down in OT, evading a defender around his ankles. And Rico Gathers fired up his fans with his first-ever NFL catch for 32 yards. The wide receivers had a bad night overall, dropping passes and often just not getting open. Austin and Deonte Thompson both dropped balls that would have extended drives. Cole Beasley didn’t even have a reception until overtime. It was a marked difference from the Houston receivers, who were catching nearly everything that got near them.
In the battle of the pass rushes, the Texans were also winning the battle. They got to Prescott at times, while the Cowboys could just not seal the deal and bring Watson down. He evaded the pressure again and again to complete passes, and also used his legs to hurt Dallas. But Jaylon Smith had a very good game. In addition to that crucial stop at the end of the first half (which did go in the stats as a sack), he broke up a pass later and was generally a force all over the field.
The Cowboys lost the penalty battle as well. Crucial calls included a hands-to-the-face call on Randy Gregory and a pass interference against Byron Jones (his first ever, according to the announcers), both on the same drive in the fourth quarter that saw the Texans with a first and goal from the one. But that turned into a huge stand by the defense, as they stuffed two runs, then Jeff Heath broke up a third down pass as O’Brien again went shotgun on the one yard line. The Texans had to settle for three, which kept the Cowboys’ hopes alive. They only trailed 16-13 with 8:31 left in the game.
The offensive play of the game for the Cowboys came on the next drive. With a bit over half the fourth quarter left to play, Prescott ducked a J.J. Watt sack with a spin move (sounds familiar), scrambled to his left, and just as he reached the line of scrimmage heaved a 44 yard pass to Austin. It set up a game tying field goal from Brett Maher, who continues to hit everything since missing his first ever attempt as a Cowboy. That, in turn, set up another down-to-the-wire finish with 5:39 left on the clock.