It was a must win game for the Dallas Cowboys. But they didn’t. A Tennessee Titans team that looked to be superior in almost every way for most of the game laid a 28-14 loss on them that pretty much marks the end to this season’s hope for the playoffs.
The Cowboys now are 3-5, and more importantly, they are still showing the same kinds of problems that have plagued them all season. Play calls that seemed to be all too predictable to the opponent, misfires on offense, the defense unable to get off the field at crucial times, damaging penalties - they all were in effect. Coming into the game, they had won every home game, but this one looked just liked the road losses in many ways. And they certainly blew a great opportunity once again.
It looked like it was going to be a very different story early. For most of the first quarter, it seemed like the Cowboys were going to rout the Titans, despite Brett Maher missing a 38 yard field goal on the opening drive of the game. Demarcus Lawrence stripped the ball from Marcus Mariota at about the Tennessee 35, and after a mad scramble, Sean Lee finally recovered the ball at the 15. Four plays later, Dak Prescott hit Amari Cooper for his first touchdown as a Cowboy. Then on the next series, Mariota again coughed up the ball on a bad handoff. Dallas had the ball at the Titan’s 41 yard line, and a screen pass to Ezekiel Elliott got the ball to the four yard line.
But then Prescott made another questionable decision (not his last of the game) and tried to force the ball to Cooper, who was bracketed by two defenders in the end zone. The ball was too long for Cooper, and was picked off by Kevin Byard.
There is an odd phenomenon that seems to happen to the Cowboys more than just about any other team in the NFL, and it kicked in after the interception. Teams enter games against them with a player or unit that has been struggling, but against Dallas, suddenly undergo a remarkable improvement in their play. After fumbling twice in the first quarter, Marcus Mariota suddenly found his game, He was 12/15 for 130 yards and a touchdown in the first half, with a 125.0 passer rating. More importantly, he was suddenly deadly on third down, as the Titans converted six in a row on the two touchdown drives before the half. His passes, especially on third downs, were mostly dimes, including the 36 yard completion to Darius Jennings to set up the second score. He would not be as perfect in the second half, but was still playing much better than he has just about all season.
Now, instead of being up 14-0, the Cowboys found themselves on the short end of a 14-7 score. They would mount a nice drive with a bit more than four minutes left in the first half to tie the score on a 23 yard touchdown pass to Allen Hurns, who got wide open on a double move.
Mistakes would continue to hurt Dallas as they had penalties at bad times, and Prescott would make anther crucial error in the third quarter. Faced with a third and thirteen, due to a false start, he held the ball too long and was sacked, and the ball came loose, setting the Titans up at the Dallas 40. Seven plays later and they had another touchdown, making the score 21-14.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Titans had a chance to take a two score lead, but Ryan Succup bounced a 28 yard field goal attempt off the left upright. That gave Dallas some new life, but they were unable to move the ball, and on the ensuing possession, the Titans quickly moved down the field as Mariota continued to find open receivers on third downs. Then, on a third and one in the red zone, Mariota just pulled it down and ran it in himself to give the Titans a 28-14 lead, with far too little time for the Cowboys to come back. Dallas would put together a drive in the final four minutes of the game, but the Titans were in prevent mode and perfectly content to let the Cowboys drive for a meaningless score. They couldn’t even do that, turning the ball over on downs in the red zone as time wound down.
The ESPN announcers harped on one continuing problem for the Dallas offense. They run more on first down than any other team, and defenses know it is coming and just load up the box. Elliott was again held well below 100 yards, and on too many plays he was stuffed for no gain or a loss. Add in that Prescott was not finding receivers in too many crucial situations, and it added up to a loss that probably has doomed the season.
The debut of Amari Cooper was not spectacular and did not give them the lift they hoped for, despite the touchdown on his second catch of the night. The offensive line looked better early on, but then started giving up sacks, although there is always a question of how much those are on the quarterback for not getting the ball out quicker, and for Scott Linehan for the plays he is calling. One sack came on a play that involved two fakes in the backfield, which, as Jason Witten pointed out, meant that the offensive linemen have to hold their blocks for a long time if the defenders don’t bite on the fakes and keep coming. This is not the first time this year that has happened, yet Linehan just refuses to get away from the ineffective concept.
There is still a remote chance for the Cowboys to make the playoffs, but this in no way looks like a team that can go on the winning streak they would need. The flaws are too widespread and the inability to capitalize on opportunities shows no sign of stopping. It was a game that may be the back-breaker for the 2018 season in Dallas.