The Indianapolis Colts had a bit more on the line than the Dallas Cowboys, and they played like it, dropping a 23-0 beat-down on what was the hottest team in the NFL coming into this game. Now the Cowboys have to wait to see what happens with Washington and Philadelphia. They also can make things moot with one more win in their last two games. Still, this one leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
It was a very disappointing performance by a team that had a chance to win the NFC East outright and keep a slim hope for the third seen in the NFC playoffs alive. Early adversity proved to be too much to overcome, the Colts played like a good team whose hopes for the season were on the line, and some very common woes combined with some unfamiliar problems to lead to the worst performance by Dallas all season, and the first shutout for the Cowboys since 2003.
While this game is unlikely to prevent Dallas from eventually being the division champion, it was not the kind of game you want to see from a team that is looking to finally do something in the postseason. It is going to be up to Jason Garrett and his staff to try and get this team right for the final two games of the season and beyond.
Maybe the team was due some kind of letdown after the intensity and effort in climbing back from the dead at the halfway point of the season. For whatever reason, almost everything went wrong. The Indy running game gashed them, Andrew Luck was largely untouched in the pocket, or running free when he escaped, and Dallas went one for four on attempts to convert fourth downs, plus had another called back on a penalty.
The first half was a real mess for the Cowboys as they made multiple mistakes to dig themselves a 10-0 hole after the first 30 minutes. First they had a blocked field goal at the end of their first drive that would lead to a one-yard Marlon Mack touchdown run. Then Dallas put together a long drive to get to the Indianapolis 3 with a third and one. But the red zone woes struck again. A nicely designed play got Jamize Olawale wide open for what should have been an easy touchdown, but he just short-armed the ball. Jason Garrett went for it on fourth-and-one, but the Colts stuffed Ezekiel Elliott for a loss. Then the Cowboys were driving again but a sack of Dak Prescott both killed the drive and cost them a field goal attempt, and led to a punt that gave the Colts plenty of time to drive down and kick a field goal as time ran out.
Long possessions gave Dallas a big advantage in time-of-possession as they held the ball for 19:18 before halftime, but the inability to finish off drives with touchdowns (or any points at all) came back to haunt them. It could have been much worse except for a series by the Colts that was killed by back-to-back penalties. Again, officiating was very questionable in this game, although it was hard to state that it favored either team on balance.
Mack was making a lot of runs in the first half, and continued it into the second as the Cowboys gave up a very easy drive to open the third quarter, capped by another Mack touchdown. It was not the kind of run defense the Cowboys have shown all season, and led to a 17-0 lead at that point. Mack would go on to top 100 yards before the third quarter was over in an excellent game by him, marred only by a fumble in garbage time after the outcome was determined.
Ezekiel Elliott was once again running and catching the ball well, accounting for 87 yards in the first half alone, but he was also showing some signs of wear, coming up limping after some plays. They didn’t get Amari Cooper involved much in this game, especially early, but did seem to be trying to get the ball to Cole Beasley. And tight ends Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin both showed up early with some good receptions.
There were certainly plays where Dallas’ players did not look like they had their heads completely in the game. There were many missed tackles on the defense, and the pass rush just was not able to get to Andrew Luck, with him either finding a receiver while on the move or scrambling for gains himself. The Cowboys also had their already banged-up offensive line suffer another loss, as Xavier Su’a-Filo left the game in the second quarter with a reported eye injury, and was replaced by Adam Redmond. With Zack Martin out already, and Tyron Smith getting called for more holding yards, it was tough in the trenches when Dallas had the ball.
The biggest weapon for Indy (outside of Luck himself) was T.Y. Hilton, who came down with long balls to keep drives alive time after time.
This game showed how this Cowboys team has a lot harder time when playing from behind, as Michael Strawn detailed earlier. The blocked field goal seemed to really throw them off on both sides of the ball, and makes you wonder what may have happened if the officials had awarded that fumbled kickoff return to the Philadelphia Eagles last week. That special teams failure by Dallas continued a trend of bad performances by that unit, and it started the downhill slide that saw Indianapolis just build their lead through the game.
But responsibility for this loss lies with the entire Dallas roster. While they played hard, and losing your starting left guard doesn’t help, they also made far too many mistakes and just could not show any consistency. Perhaps it will be a wakeup call, or it is a sign of problems to come.
Once the Colts had a three score lead, they were just able to pin their ears back on defense and grind on offense. They would shut the Cowboys’ offense down throughout the game, and after half they just burned time and kept tacking on points.
The Cowboys are still very much alive for the NFC East crown, but any hopes of passing the Chicago Bears to steal the third seed pretty much died in this game. Now they have to rebound and try to get their mojo back before the playoffs if they don’t want a quick exit there.