After falling behind the Browns 41-14 with less than a minute left in the third quarter, the Cowboys mounted a furious comeback to get the score to 41-38, with three successful two-point conversions along the way. Dak Prescott would become the first NFL player to pass for over 450 yards in three consecutive games, actually getting 502. Then one more defensive breakdown let Cleveland get back to a two-score lead, and another last minute Prescott interception would administer the coup de grace.
It was a case of the same problems we have seen the first three games reoccurring for the Cowboys. After the Browns won the toss and deferred, Dallas was unable to get a first down, due to Elliott not doing much on a first down run and a Dak Prescott sack by Myles Garrett, who beat Terence Steele while Prescott just held the ball too long. Then after the punt, Nick Chubb ripped the defense for a long run, and a gadget play of Jarvis Landry to Odell Beckham Jr. on a 43-yard touchdown pass had the Cowboys in a 7-0 hole with just 2:37 gone off the clock. And then the ensuing kickoff bounced back, never reaching the end zone, and Tony Pollard was only able to get it back to the 12.
The Cowboys had their very short good stretch of the first half. They had back-to-back, lightning-fast scores, as Dak Prescott and his receivers looked unstoppable. First he connected with CeeDee Lamb for a wide open 43-yard touchdown. Then, the Cowboys had a stop, largely because of plays made by Joe Thomas and Donovan Wilson. With the ball back, the Cowboys quickly marched down to the Cleveland 20, where they faced a fourth and two. Prescott fired a true dart to Amari Cooper and Dallas was up 14-7. Prescott was 10 of 11 for 174 yards and the two TDs in the first quarter.
It looked like Dallas would be able to have their way with Cleveland, but then for lack of a better term, things went to absolute hell for the Cowboys. First, when it looked like they would get off the field again, Jaylon Smith was called for a facemask penalty. That might have been the crucial play, because the Browns efficiently drove down after that, despite Nick Chubb leaving with an injury, and quickly tied things up.
Then the Cowboys offense fell apart. On their first drive following the tie, Myles Garrett beat Terence Steele and got a strip sack, leading to a four play, 34-yard TD drive for Baker Mayfield and company. Suddenly Dallas was down seven and needed to get its footing. The staff finally made the move to put Brandon Knight in for Steele, and on the first play of the drive, Ezekiel Elliott went right behind him, and got a 24-yard gain - before having the ball stripped before he was down. The Browns had another short field, and drove the 51 yards to go up 28-14 in only six plays. Cleveland had not scored 28 points in a first half since 1991, breaking the streak against Dallas.
They would go on to up the lead to 31-14 by half as the offense could not maintain a drive to cut the lead, and the defense just couldn’t keep them from getting in field goal range. After receiving the kickoff after the half, the Browns drove right down and increased their lead to 24 points.
It was a perfect storm, as the Browns, with one of the most potent running attacks in the league, found themselves with a huge lead against a team that frankly does not look like it even understands what to do on the field. Even without Chubb, Cleveland just sliced through Mike Nolan’s defense at will. When they needed a play through the air, Mayfield would find Landry or Beckham to keep things moving. Meanwhile, their defense smelled blood in the water and knew they no longer had to worry about the running game. The pressure on Prescott, which was already high, just got dialed up a notch.
Make no mistake, however, this was another team loss. The special teams might be the only unit to get a pass, with Lamb giving them a tiny spark with a 27-yard return after the defense finally got a three and out halfway through the third quarter. But the offense obviously hurt the cause badly with the turnovers, and then the defense was just overwhelmed.
That raises very serious questions about what is going on with the coaching staff. The decision to go with Steele to start the game is puzzling, since it is no secret how good the pass rushers are for Cleveland. Dallas had Knight available because Tyron Smith was back on the field. Anytime you have to make a change midgame that you could have done before kickoff, you are essentially admitting a mistake. There might have been another offensive line move that should have happened before the game, but Joe Looney was injured on the first offensive play of the game, and Tyler Biadasz came in, and seemed to be up to the task.
Had Dallas been able to keep this to a shootout, they might have stayed in it all the way. But the back-to-back fumbles just shattered the team. People talk about momentum, but it really seems to be more about how teams react to a situation. The Cowboys completely failed in the second quarter, then somehow found the ability to come back and even have a chance to win makes them seem like a true Jekyll and Hyde team.
If you are looking for answers for the struggles of the Cowboys midway in the game, they are going to be hard to figure out. After building a reputation for protecting the ball, Prescott is suddenly putting it on the ground far too often. He also had some interceptions that were just dropped by the defensive backs. Elliott is just not making enough of a contribution, and has been guilty of not taking care of the ball as well. But the defense is a complete and total mystery, one where the total seems to be far, far less than the sum of its parts. The pressure on the quarterback is far less than it should be with the players available. And the defensive line that was built to pressure the QB seems a tad vulnerable to the run, which was very bad news for this game. Jaylon Smith is making far too many mistakes, and Joe Thomas is probably the best linebacker they have on the field. He was absolutely robbed in the third quarter, when he was called on an unnecessary roughness penalty that the announcers could not see at all on replay, and on which appeared to take the ball away from the receiver at a time when the turnover might have given them a tiny glimmer of hope.
As for the secondary, who knows? They are too often out of position or just appear to be completely confused. Yes, they are depleted by injury, but it should not be so bad.
It is rather rare to have a specific point where a game completely changes direction, especially in the first quarter, but there is one here. Dallas was up 14-7, and a penalty had just put the Browns in 1st and 20 at their own 38. Then this happened, as described by ESPN:
(0:59 - 1st) (Shotgun) B.Mayfield pass short left to A.Hooper to CLV 43 for 5 yards (D.Wilson). PENALTY on DAL-J.Smith, Face Mask (15 Yards), 15 yards, enforced at CLV 43
The ensuing first down kept things alive for the Browns, and they would go on to score 34 unanswered points. There was a Team 40 Burger in this game, but it was not the Cowboys. Prescott put up big numbers in the attempt to come back late, but it was far from enough. A game that was hoped to be a chance for Dallas to get things right just raised far more questions. They got back into the game in surprising fashion at the end, amazingly cutting a 27 point deficit to just three with 3:42 left, but certainly did not deserve to win this one. And it was exactly in tune with what we saw earlier in the game when the defense, namely Aldon Smith, just missed on a big play, only to let Beckham go all the way to the end zone to score a TD, Then insult was added to injury when a blocked extra point was turned into a two point conversion when the Browns got to it in the end zone after Jaylon Smith failed to pick the ball up in what was supposedly an attempt to go the other way to get two points back.
It was heartbreaking, but also exactly what the Cowboys deserved.