When the Cowboys took the field for their Thanksgiving matchup against the Washington Football Team, emotions were running very high after the tragic passing of strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul just the day before. The team ended up playing with a lot of heart and effort, which was highlighted by Mike McCarthy’s post-game comments:
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy on team's game Thursday vs. Washington, one day after strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul passed: "I had no idea how we were going to play. That's a feeling you never have as a coach."— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 27, 2020
But in the end, Dallas ended up losing the game by a final score of 41-16. That’s a bit misleading, as Washington managed to run up the score in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys trailed 20-16 near the 12-minute mark in the final quarter, and even after a touchdown run from Antonio Gibson, they were only down 11 points. But the Football Team ripped off a 14-point swing in a span of seven seconds to make this look like a blowout.
While the game was a lot closer than the final score indicates, it was a return to the norm for these 2020 Cowboys after two impressive performances their previous two weeks. It was largely compounded by the loss of both left tackle Cam Erving and newly-minted right tackle Zack Martin in the first quarter. However, these five plays were also pivotal to the Cowboys’ loss.
Ezekiel Elliott’s fumble problem rears its ugly head again
After fumbling five times - and losing four of them - through the first six games of the season, Ezekiel Elliott had gone four straight games without turning it over. That streak of clean football coincidentally started against Washington, and it ended against them as well.
The Cowboys had managed to get a field goal right before halftime and took a 17-13 deficit into the locker room, knowing they’d get the ball to start the second half. Determined to drive down the field and score, Dallas had a golden opportunity to take the lead. Then Zeke made an unforced error on the second play of the third quarter:
Jonathan Allen's best play came on the Zeke fumble where he cleanly sheds the center and recovers the fumble pic.twitter.com/cPfe4yGwqU— Nick Akridge (@PFF_NickAkridge) November 27, 2020
Nobody touches the ball or Elliott’s arm, the ball just falls out of his clutch as he’s going to the ground. Many of his other fumbles this year have come with contact, but this one is just egregious. It set the Football Team up with just 33 yards to go for a touchdown, while robbing Dallas of their opportunity to take the lead. Luckily enough, the Cowboys defense held firm and only surrendered a field goal.
Jaylon Smith is gifted an interception, but Terry McLaurin’s clutch tackle hurts Cowboys
Speaking of the defense doing good things, they were holding their own for most of this game. Despite being decimated in the secondary, this unit limited Alex Smith to under 150 passing yards and Antonio Gibson had only 47 rushing yards at the start of the fourth quarter.
The defense also got another takeaway, marking their seventh in the last four games. This takeaway came courtesy of a bunch of Smith’s: Aldon Smith applied the pressure, hitting Alex Smith as he threw the ball, and that caused the ball to fall into Jaylon Smith’s arms. Jaylon, who caught the ball at the Washington 47, did his best to score a touchdown. But Terry McLaurin chased him down for the tackle.
That tackle ended up being arguably bigger than the interception itself. McLaurin tackled Smith at the four-yard line, which set the Cowboys up with great field position. Dallas ended up having to settle for a field goal (more on that in a bit), which prevented them from tying the game. If it wasn’t for McLaurin’s hustle play, Smith would’ve scored the touchdown himself.
CeeDee Lamb drops the game-tying touchdown
The Cowboys started their offensive possession already with first and goal, and with the positive play they had seen from Andy Dalton thus far, a touchdown should’ve been automatic. A stuffed run by Ezekiel Elliott and a blown up trick play resulted in a net loss of six yards, bringing up third and goal from ten yards out.
Suddenly, the Cowboys had to pass and get into the endzone to avoid squandering their excellent starting field position, and against a pass rush as productive as this you can’t afford to have too many obvious passing downs. Still, Dalton managed to find CeeDee Lamb and hit the rookie receiver right on his hands. But Lamb was unable to catch the ball, creating a fourth and goal.
Lamb has been incredible this year - and he had the best catch of his young career against Minnesota - but he also had his worst game against Washington earlier this season, in which he had zero catches and several drops. While he had five catches this time, they went for a total of 21 yards, which is by far his second worst performance; this dropped touchdown, which would have tied the game, was particularly terrible.
That disastrous fake punt
After settling for the field goal following Lamb’s critical drop, the Dallas defense forced a three-and-out to keep the deficit at 20-16. But with the fourth quarter starting, the Cowboys knew they needed to do something big.
So when a Dalton sack on third and short brought up a fourth and ten on Dallas’ own 24-yard line, it was the perfect time for a fake punt; after all, nobody would’ve expected it. But the particular type of fake that was called - a winding reverse to Cedrick Wilson - combined with a lack of blocking up front meant the Football Team was able to easily react to the try.
The fake failed, and actually lost a yard. Washington responded with a touchdown run on the very next play, and you could almost see the lights go out on the defense on that play. The fake punt, as with most fake punts, was a boom-or-bust moment. If it worked, it gives the Cowboys a massive confidence boost in a close game early in the fourth quarter. Since it failed, it meant a massive swing for the Football Team.
Peyton Barber’s fourth down conversion leads to dagger touchdown
Even after the fake punt that led to a touchdown, the game wasn’t completely over. Down by 11 points, there was still time for the Cowboys to lead a (highly unlikely) comeback effort. And the defense was presented with an ample opportunity to jumpstart such an effort.
With just over five minutes left in the game, Washington decided to go for it on fourth and one at the Cowboys’ 43-yard line. If the Cowboys managed to get a stop, the offense would take over with enough time to theoretically score a short touchdown with enough time left for another scoring opportunity.
But the Football Team handed it off to Peyton Barber, their 225-pound bruising back, and he did the dirty work to pick up two yards and a first down. By extending the drive, Washington was able to keep the ball out of the Cowboys’ hands a little bit longer. And three plays later, Gibson busted off a 37-yard touchdown run to sink the dagger into the Cowboys once and for all.