A quick glance at the final score, a 34-17 win for the Ravens, would make people think this was a cakewalk for Baltimore. A slightly longer glance at the stat line with 294 rushing yards for the Ravens, would make people think the Cowboys were obliterated in a demoralizing fashion.
While that’s somewhat true, it’s not entirely accurate. The reality is that the Cowboys had almost as many total yards as Baltimore and ten more first downs than them. But missed opportunities on offense turned what very well could have been a close game into a blowout by the end. These five plays in particular were huge.
Leighton Vander Esch gets confused, gives up easy touchdown for Lamar Jackson
The Dallas defense actually got off to a good start in this game. They managed to pick off Lamar Jackson, which turned into a field goal, and then stopped the Ravens on third down on their next offensive possession. But Baltimore, being the aggressors they are, went for it on fourth and two at the Dallas 37. Then this happened:
Lamar Jackson, celebrating and high-stepping just one step inside the red zone. pic.twitter.com/OSk60mdgiK— Mike Leslie (@MikeLeslieWFAA) December 9, 2020
It’s a strange formation, with nine defenders up on the line of scrimmage and just Leighton Vander Esch and Darian Thompson in the second level, with no help deep. And the play almost worked. Both DeMarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith crash the edges, sealing off any outside runs on the option play.
Jackson keeps it and goes up the middle, where he has two gaps to pick from. Thompson comes up and fills one, forcing Jackson to the other. Vander Esch was in that gap, and would’ve been in perfect position to make a tackle short of the sticks, but for some reason he cut and ran out to the edge for the run that had already been taken away, leaving absolutely no one to stop Jackson. It’s not a guarantee that LVE makes that tackle, especially against someone of Jackson’s athleticism, but if he maintains his gap responsibilities then there’s at least not a gaping hole for what became a 37-yard touchdown run.
CeeDee Lamb gets spun around in front of the refs but no foul is called
Late in the first half, Dallas had the ball and was only down 17-10. With the Ravens getting the ball to start the second half, it was imperative that the Cowboys get a score here. Sitting at their own 45-yard line on third and six, Andy Dalton was forced to roll out to his left before firing a deep shot to CeeDee Lamb. It fell incomplete, although the reason why was because Lamb was grabbed and spun around by the defender:
Safety DeShon Elliott very clearly interferes with Lamb as he’s making his break, but even though there was a referee right there, no flags were thrown. This led to the Cowboys attempting a Hail Mary with seven seconds left (more on that in a moment) but this no-call was a huge game-changer.
If not for the interference, Lamb likely makes the catch down the sideline with a lot of room to run. If the flag is thrown, it’s a first down at the Baltimore 29 with seven seconds left and a timeout. That’s enough time for one more shot to the endzone, with a makeable field goal as a last resort. Instead, nothing.
CeeDee Lamb drops the game-tying Hail Mary before halftime
So, after the Cowboys got hosed on the no-call, they faced a fourth down at midfield with seven seconds left. It was much too far for a field goal, and there was no point in punting it with just seven seconds, so Dallas drew up a Hail Mary. And it came oh-so-close to being caught:
It’s hard to really criticize Lamb too much here, as it’s incredibly hard and random to come down with a Hail Mary catch like that, and there’s not even a guarantee he would be able to hold on as he landed in a sea of bodies. But the ball goes right into his hands and he just can’t get it in his grasp in time.
The implications are obviously huge. If he made that catch, it’s a tie game at halftime. Instead, it was a 17-10 deficit with the Ravens getting the ball to start the third quarter.
All three of Greg Zuerlein’s missed field goals
Okay, so this is a bit of a cheat, but it wouldn’t be fair to all these other impactful plays to just list each of Greg Zuerlein’s missed field goals. While Zuerlein has been one of the most reliable Cowboys this year, he had a very rough day in Baltimore, where the wind and natural grass can get the best of any kicker.
Zuerlein missed from 40 yards, 53 yards, and 52 yards in that order. None of these field goals would have made a drastic difference on their own, but altogether that’s nine points the Cowboys were expecting to have. When Amari Cooper scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys would have been in position to try a game-tying two-point conversion if Zuerlein hits on those three field goals.
It’s not all on Zuerlein though. The Cowboys offense was moving the ball with regularity all game long, but they had a hard time putting the ball in the endzone. For a multitude of reasons, each drive stalled out, leading to the Cowboys to send out Zuerlein. This was a game where Dallas needed to score touchdowns, not field goals, to have a chance. Their continued stalled drives and ensuing missed field goals summed up the night perfectly: missed opportunities.
Former Cowboy Jihad Ward sacks Andy Dalton, forces a (missed) field goal
Speaking of stalled drives, the final such case that led to a Zuerlein attempt was arguably the biggest one. Down 24-10 at the end of the third quarter, the Cowboys were mounting a lengthy drive that had reached the Baltimore 26-yard line. They had converted on third down twice already on this drive, and were facing third and seven as the first play of the fourth quarter.
Dalton took the snap and tried to survey the field, but former Cowboys defensive tackle Jihad Ward broke through to sack him for an eight yard loss. This was the first sack all game for the Ravens - a testament to how good this decimated offensive line played against a dominant pass rush - but it came at the worst possible time.
The hope was to score a touchdown to bring it within one score, with the entire fourth quarter left to tie things up or take the lead, but the sack made those hopes quickly evaporate. Looking at fourth and 15 and wanting to salvage at least some points, Zuerlein trotted out for what ended up being his third miss of the game. By the time the Cowboys would score again, it was too little too late.