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Cowboys @ Rams: Five plays that shaped the game

The Cowboys got outplayed by both the Rams and the refs.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It seems that frustrating losses weren’t something inherent to the Jason Garrett Cowboys. Mike McCarthy made his debut as the Cowboys’ new coach on Sunday night in Los Angeles and ended up with a 20-17 loss that leaves plenty of questions to be asked going forward. As for the game itself, these five plays were especially crucial in determining the outcome.

Sean McVay is gifted a timeout to extend the Rams’ eventual touchdown drive

The Rams offense, featuring their all-new running back committee, started out surprisingly hot by bludgeoning the Cowboys’ front seven. While that became an all-too-common refrain throughout the game, this first drive set the Rams up for a swift trip into Dallas territory.

It almost stopped short, though. After Dontari Poe stuffed a run play at the Dallas six-yard line, the Rams faced a third and one. For whatever reason, it took Sean McVay a lot of time to get the playcall in and the play clock expired. Flags were thrown and the Rams were about to back up five yards, potentially giving the Cowboys a better chance of forcing fourth down. But the referees decided at the last second that McVay had called for a timeout in time and it remained third and one. Two plays later, and LA had scored a touchdown.

NBC’s officiating expert Terry McAulay opined that the timeout probably should not have been given to the Rams. In a game that ended up being decided by three points, this moment helped the Rams make up four points that could have been lost had they ended up settling for a field goal instead.

Greg Zuerlein misses his first field goal attempt as a Cowboy

Greg Zuerlein was a top-tier kicker not too long ago, but nagging injuries slowed him down considerably last year. New special teams coordinator John Fassel insisted that Zuerlein looked like his old self this year, and the veteran kicker was nearly perfect in every attempt throughout training camp.

Yet when Zuerlein attempted his first field goal of the year, a 53-yarder that would have tied the game at 10 apiece, he missed wide right. It’s hard to blame Zuerlein for missing such a long attempt on his first such kick of the year, especially with no preseason games, but the final score was a field goal’s difference and this field goal could have changed the entire course of the game.

Dak gets sacked on third down to kill the opening drive of the third quarter

For a moment it seemed like the Cowboys were starting to click. They ran a successful two-minute drill for a touchdown right before halftime and went into the locker room with a one-point lead despite their many mistakes.

Dallas got the ball out of the half and started moving down the field once again. Having crossed midfield at the Rams’ 39-yard line, it looked like they could go down and score again to take a 21-13 lead. But on third and four, defensive tackle Michael Brockers got penetration and brought Dak Prescott down for an eight-yard loss. With the drive killed and not even in the range for a field goal, Dallas had to punt away the ball, and with it, their momentum.

CeeDee Lamb’s shallow crossing route on fourth down turns the ball over

Trailing 20-17, the Cowboys were starting to put it together again. They had turned a Chidobe Awuzie pick into a field goal on the previous drive, and were moving the chains on their next drive. Facing a fourth and three at the Los Angeles 11, McCarthy decided to be aggressive and play to take the lead instead of tying the game. With nearly 12 minutes remaining in the game, this was the right call.

But while most are questioning the decision to go for it, focus should instead be turned to the play itself. Dak hit CeeDee Lamb on a shallow crossing route that fell just one-yard short of converting the first down. This was a critical rookie mistake, as Lamb should have known where the first down marker was and adjusted his route to make sure he was already across when he caught the pass. Instead, turnover on downs.

Referees imagine pass interference on Michael Gallup, put the final nail in the coffin

You knew this would be on here. While the Cowboys did plenty of things to shoot themselves in the foot, and probably didn’t deserve to win this game because of it, they still had a chance. On third and ten at their own 34, Prescott fired a bullet to Michael Gallup, who beat Jalen Ramsey on a go route and hauled in the catch at LA’s 19 with less than 30 seconds remaining. Except this happened:

The call was so egregious that Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth disagreed with it in the booth. This play would have given the Cowboys a chance to run at least two more plays and potentially win the game, and at least tie the game and send it to overtime. But a baffling penalty erased it completely, instead making it third and 20 at the Cowboys’ own 24.

This list began and ended with highly questionable officiating calls, and had a bunch of self-inflicted wounds in between. There is no better microcosm of the way McCarthy’s debut in Dallas began.