Despite the always present threat of a trap game, this was seen by everyone and their weird uncle as an easy one for the Dallas Cowboys as they faced the Houston Texans, possessors of the worst record in the league. But the Texans weren’t buying that script. They would give Dallas a run for the money, leading the game until there was just :42 left in the game. It would take a 98-yard drive with it all on the line for Dallas, and then stopping Houston as they fought to get their own touchdown to secure the win. A couple of false starts would help, and an interception by Israel Mukuamu on a final Hail Mary would make the score 27-23. While the chance to overtake the Philadelphia Eagles looks remote as they were handing a beatdown to the New York Giants, getting to 10 wins just further cemented their chances of making the playoffs.
It was also a cautionary tale. As we have seen so many times in the past, the Cowboys too often play down to the level of an opponent who is also playing better than usual. It took a bit of hero ball at the end, but Dallas avoided the loss and now has a lot to consider as they get ready for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
At first, the game had the look of the blowout that everyone predicted. The Cowboys had the ball to start the game after the Texans won the toss and deferred. They marched easily from their own 24, with the big play a 25-yard power run by Ezekiel Elliott before Tony Pollard went around right tackle for an 11-yard touchdown run. The defense would do its job with a three and out.
Then the problems started. KaVontae Turpin would muff the punt and Houston would recover it on the Dallas 24. The Texans would lean on the run to punch it into the end zone, aided by an offsides call down at the one-yard line. One thing they rolled out was subbing Jeff Driskel in for Davis Mills to run options, which worked well. The game was tied in the first quarter.
The Cowboys seemed to lose some of their offensive composure after that. The next drive would see them go backwards on their first two plays, and a pass to Noah Brown would be short of the sticks on third and thirteen.
Houston would start their next drive at their own 28. Mills would find Chris Moore for a 36-yard reception to get into Dallas territory. Mike McCarthy would challenge the play as replay showed the ball coming loose as the receiver went to the ground, but the play was upheld. The defense would limit the damage to just three points, but unexpectedly the Cowboys were trailing at the end of the first quarter against a team they had been favored to beat by three scores.
Dallas would answer on the next possession, with Dak Prescott finding Noah Brown for a 51-yard gain on third and thirteen after they started off moving backwards again. Pollard would get into the end zone on a checkdown from Prescott, with a nifty little sideways dance to get the score after contact. It was still just a four-point lead, and that would not last long.
The Cowboys would get the ball back after stopping Dameon Pierce on a fourth down carry, but would be unable to do anything with the opportunity. However, Johnathan Hankins was hurt on the play and would be out for the rest of the game.
The offense was looking very flat. Prescott was missing throws and the Texans were ready for many of the running plays. The worst thing that you can do against an inferior team is let them hang around, and that was exactly what was happening. Then disaster would strike again after an exchange of points as a pass from Prescott was first tipped by a defender then would go off Brown’s hands to be picked off. The return would set Houston up at the Dallas 27, and it would take just a couple of plays before Driskel would find Amari Rodgers for a 28-yard TD reception. The Cowboys were behind again by three.
They would get to the red zone, but three incompletions would force them to settle for a Brett Maher field goal to tie things at 17. Perhaps more significantly, Terence Steele was hurt during the possession and would be ruled out for the remainder of the game. Jake Ferguson was also ruled out after he was also hurt.
There were 40 seconds left in the half, and Dallas was unable to stop Houston from getting into field goal range to retake a three-point lead at halftime.
On the initial Texans possession of the second half it looked like things were swinging the Cowboys’ way as Donovan Wilson would knock the ball loose from rookie running back Dameon Pierce and Trevon Diggs, playing through his own injury, would recover the ball. He would run about 75 yards, giving up ground and weaving through Houston players before finally getting 15 yards on the return. It would come to nothing, as Ezekiel Elliott would be stopped for a loss from the one-yard line on fourth down. The Texans would again shred the run defense to get into field goal range. The 54-yard attempt by Ka’imi Fairborn was good, stretching their lead to six.
Things were still a struggle for the Cowboys on offense. They had to go for it on fourth and one from their own 35 just to keep thing alive, and would again stall. Maher would get a 54-yard field goal to shorten the deficit to three.
Time was starting to become a concern along with Dallas’ own ineffectiveness on both sides of the ball. The rotation of Mills and Driskel seemed to have Dan Quinn guessing wrong repeatedly, and both were playing effectively. Kellen Moore was likewise unable to figure out how to get the offense working. That would become very concerning when an excellent Cameron Johnston punt would leave them pinned at their own one-yard line with just 8:01 to try and retake the lead.
Then disaster struck again. After Pollard gutted out a first down with second effort, Prescott would get the ball knocked loose, and the Cowboys would lose ten yards on the recovery to put them back at the one. Then Prescott would throw his second interception after getting his arm hit, this one like the first picked off by Tremon Smith. That set Houston up on the Dallas four. The defense would stiffen and set up a fourth and goal from the three-yard line. The Texans went for it, and Anthony Barr wrapped Driskel up to get the ball back. But it left the Cowboys with 98 yards to go to either tie or take the lead, and just 3:20 left to do it.
They got out of the shadow of their own goalposts quickly with a 21-yard pass to Dalton Schultz. The offense found a rhythm they had not had since the early part of the second quarter, and that definitely included Prescott. At the two-minute warning, they faced a second and four at the Texans’ 49. After getting their next first down, Prescott found Brown to get them to the 22. A pass over the middle to Schultz got them into the red zone at the four. Three plays later, Elliott would power it into the end zone to take the lead with less than a minute to go. That would stand up, and the Cowboys avoided a real bullet.