The Dallas Cowboys kept their slim hopes of overtaking the Philadelphia Eagles alive with a 27-13 win over the Tennessee Titans, but it was hardly a satisfying win. The Titans had a long, long injury list and clearly were saving many of their starters for a decisive game next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars. This was expected to be a very easy win for Dallas, but they never really put Tennessee away.
The first half might best be described as desultory for the Cowboys, mainly due to a lost fumble and two interceptions for them. One of the picks was not on Dak Prescott at all as Peyton Hendershot bobbled a ball that was perfectly on target to have Kevin Byard come down with it. He would get a second interception late in the first half on a a great play that was on Prescott. A botched exchange with Tyler Biadasz led to the other turnover. They took the ball away once on a strip sack, but that -2 differential was the main story of the first half.
The Cowboys did put together one good drive on their second possession. The marched methodically from their own 40, capping it off with a one-yard plunge from Ezekiel Elliott. But they would stall on another scoring opportunity when Elliott would get thrown for a three-yard loss on third and one, forcing them to settle for a 36-yard Brett Maher field goal.
That put them up 10-0 with just four seconds gone in the second quarter, but then the turnovers started. Much was made of Joshua Dobbs making his first NFL start, but he came up with a 39-yard deep ball to Racey McMath to set up their first field goal. Then as time was running out in the half, that second interception came. There was only :13 left in the half with the Titans on the Cowboys’ 41. Treylon Burks caught the ball near the sideline and did an outstanding job of keeping his feet inbounds while evading a tackle to get the ball to the 11, and a chip shot field goal had the score 10-6 at halftime.
There were some good things to come out of the half for Dallas. They had no penalties, while Tennessee was flagged five times. The defense got two sacks, and T.Y. Hilton was fully integrated into the offense with three catches for 33 yards. But it was not at all the kind of dominant performance it should have been for a team that could not even suit up 43 players for the game, including Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and other starters. One thing that continued to plague the Cowboys was a lack of success on early down runs. Too many times they faced second and nine or ten. And that would continue into the second half.
Having deferred after winning the coin toss, the Titans went three and out as Dobbs looked more like the inexperienced QB he is. The Cowboys had to start from their own 11 after their first flag of the game. A Michael Gallup catch on third down kept things alive, and then Noah Brown drew his second pass interference call of the game. Then a holding call led to a first and 20. They only got one yard total on first and second down, but the refs bailed them out again as Michael Gallup was clearly held on the six-yard line on a Prescott heave as he evaded pressure. It was effectively a gain of 51 yards and Dalton Schultz would be untouched into the end zone on the next play to open up a 17-6 lead.
Dobbs looked good on a 21-yard pass to Burks and then they quickly got to the Cowboys 34 on a hurry up snap. The defense would force a fourth and two but could not stop them from converting as Hassan Haskins was able to force DeMarcus Lawrence backwards. They would eventually get their first touchdown on a seven-yard pass to Robert Woods as Dobbs was clearly starting to look much more comfortable in the offense. It was again just a four-point lead for Dallas as the depleted Titans were clearly not cowed.
More disturbing, the secondary was beginning to take some injuries. Nahshon Wright and Jayron Kearse both left the field to be evaluated. Injuries were the worst thing that could happen to Dallas, and the secondary was a very bad place for them to happen as it had already been so badly depleted. Wright and Kearse fortunately would return later.
Once again, the next drive started with a failed first down run. An incompletion set up a third and ten. But Prescott found Hilton for 28 yards, most of which came after the catch. Then the offense caught the injury bug, this time Tyler Biadasz. He had to be helped off the field after he had his right leg rolled up and would come back to the sideline wearing a walking boot, a worrying development. That forced them to reshuffle the offensive line, with Jason Peters coming in a left tackle, Tyler Smith going to left guard, and Connor McGovern taking over duties at center.
With help from a roughing the passer call, which itself was not a good thing to see for Prescott, the Cowboys scored on another Schultz grab where he used his length to go up and bring the ball down. That pushed the lead back to two scores with 11:58 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But the defense again gave up a chunk play on a 20-yard reverse. Two plays later, Sam Williams joined the growing injury list as Dallas yielded another first down that had the Titans on the Cowboys’ 45. DaRon Bland forced a fourth and five with a blitz, then a false start when they lined up to go for it made it fourth and ten, and Tennessee elected to punt.
The offense still had problems with first down runs, and that forced them to settle for a 45-yard Maher field goal. It extended the lead to two touchdowns with less than half the fourth quarter left, but Dallas clearly was not running away with the game the way almost everyone expected. The margin forced them to keep those starters in to keep from risking what would have been a massive embarrassment. Wright would get a late interception to help keep that from happening, but this was just too hard.
Despite never trailing, this was a very underwhelming performance by a team that wants to make some noise in the playoffs. Their opponent was badly outmanned, yet hung in to keep it closer than it truly should have been. There were some good signs, such as CeeDee Lamb going for over 100 yards and Hilton contributing 50, while Schultz would have 56 and the two TDs. Still, there were far too many ways things sputtered. They have one more game to get things right while also protecting health. They also have a mini-bye, and that may be more important than we realized.