The Cowboys have grown accustomed to playing in games that are decided well before the final whistle blows, and many of them have been effectively over before halftime even hit. However, the Cowboys are usually on the winning side of those contests.
That wasn’t the case this week as the Cowboys saw their worst halftime deficit since 2020 and lost to the Bills 31-10. They clinched a playoff spot before kickoff, but it’s hard to enjoy such a distinction after getting blown out by a team that wouldn’t even make the postseason if things ended today. The Cowboys lost this game early on, and these five plays were a big reason why.
DeMarcus Lawrence gets called for roughing the passer
The Bills got the ball to start this game, and their offense quickly went to work. It was evident early on that Dallas was unable to stop their ground game, and Buffalo doubled down on that with runs on six of their first eight plays.
Eventually, the defense forced a third and four, but the Bills were already at the Dallas six. Josh Allen rolled out to his right and chucked a prayer that flew out of the back of the endzone, finally yielding a stop. But there was a flag on the field.
DeMarcus Lawrence, who brought the pressure to keep Allen from taking off for the first down, was called for roughing the passer. The call was for a soft forearm shove that admittedly came after the throw, but was embellished by Allen. Suddenly, Buffalo had a fresh set of downs inside the three, and it only took two plays to go up 7-0.
Dak Prescott misses Brandin Cooks deep
The Cowboys offense took the field ready to tie the game up right away. Their very first play, a run to Tony Pollard, went forward for a gain of four. That set the Cowboys up with second and six, which seemed like a good time to take a shot, according to Mike McCarthy.
The play almost worked. Dak Prescott faked the handoff and then launched a deep ball to Brandin Cooks, who had his man beat way downfield. Prescott missed Cooks by a yard or two, a miss that would prove costly in the long run.
If Prescott hit Cooks on that throw, it’s probably a touchdown. Even if Cooks were to be tackled at the spot of the catch, it would’ve been a first down right around the Buffalo 20-yard line. And while Dallas converted the ensuing third down, the big play could’ve drastically shifted the outcome of this drive.
Tyler Smith’s holding penalty erases first down run
As mentioned, the Cowboys moved the chains following the miss to Cooks. They picked up another first down right after that, and it looked like Tony Pollard was in for a big day after another powerful run.
On second and five at the Buffalo 38, Pollard again took the handoff and knifed through the defense, picking up nine yards and a first down. Alas, another flag was on the ground: this time, Tyler Smith was called for holding.
Instead of a first down, the Cowboys now had second and 12 close to midfield. Their next two plays - a stuffed run and a sack on third down - forced a punt. But the holding call erased a big play and, ultimately, killed this drive.
Sam Williams’ roughing the kicker penalty erases defensive stop
The Dallas defense forced a three-and-out on their second series of the day - the last time they’d do so until the Bills pulled their starters - but the offense failed to score again. When the defense took the field again, they managed to get another stop after a few first downs.
As the Bills lined up to punt at their own 26-yard line, John Fassel sent his unit on an all-out block attempt. They had done the same on the previous punt, and came within inches of success. This time, Sam Williams burst free almost immediately and had a wide open path to the punter. That's when catastrophe struck.
For some unknown reason, Williams launched into the air to block the punt, which allowed the punter to get around him for the kick before being drilled as Williams came down. The flag came out immediately, 15 yards were given up, and the defense came back onto the field. Buffalo scored a touchdown six plays later. Williams could’ve set the offense up in the red zone, but instead he gave it right back to the Bills. This play was truly the turning point of the whole game.
Jayron Kearse’s penalty gives Bills big first down
The Cowboys managed to string together a successful offensive drive, though they had to settle for a field goal in the end to cut the deficit to 14-3. As the Bills took the field again, Dallas needed another defensive stop, this time without a penalty to erase it.
A sack from Mazi Smith on first down looked like the Cowboys were about to do just that. Suddenly, Buffalo had a second and 19, and their odds of converting looked dire. That’s when Allen airmailed a throw to Khalil Shakir, bringing up a third and very long.
Except not really, because a flag flew in after the play. Jayron Kearse was called for unnecessary roughness, as the safety made contact with Shakir at the end of the play. The replay showed that Kearse did make contact with Shakir’s head, but it had appeared unintentional and incidental. Regardless, the penalty was assessed and the Bills were rewarded with a first down instead of third and a mile. They didn’t see a third down the rest of that drive, scoring a touchdown to go up an insurmountable 21-3 before halftime.