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Cowboys learned that nothing can be taken for granted

This past week was a weird one for the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Buffalo Bills
They prepared for the wrong one of this duo.
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys’ 31-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills was unexpected. And that may well contain the biggest clue as to what happened. While this is a bit of inference, it really appears Dallas prepared to face a Buffalo team that was going to play one way, but wound up being something completely different.

While the Bills were not exactly bad running the ball coming into the game, they had a clear identity as a passing team, led by Josh Allen. Tied for third most touchdowns thrown, he was the main engine of their offense coming into the game. That should have been good news for the Cowboys, who have built their defense to shut down the pass with a ferocious pass rush and a stingy, ball-hawking secondary that wanted to take advantage of Allen’s propensity for throwing picks.

What they got, however, was a team that nearly abandoned the pass to pound away on the ground, mostly in the form of James Cook. Buffalo’s coaches saw a weakness they might be able to exploit. There have been games where Dallas struggled to contain the run all season. On the very first drive, twelve plays, the Bills accumulated 47 yards rushing. Allen only threw four passes and completed just two. This was a ball-control attack, and the Cowboys just had no answer.

Well, except for a third and four play in the red zone where the defense had a chance to force a field goal. The pass was incomplete, but DeMarcus Lawrence was flagged for roughing Allen. It was the first, but not the last, penalty that would really hurt Dallas in the game.

You can’t plan on flags, of course, and at times we despair that the Cowboys can ever cut down on the infractions. What the Bills did was to see something going in that could work, and when it did they adjusted to focus on it. Clearly that is what happened the rest of the way in a game where Buffalo would run the ball 49 times and only drop back to pass sixteen. Why throw the ball when you can just march methodically down the field and put up points?

It still wouldn’t have been an issue if the Cowboys could have stopped Cook and the rest of the ball carriers. In a season where Dan Quinn has made some very good adjustments, there were none that had any effect in this game. This is where things are sometimes about long-range planning and preparation. It can also include an untimely injury or two. Dallas did try and address their issues with the run in the offseason by drafting Mazi Smith in the first round after trading for Johnathan Hankins in 2022. Hankins was unavailable for this game, and the initial reaction may be that Smith failed.

Initial reactions are not always the best, however, and that looks like the case here. According to PFF, Smith was actually one of their best graded defensive players, with only stars DeMarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons, and Stephon Gilmore ahead of him. And the grade does not reflect that crucial penalty Lawrence drew. The absence of Hankins was probably more of an issue as Smith was only on the field for 49% of the defensive snaps.

If there was a weak link on the defensive line, it was most likely Osa Odighizuwa, who was very poorly graded and on the field 75% of the time. This is where that thing about long-term problems comes into play. Odighizuwa has been having an excellent season, but he is more effective on passing downs. He is just a bit too light to be a true run-stuffer. That is what he was forced to try and do, and the results speak for themselves. The way the Cowboys are built was a major contributing factor in this game. The rest of the defensive line also had bad days, including Carl Davis, a 335-pound defensive tackle called up from the practice squad to try and plug the hole left by Hankins. But Dorance Armstrong, Chauncey Golston, and others also had big issues.

Had the coaching staff seen this coming, they may have been able to do more to stop it, although the thin linebacking group may have made that difficult. It also didn’t help that players like Donovan Wilson and Damone Clark would have to leave the field at times as they and many other players were just getting banged up by a physical, intense opponent.

Another thing that Dallas took for granted was that the offense could score points on the Bills. That is a fundamental part of the offensive strategy under Mike McCarthy, and for much of the season it has worked just fine. It is hard to figure out just what went so wrong. There seemed to be multiple causes. Dak Prescott had a bad day at the office, something that just seems to happen to him at times. He is hardly unique in that; all good quarterbacks will put the occasional clunker on the field. The final three games of the season and the coming postseason depend on him bouncing back, something he has clearly done before. But it also fits under the umbrella of things you can’t automatically assume will happen. It doesn’t help that Zack Martin picked up an injury, or that other members of the offense had poor games. Oddly, one player who was doing well against the Bills was Tony Pollard, but with the big deficit, the team was forced to go away from the run.

The road struggles continue to baffle. They only have one more away game against a good team, this week’s contest at the Miami Dolphins. With the very real risk of going into the playoffs as the five seed and having to play on the road, that is more than a little concerning, as well as being so inexplicable.

It does mean that the Cowboys face a ton of questions. Should they answer them, however, another thing some of us were not expecting has kept the door open for them to still have a chance at the NFC East crown and home playoff games. That was the Philadelphia Eagles losing to the Seattle Seahawks. While many did not see it as a far-fetched idea before it happened, it seemed more unlikely that the Eagles would be in a three-game slump.

It would also seem to be a long shot that Philadelphia will lose another game, given that they have both their meetings with the New York Giants bookending a game against the Arizona Cardinals. We can’t take that for granted, either. Just a couple of days ago, many of us (raises hand) felt things were all over in the race for playoff seeding. This week, Dallas will once again have to play their game on Sunday before finding out how the Eagles do on Monday.

They’ve been given another chance to take care of business and then let things shake out. Let’s hope it goes very well.

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