Just when we started to believe in this team, they offer up plenty of reasons to feel foolish for ever having done so. It’s a tale as old as time with this Cowboys franchise, but one that really felt like it was starting to melt away under Mike McCarthy’s leadership.
The last time the Cowboys prompted a “same ol’ Cowboys” sentiment was that 49ers game in Week 5. The team was quick to write off the Cardinals loss as a lapse in focus, coupled with the fact that they were down three starters on the offensive line. Dallas took out their frustrations on the Patriots, who have just two wins since then, and looked ready for their rematch with the 49ers.
That, of course, led to an absolute dismantling on Sunday Night Football. It was a harsh reminder that the Cowboys were a good team but still nowhere close to the same stratosphere as the 49ers, the class of the NFC.
Things turned around quickly after that game, though. San Francisco lost three in a row, suddenly looking vulnerable, and the Cowboys offense started clicking. McCarthy was in his bag every week, and Dak Prescott rapidly ascended to the forefront of the MVP race. The Cowboys won seven of their next eight, with the only loss being a very narrow road loss to the Eagles that was avenged in dominant fashion just five weeks later.
Which brought us all to this most recent game. The Cowboys seemingly announced themselves as a legitimate contender with their big win over the Eagles, moving into first in the NFC East and needing just one more Eagles loss to control their destiny in the division. They got that on Monday night, as Philadelphia lost to a Seahawks team led by backup quarterback Drew Lock. All the Cowboys had to do was take care of business, but they couldn’t do that.
Not only did Dallas lose in Buffalo, but it wasn’t even close. The offense was horrible - Prescott rarely had time to throw, and when he did he was missing left and right - and the defense got bullied in the trenches from start to finish. Even the special teams unit was hurting the Cowboys, with a roughing the kicker penalty that erased a rare stop on defense. In just about every way, this game was reminiscent of the 49ers game, and easily the worst this team has performed since then.
That’s what makes this game so concerning. Coming into Buffalo, it was easy to feel confident about the Cowboys’ chances. Even if they had to go on the road in the playoffs, they’re playing better football than any NFC team other than the 49ers. And even then, the Cowboys are a significantly better team than they were the last time they faced San Francisco, so who knows how a playoff rematch might go? The optimism was at an all-time high.
Not only that, but the Cowboys were presented with a golden opportunity to prove their road warrior playoff mettle. The Bills may or may not make the playoffs in a crowded AFC, but they’re a playoff-caliber team for sure. This game represented a perfect simulation of a road playoff environment for the Cowboys, who are facing strong odds of playing every playoff game on the road this year.
They failed the test in stunning fashion. The Bills beat them in pretty much the same way the 49ers beat them, making it significantly harder to feel any shred of confidence in a rematch regardless of it coming in San Francisco or Dallas. We know the Cowboys are good at home, but if they can’t beat playoff-caliber teams on the road - they’re 0-3 on the road against teams with a winning record - then how are they supposed to advance at all come time for the postseason?
That is the question facing McCarthy right now. As the offensive play-caller, this was his first bad game in a while, but it goes beyond that. McCarthy’s team once again proved that they’re not ready for the biggest stage. If they can’t secure home field advantage through the playoffs - they’d need a miracle, with a 1% chance right now, per the New York Times’ playoff odds - then the Cowboys seemingly face a certainty of another early playoff exit. That sentiment is the real tragedy of this Bills loss.