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4th-quarter lead not enough for Cowboys to win at Dolphins, lose on 5th FG allowed at buzzer

There was no Christmas miracle for the Cowboys defense making a final stand against the Dolphins.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Miami Dolphins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have two regular-season games remaining before the playoffs, and will go into their last home game of the year on Saturday versus the Lions having lost two games in a row for the first time all season. The Cowboys lost on a last-second field goal 22-20 at the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, their fifth loss this year - all on the road and all with Mike McCarthy’s offense managing less than 30 points. The Cowboys only win under 30 points this season came back in week six on turf at the L.A. Chargers. There would be no such luck in Miami even after Brandin Cooks’ third-and-goal touchdown with under four minutes to play gave the Cowboys their first lead since the first quarter.

The importance of the Cowboys playing from ahead was evident all game, with an opening drive Hunter Luepke fumble at the goal line allowing the Dolphins to strike first on Jason Sanders first of five field goals. Sanders’ shortest kick of the game was the game-winner from just 29 yards out to cap off the longest scoring drive of the game for the Dolphins, moving 64 yards in 12 plays on a drive that started with a Damone Clark facemask penalty.

The Cowboys six penalties on the afternoon were just one more than the Dolphins’ five, but they proved costly throughout the game as the offense punted on three straight drives after CeeDee Lamb’s touchdown. With Chuma Edoga starting at left tackle for an injured Tyron Smith, the Dolphins were able to get pressure on Dak Prescott and force throws underneath. McCarthy’s offense taking what Vic Fangio’s defense was giving underneath with throws to Lamb and Jake Ferguson was enough for Dan Quinn’s defense to keep this game close with a fourth and goal stop early on, and a Micah Parsons third-down sack that forced a fourth quarter punt to set up the go-ahead score to Cooks.

Mike McDaniel’s Dolphins offense getting the ball last in a game decided by the two QBs that have their teams leading the NFL in points per game made the difference in this game though. The Dolphins won their second straight at home after a loss to the Titans that puts them at 11 wins and in control of the AFC East, something the Cowboys can’t say as they drop to 10-5 and remain behind the Eagles in the NFC East.

The Cowboys being home with a chance to play against another division-leading team in the Lions will be a welcome sight after road losses to the Bills and Dolphins. Before Saturday’s kickoff, and a halftime Ring of Honor induction for Jimmy Johnson, here are a few notes on the Christmas Eve loss for Dallas.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Miami Dolphins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
  • Unlike last week where they fell behind early and were forced to drop back and throw 39 times in windy and rainy conditions, the Cowboys took the ball first and looked poised to take a touchdown lead on a drive that ended after 15 plays and four rushing first downs. Luepke converted two third and ones, the first coming after a handoff to Lamb for nine yards, but it was Luepke’s third run of the drive that ended in disaster with the fumble recovered by safety Brandon Jones. The Cowboys finished with less than 100 yards on the ground for the second week in a row, despite trying to get all of their play-makers involved and control the game with a patient offense.
Dallas Cowboys v Miami Dolphins Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Dallas quickly responded to Miami taking a 3-0 lead on Lamb’s biggest play of the game, a 49-yard touchdown for the Cowboys’ first score. Prescott was able to get the ball out on time at the end of his drop, making the difference for Lamb to have space after the catch to take the crossing route for six. The Cowboys only other completion over 40 yards in this game, a third quarter fade route to Jalen Tolbert to put Dallas just outside of the red zone would only result in a field goal. Their third longest pass of the game was Ferguson for 20 yards on fourth down on the scoreless opening drive, with the Cowboys failing to capitalize on chances to take the lead throughout the game.

  • How the Cowboys would stand up against the run defensively in this game was the story of the week, doing so against another quality run team like the Dolphins that has the best speed in the NFL on the outside in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Waddle and Hill were back in the lineup together after Hill did not play in a 30-0 win for the Dolphins over the Jets, and their ability to move Hill around gave Dan Quinn’s defense trouble. Hill’s speed against bracket coverages allowed him to find space in the middle of the field, and though the Cowboys did a better job stopping the run with extra defensive backs on the field, their pass rush only netted one sack and they failed to create a takeaway in their second straight loss.

McDaniel’s offense targeted Stephon Gilmore when they needed a big play, but also got their running backs involved with underneath throws in a way McCarthy and the Cowboys couldn’t. Raheem Mostert’s touchdown with 17 seconds left in the first half gave the Dolphins a chance to score on consecutive possessions to start the third quarter, outrunning Jayron Kearse on a misdirection route to give Miami a 13-7 lead they’d hold until the fourth quarter. Mostert has been one of the best scoring threats in the Dolphins offense, as this was just the fourth game all season the Dolphins went without a touchdown to either Hill or Waddle. Their 22 points being the second fewest they’ve scored in a win, the Dolphins lost all three of these previous games to the Chiefs, Titans, and Bills where their top receivers were held out of the end zone. While the Cowboys showed their defensive interior can handle the run better than they did against James Cook and the Bills in Week 15, their secondary holding up in these looks remains a concern - especially against creative offenses like the Dolphins, 49ers, and Lions team they’ll see off of a 30-24 win at the Vikings this Saturday from AT&T Stadium.

  • The Dallas defense getting a stop to start the second half could have been a turning point in this game, forcing a punt and getting the ball back only down six, but two incompletions to Ferguson forced a quick punt right back to Miami to set up their shortest field of the game. Even a third and short run stop by Sam Williams couldn’t keep the Dolphins off the scoreboard, ending the drive that started at their own 40-yard line with Sanders’ third field goal of over 50 yards in the game. The Dolphins’ two-score lead may have quickly been cut to one again by a Brandon Aubrey field goal on the next drive (his 33rd straight make to start the season), but the Cowboys offense was playing from behind with the clock against them from this point on, and lost out the possession game to Tua Tagovailoa who improved his TD-to-INT ratio at home to 16/4 this season with a 7-1 record. Tagovailoa has thrown an interception or been sacked at least three times in all four of the Dolphins’ losses this season, with Quinn’s defense failing to do either in this game.
NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Miami Dolphins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
  • The Cowboys will need a, Eagles loss in their last two games to win the NFC East now - assuming they win both at home in Week 17 where they remain undefeated since week 1 of 2021, and at the Commanders in Week 18 to finish division play 5-1 and conference play at 9-3. Not taking advantage of Dak Prescott playing as the best quarterback in the division again to potentially secure a home playoff game becomes even more telling after yet another road loss, with the Cowboys now staring at potential playoff games at two teams they’ve already lost to this season - at Philadelphia or San Francisco. Even their potential first round opponent, the NFC South leading Buccaneers, defended home field with a 30-12 win over the Jaguars on Christmas Eve to improve to 8-7. This is a loss Dallas can take more positives from compared to the week prior in Buffalo, but still a crucial one at this point in the season for their postseason goals.

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