Sunday, December 5

What the Cowboys’ shocking loss to the Broncos means for the image of the 2021 NFC playoffs

The Cowboys’ playoff momentum toward NFC championship contention accelerated at home in Week 9. Highly favored against the visiting Broncos with Dak Prescott returning from a calf injury to start at quarterback, Dallas lost a total failure against Denver, losing 30 -16.

The game wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated, as the Cowboys did some cosmetic work late with Prescott leading two pointless touchdown drives on his last two possessions to avoid the added embarrassment of a shutout. When the outcome of the game was still in doubt, the Broncos dominated from start to finish.

Why did the now 7-2 Cowboys, who had been rolling since a Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers, fell so hard in a midseason test? Here’s a breakdown of the breakdown and what it means for Dallas going forward:

Eagles, Jets get defensive stars with lots of top picks; Steelers, Broncos find quarterbacks

What happened to the Cowboys on Sunday?

1. His defense against the race failed miserably

The Broncos’ offensive line didn’t have left tackle Garett Bolles, but they destroyed the Cowboys up front with their block. Dallas entered the game as the sixth running defense in the NFL, allowing an average of just 88.3 rushing yards per game. That will not be your ranking after the game.

They allowed more than double that, 191 rushing yards for the Denver combination of veteran Melvin Gordon (21 carries, 80 yards) and rookie Javonte Williams (17 carries, 111 yards). The Cowboys wore out early and were never able to recover. They seemed stunned by the relentless running game, and at times, they seemed careless and undisciplined. Everything snowballed with offensive ineptitude.

2. They turned two turnovers into six

The Cowboys had a key interception in the red zone thrown by Prescott. They also converted a blocked punt from the Broncos that should have been like a takeout inside the red zone and turned into a cushioned return that allowed an eventual Denver field goal to continue.

The Cowboys also went 0-for-4 at fourth down, just missing every chance. They wouldn’t have needed to do it that many times if it hadn’t been just 5 out of 13 on third down. The Broncos, meanwhile, protected the ball even though Teddy Bridgewater was pressured on four sacks. The big upsets boil down to critical situation errors, and the Cowboys made many more.

3. Dak Prescott was rusted in a one-dimensional attack

The Broncos defense outscored Vic Fangio in the first game without Von Miller. The game’s negative script and Ezekiel Elliott playing through a bruised knee confirmed that the Cowboys would need to walk away to continue the race.

Prescott was unusually inaccurate in facing a defense from the first hit, completing only 48.7 percent of his passing attempts (19 of 39, 232 yards, 5.7 yards per attempt, 84.6 passer rating). The Cowboys let him rest in Week 8, which turned out to be a wise decision as backup Cooper Rush led them to victory against the Vikings. But despite a solid practice week for Prescott, one goodbye plus a lost game made him cringe and he dusted himself off against a well-built pass defense.

What does this mean for the Cowboys in the NFC playoff image?

The Cowboys missed a great opportunity to overtake the inactive Buccaneers. Also later in Week 9, the Packers (7-1) came in as big losers to the Chiefs minus Aaron Rodgers and the Cardinals (7-1) went on the road against the 49ers without Kyler Murray. The Rams (7-1), who beat the Buccaneers but lost to the Cardinals, instead seem poised to take the NFC driver’s seat Sunday night against the Titans at home.

The Cowboys have an alleged “improvement game” against the Falcons at home in Dallas next week, but then again, that team just beat the Saints on the road as big losers. Then things get tougher with a trip to Kansas City, a home game against Las Vegas and another road test in New Orleans.

They would surely lose a second game in that stretch, but it came first against Denver. The Cowboys now have less margin for error in next month’s stretch, ahead of December’s divisional games against Washington and New York.

Dallas’ chances of being the No. 1 seed, the only goodbye and home-field advantage looked pretty good. But knowing how stacked and daunting the top of the NFC playoff field is, a bad loss may haunt them for a while as they have lost the tiebreaker to Tampa Bay.

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