After a few weeks of messing around with mediocre and even bad teams, the Dallas Cowboys finally found out. They squandered a 14-point halftime lead and allowed the Jacksonville Jaguars to force overtime, then suffered an ugly loss thanks to a pick-six in the extra period.
While the Cowboys were still licking their wounds later that night, they clinched a playoff spot thanks to the Giants’ victory over the Commanders. But that provided little relief for the sting of defeat from earlier in the day; the loss perpetuates increasing questions about Dallas’ ability to compete once we get to the postseason.
The flop in Jacksonville had plenty of contributors across the roster and coaching staff. Let’s dig into each group.
Cowboys Offense: C
Scoring 34 points is enough to win a lot of NFL games, but the Cowboys offense failed to execute in some key moments and were the ones who gave up the game-losing touchdown. A sleepy second half that saw drives end in two punts, two field goals, and an interception had plenty to do with Jacksonville’s comeback.
A big issue was the unusual ineffectiveness in the run game. Both Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott averaged under 4.0 yards per carry overall. They had a good one here or there, but the ground attack that Dallas has leaned on most of the season didn’t have its typical explosiveness.
Naturally, that put more pressure on the passing side. QB Dak Prescott was mostly on throughout the day, completing 23-of-30 for 256 yards and three touchdowns. While he did have the two interceptions, his arm was hit on one throw and the other bounced off WR Noah Brown’s chest. It was encouraging to see yet another big day between Dak and WR CeeDee Lamb; seven catches for 126 yards on seven targets. While it came in a loss this past Sunday, hopefully their increasing chemistry bears fruit in the playoffs.
Receiver help needed
Whether it comes from T.Y. Hilton, Odell Beckham Jr., or a hologram of Michael Irvin at this point, Dallas clearly needs some help from another receiver. Brown has his moments but isn’t consistent enough and Michael Gallup has only had flashes of his former self. With the playoff spot now secured, maybe the Cowboys can use these last three regular season games to work in new talent and work out some concerning kinks.
Tyron Smith’s return to duty, and to the right tackle position he hasn’t played in a decade, was mostly productive. Terence Steele was missed as a run blocker and we still saw issues on the left side from Tyler Smith in pass protection. Again, hopefully these next few weeks will provide an opportunity to retool and build cohesion before the tournament.
Cowboys Defense: D-
The only thing saving this group from an “F” was the three turnovers they snagged. But giving up over 500 yards of total offense to the Jaguars, not to mention 26 points in the second half alone, was the real killer in this loss.
An old enemy reared its head in poor run defense. Dallas’ surrendered 192 rushing yards at 7.1 yards a carry. But that was coupled with a career day from QB Trevor Lawrence, who went off for four touchdowns and 318 passing yards. He found WR Zay Jones for three of those scores; yet another opposing receiver that the Cowboys have turned into a marquee name this season.
While Micah Parsons did get a sack and fumble recovery in the game, we didn’t see much pressure on Lawrence from him or other pass rushers most of the day. Trevor did have a few nifty escapes from would-be sacks but also enjoyed plenty of opportunities to read the field and pick apart Dallas’ beleaguered secondary. CB Kelvin Joseph got himself benched after giving up two early touchdowns, but it’s not like the Cowboys have any better options waiting behind him. The losses of veteran Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis are really hurting right now.
An injury of concern
LB Leighton Vander Esch left the game with concerns of a neck injury that’s thankfully turned out to be just a shoulder problem. His absence was felt against Jacksonville but shouldn’t linger into the playoffs. In general, Dallas seems banged up and tired throughout the defense and may need to focus more on rest and health now than chasing the unrealistic goal of catching the Eagles.
Cowboys Special Teams: B+
Nothing to really complain about here. Brett Maher hit a 53-yarder and another field goal to maintain his reliability and there were no glaring issues in kick or punt coverage. KaVontae Turpin had a few short returns on kickoffs that cost Dallas field position, but nothing as egregious as last week’s bungled punt return. It’s starting to feel like Turpin is as desperate to make a house call as fans are to see him to do it, and that may be having an adverse effect on his decision-making.
Cowboys Coaches: D
The Cowboys have played down to their competition lately and this time it cost them a victory. But despite only one loss for their sins, the trend is still highly concerning and especially with the playoffs just a few weeks away.
Sure, this one had plenty of “trap game” potential with the Eagles coming on Saturday night. But after nearly getting upset by the Texans a week ago, Dallas had no excuse for taking Jacksonville or any other team lightly. And after building a 21-7 lead, the collapse in the second half was an ugly sign for where this team’s mentality and killer instinct is just ahead of the postseason.
Granted, Kellen Moore can’t make Noah Brown catch a pass that hits him in the chest. Dan Quinn can only do so much when his guys are getting the opposing QB and he’s spinning out of their grasp. Players on the field absolutely have to finish the plays.
But while talent is lacking at some key positions, it doesn’t feel like much is happening right now to maximize existing options through scheme and play-calling. We see creativity from other teams, including Jacksonville, that is woefully lacking at times in Moore’s playbook. We see some defenses that do things to confuse young quarterbacks rather than allow them to pick apart your struggling second-year corners.
There’s still time to figure it out before the first playoff game. But now that we’re in mid-December, how much can we really expect this team to improve on its current product?