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The Cowboys Look Like Contenders—Until They Play a Good Team

After a 3-0 start, Dallas has dropped two straight against quality opponents

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Dallas entered Sunday with the chance to prove it was a Super Bowl contender. In the first three weeks of the season, the Cowboys beat up on the Giants, Washington, and Miami, who are currently a combined 2-12 and started Eli Manning, Case Keenum, and Josh Rosen, respectively, at quarterback in those matchups. Finally playing a quality opponent in Week 4, Dallas lost 12-10 to the Teddy Bridgewater–led Saints. On Sunday, the team hosted Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, who eliminated the Cowboys from the playoffs twice this decade. With the game being one of only two scheduled for the 4 p.m. ET window, an emphatic win could have solidified the Cowboys’ status as a top-tier NFC team and Dak Prescott as an MVP candidate and exorcised the team’s demons in front of millions. That is not what happened. Dallas lost to Green Bay 34-24 in a game that showed us everything that makes the Cowboys Super Bowl contenders, but also all of the reasons they could fall short.

Dallas lost by 10, but the game was essentially over when the Packers took a 31-3 lead with 3:30 left in the third quarter. Both teams’ offensive numbers were roughly the same at that point. The Packers had gained 311 yards to the Cowboys’ 288, averaged 6.9 yards per play to the Cowboys’ 6.4, and had 98 rushing yards to Dallas’s 101. But the Cowboys were down 28 points because of turnovers and sacks. Their first four drives ended with either a pick or a punt after a sack on third down.

Prescott’s interceptions hurt most. On the fourth play of Dallas’s first drive, Prescott fired a first-and-10 pass behind Amari Cooper that went through the receiver’s hands and into those of budding cornerback Jaire Alexander. The Packers scored five plays later to make it 7-0.

While Prescott and Cooper can share the blame for that interception, the next one was entirely the quarterback’s fault. Down 14-0 at the Packers’ 35-yard line early in the second quarter, Prescott threw across the field without noticing cornerback Chandon Sullivan watching his eyes on an underneath route.

Those interceptions led to only seven Packers points, but the true dagger for Dallas was Prescott’s third and final pick. Down 31-17, the Cowboys got the ball at their own 34-yard line with 10:27 left in the fourth quarter. On the first play, Prescott took the snap in shotgun with good protection and tossed the ball to receiver Michael Gallup on a button hook route, but Prescott sailed the ball over Gallup’s head and right to cornerback Kevin King.

“Those are costly mistakes, as Jerry Jones knows all too well,” announcer and former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said after the play as Fox showed a replay of an angry Jones. Prescott finished with a puzzling line of 27 completions on 44 attempts for a career-high 463 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions. More than 250 of those yards and 20 of those passes came in the final 19 minutes after Green Bay retreated into prevent defense to protect their 28-point lead. Cooper still burned the Packers for 226 receiving yards, including a 53-yard touchdown that made the game 34-24 with just under eight minutes left. The Cowboys have their best passing attack since Tony Romo was around, but on Sunday, Prescott couldn’t deliver when the team needed him. Prescott entered the game as a dark horse MVP candidate behind Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, but left with his sterling season (and position in contract negotiations) seriously dented.

Prescott’s offensive line did him few favors on Sunday. With Cameron Fleming replacing injured stalwart left tackle Tyron Smith, Prescott was sacked three times for 22 yards on Sunday. That’s quite the turnaround from Prescott getting sacked three times for 24 yards total in the first four games of the season. Right tackle La’el Collins, who entered the game with a back injury, left the game with an MCL injury. All three sacks came from Green Bay’s Za’Darius and Preston Smith, the (unrelated) pass-rushing duo the Packers signed in free agency this offseason. The first sack came on Dallas’s second drive when Za’Darius Smith tackled Prescott 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and took Dallas out of field goal range.

Two drives later, Preston Smith sacked Prescott on third down just as the Cowboys were on the precipice of Green Bay territory, once again forcing a punt on a promising Dallas possession. The third sack of the night, this one from Za’Darius, knocked the Cowboys from second-and-goal at the 9 to third-and-goal at the 18, forcing a field goal.

Sacks are nothing new to Dallas. The team allowed the second most in the league last year (56). Sacks are certainly nothing new without Tyron Smith. Two years ago without Smith, backup left tackle Chaz Green was dominated by Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who had a near-NFL-record six sacks in one game. In the two games without Smith in 2017 (excluding Week 17 after Dallas had been eliminated from the playoffs), the Cowboys combined for 16 points while Prescott averaged 160.5 passing yards, threw no touchdowns and three interceptions, and was sacked 12 times. But it isn’t just Prescott who struggles without Smith. Running back Ezekiel Elliott had 62 yards on 12 carries (5.2 yards per carry) and a touchdown, plus two catches for 29 yards. He was completely outshone by Packers running back Aaron Jones, who had 26 touches for 182 yards from scrimmage and four rushing touchdowns for an obscene 49.2 PPR fantasy points. Dallas’s defense struggled mightily to stop the Packers, who were missing no. 1 receiver Davante Adams. Rodgers finished with just 238 yards on 22-of-34 passing (7.0 yards per attempt) but Dallas’s defense had few answers for Jones throughout the contest, who broke big play after big play.

Yet the Cowboys’ comeback showed what they’re capable of. Cooper had just the 14th 200-yard receiving game in the past four years (he was also one of two receivers to reach the mark for a team located in Texas on Sunday). Prescott’s 463 yards were a career high, and his 10.5 yards per pass attempt were the fourth highest of his career. Turnovers aside, the offense moved the ball well throughout the game and may have even had a chance to win if not for a missed field goal by kicker Brett Maher on Sunday.

The past two weeks have undone much of the goodwill Dallas built up in weeks 1 to 3. They held the Eli Manning–led Giants to 17 points in Week 1, gave up 21 points to Case Keenum in Week 2, went into halftime up just 10-6 against Miami in Week 3, were held to 10 points in a loss to the Saints in Week 4, and then fell to Green Bay on Sunday. After the game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was asked about having three wins against three losing teams and two losses against two winning teams.

“What you see is what you get,” Jones said.

The Cowboys will get a temporary reprieve against the pathetic Jets next week, who can’t decide whether they want to risk their franchise quarterback’s life, but after the Jets it will be tough sledding. Gambling analyst Warren Sharp projects the Cowboys to have the league’s toughest schedule starting in Week 7, with the Patriots, Bears, Vikings, and two games against the Eagles still in the queue. The Cowboys have not beaten a winning team yet, and they have eight winning teams left on their schedule. We’ll see what we get.

An earlier version of this piece wrongly stated that Prescott’s first interception went off receiver Randall Cobb’s hands. It went off the hands of Amari Cooper.