Two things were true about Sunday Night Football: Dak Prescott was the best player on the field, and the Cowboys lost. How Dallas squares those two realities will define the team’s season, especially since the Vikings didn’t beat the Cowboys as much as the Cowboys beat themselves. A combination of coaching, bad execution in the run game, and confusing special teams decisions (why didn’t Tavon Austin return it!) decided a 28-24 game.
“I thought Dak played as well as any quarterback I’ve seen this year,” Kirk Cousins told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after the game. It’s barely hyperbole. Prescott completed 28 of 46 passes for 397 yards and three touchdowns with an interception on a Hail Mary as time expired. Prescott and Amari Cooper may have had their best night together as teammates, and that’s saying something for one of the best quarterback-receiver combos of the past 12 months. Cooper caught 11 of 14 targets for 147 yards and a touchdown, and three of those catches came so precariously along the sideline that it looked like he had a wire team ready off screen. The most stunning catch of them all was when Prescott found Cooper in the end zone to take a 21-20 lead midway through the third quarter.
The catch was so preposterous that even Cooper waited for the call, watched the referee’s arms go skyward, and then shrugged.
“You can’t defend that,” NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said after watching the replay. Indeed, the Cowboys couldn’t cover anyone Prescott was targeting. Dak found Randall Cobb for a crucial first down late in the game backed up in their own territory. The play capped Cobb’s best game as a Cowboy (six catches for 106 yards). On one of those catches midway through the second quarter, Dak channeled his inner Aaron Rodgers and parlayed a Vikings offside penalty into a free play touchdown that he dropped into a bucket:
Dak was on fire, and his second-to-last drive struck fear into Vikings fans’ hearts (if they say otherwise, they are lying or fell asleep for the end of the game). Minnesota, up 28-24, pinned the Cowboys at their own 6-yard line with less than five minutes to play. Eight plays, seven passes, and six completions later, the Cowboys had driven 83 yards for a second-and-2 at the Minnesota 11-yard line. Then everything went haywire in slow motion. Running back Ezekiel Elliott was stuffed for no gain. The Cowboys went back to Elliott again on third-and-2, and this time he lost yardage. Prescott couldn’t convert the subsequent fourth-and-5, and suddenly, Dallas’s drive was dead.
It might seem like an anomaly that Elliott was stuffed on two consecutive short-yardage gains, but it was indicative of the entire night. Elliott finished with 20 carries for 47 yards and just two catches for 16 yards as the Vikings defensive line, led by Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, consistently controlled the line of scrimmage on run plays.
“You want to attack different ways,” head coach Jason Garrett said in his postgame press conference. “It’s important for us to continue to try and run the ball. In normal circumstances you would think if we could give it to Zeke a couple times, second [down] and inside of two yards, that we’re gonna make that first down. Unfortunately it didn’t happen.”
Not only is Zeke getting stuffed in short yardage representative of the game, but it is representative of his career. Despite the contract he signed this offseason paying him $50 million in the next four seasons and his rushing titles and all of the soup ladeling, Elliott has been a mediocre short-yardage back, according to a study by Josh Hermsmeyer at FiveThirtyEight. Even the Cowboys fans who don’t want to look at graphs while talking ball will remember that Dallas lost to the Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs in a starkly similar situation: Elliott lost 4 yards on a late third-quarter first-and-10 at the Rams 44 and then was stuffed on fourth-and-1 a few plays later, giving L.A.’s offense the chance to take a commanding 15-point lead in the fourth. It’s up for debate (and some soul-searching) on whether the failure to convert with Elliott in short yardage is on him not finding holes, the offensive line not creating them, or the coaching staff not designing them when defenses are more scrunched up in the red zone. Whatever the answer, it’s an unacceptable pattern of outcomes for a team that spends more on its offensive line than any other franchise.
Unlike the divisional round of the playoffs, the Cowboys got the ball back on Sunday night, but that only sparked the next controversy. Tavon Austin fair-caught a punt when he appeared to have plenty of space for a meaty return. It’s possible Austin was told to fair-catch the ball to save time without his coaches anticipating how much space he’d have to work with, but it only added to the fire on Garrett who, like Elliott, keeps coming up short despite all the talent in the world to cushion him.
Dallas’s defense is not blameless. The Vikings shut Elliott down, but the Cowboys had few answers for Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook, who had 33 touches for 183 yards and a score (5.5 yards per touch). Cook has 1,415 yards from scrimmage this season, the most through 10 games in franchise history, according to ESPN’s Courtney Cronin and the most in the NFL since Dallas’s DeMarco Murray had 1,514 in 2014. Even without receiver Adam Thielen, the Vikings jumped out to a 14-0 lead on their first two drives, added a field goal on each side of halftime, and found tight end Kyle Rudolph in the end zone for two touchdowns and a two-point conversion. But Dallas’s questionable decision-making was not on the defensive side of the ball on Sunday.
The loss drops Dallas to 5-4—the same record as the Eagles. The Cowboys may need to hold onto their division lead to secure a playoff spot, because with so many losses to contending NFC teams—including the Saints, Packers, and Vikings—securing a wild card will be an uphill climb if head-to-head tiebreakers come into play. The Cowboys already beat Philadelphia once, but a win Sunday night would have given them a cushion. Now it’s gone. Their next three games are against the Lions, Patriots, and Bills. None of those are gimmes. The Cowboys made Sunday night harder for themselves than it had to be, and now their entire season is harder than it has to be.