ARLINGTON, Texas — It was supposed to be a statement game for the Dallas Cowboys, and it did turn out to be, only it wasn’t the statement they were hoping to send in Week 17. Fresh off of a 56-point explosion against the Washington Football Team that saw them nearly perfect in all three phases of the game, they found themselves again sputtering offensively when Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals walked into AT&T Stadium on Sunday, en route to losing a 25-22 nail-biter that mostly wasn’t one at all.
Due to a rash of first-half penalties that combined with execution issues (e.g., drops), Dak Prescott and his offense simply could not establish a rhythm early in the game. And while the Cowboys defense initially did a good job of stopping the Cardinals offense — holding them to only 13 points in the first half — an inability to extend drives offensively made things difficult for a tiring defense as the game wore on.
“They definitely did [disguised their defense],” said Prescott following the loss, a confirmation to Cardinals safety Budda Baker noting that’s what Arizona planned to do. “I feel like every team that I play does that more than they do [though] — other guys, I guess you could say. So, it’s just important for me to watch my film study and see the post snap. I think I did a solid job of it.
“They did a good job of disguising, trying to show some blitzes and then got out of there, brought a couple of them. They did a good job of getting their hands up on some DB pressures, batting the ball down and things like that. Obviously put us in second and long, in a situation you don’t want to be in. Credit to those guys for what they did, but we’ll see them again.”
Now, they’re almost assured to, after relinquishing the No. 2 seed in the NFC while also eliminating the possibility of chasing down the No. 1 seed. As it stands, the Cowboys are back in the No. 4 seat in the conference and the Cardinals, who ended a three-game slide by defeating the Cowboys, move to No. 5 and on a collision course that — at the moment — aims them back toward playing at AT&T Stadium on Wild Card Weekend.
The Cowboys would do well to end the regular season with a win against the Philadelphia Eagles, who themselves clinched a playoff berth on Sunday, as it would also serve to inject positive vibes ahead of the playoffs. But Prescott wants everyone to know that despite the miscues that again showed themselves Sunday, the Cowboys offense isn’t getting down on themselves.
“Not discouraged,” said Prescott. “Definitely disappointed we didn’t come away with the win but damned sure not discouraged. I know the team we have, what we’ve got. Just simply didn’t get it done as a team, starting with myself, [I’ve] got to be better.
“All of us, we’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror and find a way to come out with a win in a game like this.”
Prescott finished with three touchdowns to help the Cowboys climb back to what was nearly a double-digit comeback victory, but he also coughed up a fourth-quarter fumble that was scooped up by the Cardinals and made things tougher to achieve the goal. In addition to that, the Cardinals defense had clearly prepared for the laundry list of screen plays that offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has been resolute to call time and again over the past several weeks, many of them tipped into the air and broken up (oftentimes narrowly escaping becoming interceptions).
There is clearly still much to repair for a Cowboys offense that will now be without wideout Michael Gallup for the remainder of the season due to a torn ACL suffered on Sunday, and they’ll have just one more game to tweak things before the playoffs.
“Yeah, I mean great punch out by that guy [on the fumble],” Prescott said of his late-game mistake, one week after committing to running the ball more often when the opportunity presents itself. “[I just have to] protect it better, maybe put two hands on it as I’m spinning out of it, I guess. I had one on it, thought I had it tight, but great effort by him. I’ve got to find a better way to keep control of it to the ground.
“… We step on our own feet. Some self-inflicted penalties and things that just put us behind the chains. Just couldn’t get going early and obviously that plays a part in how the game ended. Tough one, we’ve got to be better.”
That is all accurate, but Prescott also joins his compatriots in wishing the NFL officiating would improve.
The Cowboys did plenty to cost themselves the win against the Cardinals but also enough to potentially overcome it, but also ran face-first into a handful of arguable penalties and officiating decisions. The latter was headlined by the fourth-quarter fumble that wasn’t, when All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence punched the ball free on what became the Cardinals final drive that saw Arizona go on to seal the casket — the runner having been ruled down just one play after another was ruled down inbounds (keeping the clock running and forcing the Cowboys into using their final timeout that then meant they couldn’t challenge the fumble play).
It led to Lawrence and others like wideout CeeDee Lamb and fellow defensive end Randy Gregory sounding off on the Cowboys struggles against officiating, and Prescott agrees there’s an issue, but also knows he can only control what he can control.
“We’ll play against whoever.” said the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback. “We’ll play against the eleven and the others if we have to. I’ve become accustomed to it honestly. I don’t know if we ever get things that necessarily go our way, but we can’t sit there and gripe about it.”
Head coach Mike McCarthy agrees, while also pointing out the difficulties the penalties created.
“Just like anything in the game, you evaluate everything,” said McCarthy. “You have game plans for everything, and we’re well-aware of the things we need to work on and what our statistics show as far as in the area of officiating. This crew is weekly high in officiating numbers and so we just tried to really illustrate that all week, but I think the timing of our penalties, for us personally, was something that was a challenge for us to overcome.”
It’s something Prescott feels the Cowboys can combat by not making mistakes in execution.
“You’ve just got to play the hand you’re dealt and try to overcome those things, and don’t put yourself in those situations. So, we can do a better job of that alone of trying to not put ourselves in that situation, and keep them out of the game.”