Last week, it was protecting quarterback Dak Prescott. This week, third downs were the unmitigated disaster that doomed the Dallas Cowboys.
Sunday’s 37-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles (9-1) that all but eliminated the Cowboys in the NFC East race was the most lopsided loss (28 points) ever at AT&T Stadium. No coincidence, then, that it was also statistically the worst game of Prescott’s young career.
The Cowboys (5-5) were 3-for-14 converting third downs, repeatedly handing the ball back to Carson Wentz and an Eagles offense that has been one of the best in the NFL this year.
Prescott, who was even better than he was in his rookie season through the first eight games of his second year, went 3-for-9 on third-down throws Sunday with an interception and a fumble lost in the fourth quarter. He threw three picks in a game for the first time in his career, and his 30.4 paasser rating was also a career low point.
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“The second one was just bonehead, simple as that,” Prescott said. “To me I forced one pick. Other than that, it’s a tipped ball and a miscommunication. I’m not trying to make excuses, just got to play better.”
In Prescott’s last two games, both without All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith who was sitting again with a groin injury, Prescott has gone a combined 38 of 61 through the air with no passing touchdowns and six turnovers.
“There were some decisions he made that hurt us in the game,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s a competitor. He keeps fighting.”
It was also the second game of running back Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension. In 23 possessions in the two games without Elliott and Smith, the Cowboys have just one touchdown.
“We haven’t been good enough, consistent enough running the football, consistent enough throwing the football.” Garrett said. “We haven’t been able to attack the defense in different ways like we have the rest of the year.”
But the Cowboys’ patchwork effort actually had the team clinging to a 9-7 lead at the end of the first half. Three Mike Nugent field goals, including a 47- and 48-yarder, were enough to give Cowboys fans hope that their team could steal a game from the team with the best record in the NFC.
The duct tape didn’t hold in the second half.
“We didn’t finish drives in the second half,” said running back Alfred Morris, who has assumed the lead role in the backfield during Elliott’s absence and finished with 91 yards on 17 carries. “And that came back to bite us in the second half.”
The Cowboys punted twice in the third quarter, and their first two drives in the fourth ended with a fumble and an interception. Backup Cooper Rush came in for the Cowboys’ final drive after the game had already been decided.
Sunday was the first time Dallas failed to score an offensive touchdown since Dec. 27, 2015, a 16-6 loss to the Buffalo Bills during a throwaway 4-12 season.
The poor offensive performance moves the Cowboys into a precarious position for a wild-card playoff berth with six games to go. If the playoffs started today, the Cowboys would be on the outside looking in, four games behind the Eagles in the division, and behind both the Panthers (7-3) and Seahawks (6-3) in the wild-card race.
The Cowboys now have a short week to prepare for a Los Angeles Chargers team (4-6) that racked up 54 points in its biggest win of the season over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
“I’d play tomorrow if I could,” Prescott said.
If only just to get the bad taste out of his mouth from the loss to the Eagles.