Dallas Cowboys

Streaking Cowboys were due for a clunker — but Colts shutout embarrassing wake-up call

It makes sense that the Dallas Cowboys were due for a letdown after five pressure-packed games with their backs against the wall and five straight wins to go from 3-5 to controlling their own destiny for the NFC East title.

It still shouldn’t have been this bad and this embarrassing.

Even a late fumble by the Indianapolis Colts that gave them a first down at the 35 couldn’t stop them from being shutout for the first time since 2003.

An interception by quarterback Dak Prescott preserved a 23-0 loss, snapping the Cowboys five-game winning streak and prevented them from clinching the NFC East.

It was just that type of day for the Cowboys, whose woeful effort included a team-record for sacks in a season, a blocked field goal, a horde of missed tackles and unforgivable penalties.

As much as Sunday was about the Cowboys possibly having an emotional letdown it was also about them feeling too good about themselves and letting that five-game winning streak go their heads.

Prescott, who has never been shut out in his career dating back to high school, called it a wake-up call for a team that thought it was too hot to trot.

“It’s a wake-up call. A lot to learn from,” Prescott said. “We hurt ourselves all game long. We never gave ourselves a chance. We were angry at ourselves. This game was too important. But we needed this. I don’t know if we thought we were too hot to trot on our five-game win streak. We got beat in every facet of the game. When that happens you have to come together.”

The Cowboys (8-6) needed a win or losses by both the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles to do so on Sunday.

The Redskins (7-7) ended those hopes with a 16-13 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

They can clinch with a win in the final two games starting next Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at AT&T Stadium and finishing at the New York Giants Dec. 30.

That the Cowboys didn’t come together with the division title on the line is most disappointing to owner Jerry Jones, who said the team acted like it was just going to be given to them.

“I thought if your name is Jones or if you’re the Cowboys they handed it to you,” said Jones who tried a little tongue-in-cheek humor to cope with the team’s horrible loss. “And we played like that. Lost an edge early and just never got it back. It’s very disappointing. They took it to us, there is no question about it, about as good as I’ve seen us in the last 10 or 15 years just doing the things it takes to win the game. Well, it just shows me that when you meet up to a good team, just because people are writing about you being in the playoffs, it doesn’t mean that’s going to get you anything.”

Here are five thoughts from the game:

1. Dak Prescott didn’t have “it” in Indy

Quarterback Dak Prescott was hailed for having the “it” factor in clutch moments by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan last week.

Prescott never got anything going against the Colts.

He was undone by an injury-riddled offensive line that was without right guard Zack Martin for the first time in his career and then lost left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo in the first half to an eye injury.

Prescott was sacked three times in the game, giving him a team-record 51 sacks on the season. But he can also be blamed for holding the ball too long, causing him to take unnecessary sacks.

He also blew a first down when he threw an incomplete pass instead of taking off and running when he was out on the edge.

Prescott completed 24 of 39 passes for 206 yards and a 64.7 quarterback rating, his second-worst this season.

A dropped pass by fullback Jamize Olawale at the 1 in the second quarter of 7-0 game set the negative tone early as Cowboys failed on fourth and 1 on the ensuing play.

“The shutout hurts,” Prescott said. “The shutout pisses you off, especially when you are down there and you have opportunities to score and you don’t. 100 percent, we have to find ways to capitalize and score in the red zone. We do that we don’t get shut out..”

2. Amari Cooper finally silent

So what did Amari Cooper do to follow up the career-day he had against the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday when he caught 10 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns?

Well, he was finally held in check, catching just four passes 32 yards. He also had an 11-yard run on a reverse.

It was just that kind of day. Cooper only had five targets.

“We knew they like to run that two high shell,” Cooper said. “It’s hard to kind of get those big plays when teams run those types of coverages. Really no excuses. We knew what they were all about. We just didn’t go out and execute.”

With Cooper silent, no one else got anything going in the passing game. Running back Ezekiel Elliott had seven catches for 41 yards to lead the way.

Elliott had a solid day on the ground with 18 carries for 87 yards. But it didn’t prove to be enough to make a difference for a Cowboys offense that struggled to string plays together.

“Obviously, we got shut out,” Cooper said about the anger in the post-game locker room. “We didn’t play a good game overall in all three phases. So if we weren’t mad that would be a pretty bad thing..”

3. Miscues, misplays and penalties

The game started off bad for the Cowboys and continued to go downhill. A promising opening drive ended with a questionable deep pass to receiver Allen Hurns.

On fourth down, Brett Maher’s low attempt on a 48-yard field goal was blocked by Denico Autry.

Linebacker Darius Leonard returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. But it was called back after replay showed he was touched down. It only delayed in the inevitable as the Colts scored 8 plays later.

The Cowboys appeared to answer on the ensuing drive when on 3rd and 1 from the 3, quarterback Dak Prescott hit fullback Jamize Olawale, who was wide open at the 1. He dropped the ball. And then running back Ezekiel was stopped on fourth and 1.

A holding call on deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur on a punt that gave the Colts a first down at the 16 after the ball was downed at the 6. It jumped started a drive that ended with a field goal right before the half.

And then after the Colts took a 17-0 lead to open the third quarter, a desperate Cowboys team went for it on 4th and 2 and got a conversion to receiver Cole Beasley in Colts territory. But center Joe Looney was called for holding to bring the play back. The Cowboys were called for six holding penalties on the day.

They had nine penalties on the day. A defensive holding penalty on Jeff Heath nullified an interception by Xavier Woods.

“You look at the team you saw the last 5 weeks and the team you saw today and that’s two totally different groups of men,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “We have to take our medicine and we have to watch this game and figure out what went on. I would not say ‘This is our team.’ This is not the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. This is not who we are..”

4. A lethargic defense

The Cowboys defense came in riding high as the fourth-ranked defense in the league, including third against the run. But the unit lacked an edge on Sunday with missed tackles and off-kilter play and this despite the return of linebacker Sean Lee for the first time in five games.

The Cowboys were gashed on the ground by running back Marlon Mack, who had six carries for 42 yards in the first half.. Giving quarterback Andrew Luck a solid running game is asking for trouble. Luck and the Colts were money on third down (8-for-12) and the Cowboys pass rush couldn’t get to him.

Mack finished with a career-high 27 carries for 139 yards. Luck completed 16 of 27 passes for 192 yards.

“I am absolutely surprised,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “As a defense, we have to step up week in and week out. That win streak had us feeling like we were bigger than what we are. This game shows us we have to get back to the basics and get back to work.

“I don’t feel like they did anything difficult. It was about us not making our tackles. It was about us. I felt like the edge was less. It was humbling. We got hit in the mouth.”

5. NFC East and final two games

The Cowboys blew their chance to clinch the division with a victory against the Colts. Now they must wait until at least next week.

The Cowboys needed a win or losses by both the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles.

The Redskins thwarted the secondary option with a 16-13 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Eagles play at the Rams Sunday night.

The Cowboys now must wait until next Sunday to clinch as they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before ending the season at the New York Giants.

Or, if the Eagles lose tonight and the Redskins lose Saturday, the Cowboys can clinch before they play the Buccaneers.

“At one point we were 3-5 and all of you guys counted us out,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “None of you guys thought we had a chance of making the playoffs. And we took that on the chin and we won 5 straight. Now we hold our future is in our hands.”

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Clarence E. Hill Jr. has covered the Dallas Cowboys as a beat writer/columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram since 1997. That includes just two playoff wins, six coaches and countless controversies from the demise of the dynasty teams of the 1990s through the rollercoaster years of the Tony Romo era until Jason Garrett’s process Cowboys.