The Dallas Cowboys were already desperate and cautious.
And now they are officially reeling and starting to show some cracks.
A fourth-quarter rally against the Las Vegas Raiders came up short in a 36-33 overtime thriller on Thanksgiving Day at AT&T Stadium.
It was their third loss in the last four games and their second straight loss in the middle game of a holiday stretch that has them playing three games in 12 days, culminating with next Thursday’s matchup at the New Orleans Saints.
They remain in first place in the NFC East with a 7-4 mark, but their lead has dwindled and so has their stature in their quest to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 26 years.
“The sense is I’m sure a bunch of people are jumping off the bandwagon, which is fine with us, because we know what we’re capable of,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We know the team we have. More importantly, we know the men that are in that locker room. That’s the most important thing is just our belief in each other. That’s not going anywhere. It’s not fading. We lost a tough one in an overtime game today. That’s the bottom line.”
The bottom line is the Cowboys are no longer the same well-oiled machine that rolled to six straight wins after a season-opening loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
They lost to the Denver Broncos on Nov. 7 before their blowout victory over the Atlanta Falcons 43-3 on Nov. 14 and a disappointing 19-9 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday.
But unlike those previous two losses, against the Raiders (6-5), who ended a three-game losing streak, Prescott rallied the Cowboys to a tie twice in the fourth quarter.
A 32-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dalton Schultz and a two-point conversion pass to Schultz turned a 30-22 deficit into a tie game at 30-30 with 2 minutes, 54 seconds left. Then when the Raiders got a 56-yard field goal on the ensuing possession, Prescott used 10 plays to set up a 45-yard field from Greg Zuerlein that sent the game into overtime.
But a plethora of penalties were the Cowboys undoing for most of the game, and it proved critical in overtime.
A penalty on the kickoff set the Cowboys offense back in overtime, making them start from their own 8-yard line. The Raiders got the ball back following three plays and a punt.
The final Cowboys play was a bad pass from Prescott, who threw it behind receiver Noah Brown, ruining a brilliant rally on a day that Prescott completed 32 of 47 passes for 375 yards with two touchdowns. He completed 16 of 21 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“I thought he really showed so much of what he’s about,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “As a player, not the intangibles, but what he is as a player.”
The difference in the game proved to be a pass-interference penalty on cornerback Anthony Brown on third-and-18 with the Raiders outside of field-goal range.
It was Brown’s fourth interference penalty of the day, and it led to the game-winning score, a 29-yard field goal from Daniel Carlson.
“It was obviously frustrating,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “The game was herky-jerky from start to finish. Give our guys credit to continue to focus and battle. The numbers are absurd.”
“I don’t really know what the hell you want me to say. Write whatever you want, I’m all for it.”
The Cowboys were flagged 14 times for a franchise-record 166 yards on the day. Brown’s four flags totaled 91 yards. All four came on third down, and they led to two touchdowns and two field goals, including the game winner.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s obvious. They definitely affected the game,” Prescott said of the penalties. “But we’ve got to self-reflect and keep the officials out of the game. One way or another, we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be disciplined. We’ve got to focus on controlling on what we control.”
The Cowboys played the game without their top two receivers in Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb.
Cooper was out for the second straight game after a positive COVID-19 test, and Lamb was ruled out for precautionary reasons after he suffered a concussion in last Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs. According to Jones and McCarthy, Lamb wasn’t cleared by an independent neurologist. Per a source, Lamb passed concussion protocols, but the Cowboys didn’t want to risk him getting a second concussion within four days and putting him at further long-term risk.
Cedrick Wilson had seven receptions for 104 yards and Michael Gallup had five catches for 106 yards for the Cowboys.
But the offense was disjointed for much of the game. They had four three-and-outs and six punts before the rally in the fourth quarter.
Tony Pollard carried the bulk of the load at running back in place of a hobbled Ezekiel Elliott, who is managing a knee injury. Pollard had 10 carries for 36 yards. But a run of 31 yards was called back because of a holding penalty on center Tyler Biadasz.
The game changed late in the second quarter for the desperate and reeling Cowboys after a slow start.
Down 17-6 — thanks to a 56-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr to DeSean Jackson on the Raiders’ opening possession and 1-yard touchdown run from Josh Jacobs after Jackson drew a 30-yard pass-interference penalty on Brown to go along with a 22-yard field goal — the Cowboys nearly put themselves in a bigger hole.
Looking to give his team a spark and get some points on the board, McCarthy allowed kicker Zuerlein to attempt a 59-yard field goal, even though Zuerlein had missed an extra point in the first quarter.
The kick had the distance, but it bounded off the left upright, giving the Raiders the ball at the 49 with 6:49 left and a chance to add to their lead before the end of the half.
The Cowboys defense stepped up with a sack from rookie tackle Tarell Basham and a huge rush from rookie linebacker Micah Parsons, drawing a hands-to-face penalty.
The Raiders were forced to punt and Prescott got another chance.
A 51-yard pass to Wilson led to a 1-yard run from Elliott with 29 seconds left, allowing the Cowboys to narrow the score to 17-13 at halftime.
The Raiders took a 24-13 lead in the third quarter on a drive aided by another questionable penalty on the Cowboys.
Linebacker Micah Parsons was flagged for roughing the passer when it seemed like Carr had fallen into him after completing a pass. Marcus Mariota then scored on a 1-yard run.
Pollard gave the Cowboys life again when he darted 100 yards down the left sideline on the ensuing kickoff.
The two-point conversion failed, making the score 24-19.
The Raiders upped the score to 27-19 when Carr got loose for a 22-yard scramble on third down and Jackson drew a 17-yard pass-interference penalty on Brown, his third of the game, leading to a 46-yard field goal from Carlson.
Down 27-19 in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys gave their fans new hope when Prescott hit Gallup on a 41-yard bomb down the left sideline and then tossed a 7-yard touchdown pass to Schultz.
But the score was negated by a holding penalty on tackle Tyron Smith, forcing the Cowboys to settle for a 29-yard field goal.
And the Cowboys defense could not sustain the momentum.
A 54-yard pass to wide-open Hunter Renfrow, who beat cornerback Jordan Lewis and safety Damontae Kazee put the Raiders right back in scoring position.
A 30-yard field goal made it 30-22 with 8:18 left in the game, setting the stage for the late fireworks that ultimately came up short for the Cowboys.
“Frankly, I was excited when it went to overtime,” McCarthy said. “The confidence on the sideline was phenomenal. We had every expectation to win that game in the end. It came down to a penalty, let’s just be honest. It was a highly competitive game. It was an overtime loss. We’ll learn from it.”
The Cowboys still have a solid lead on the second-place Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) in the NFC East, but the division race is certainly tighter than most believed it would have been at Thanksgiving..