It was the result everyone was expecting: Cowboys go on the road against an undefeated, incredibly disciplined team and get beat, exchanging a shovel for a backhoe as they try to quickly dig the grave for the 2012 season.
For a while, though, it seemed as if the Gauchos might actually have a shot at this contest, if for no other reason than it would be so them. Through nearly three quarters, Dallas held their own, but in closing time the tiny fissures that starting materializing throughout the game became full-blown cracks, and the Falcons took full advantage.
In a season full of missed opportunities to take control of games, this one was perhaps the best example. Atlanta wasn't able to capitalize on several long drives, yet the Cowboys couldn't come up with a way to make them pay. Dallas missed golden chances, like when defensive tackle Josh Brent went stumbling past a loose fumble like a giraffe on ice skates in the second quarter. Coach Mike Smith and his Just For Men eyebrows prepared his team to play a mistake-free, penalty-free game, and that's exactly what they did. The Falcons look like the kind of team Jason Garrett says he wants to trot out; the only difference is that on gameday Atlanta actually executes.
What say we dig in to some observations and then toss out some cheap plastic trophies?
Rushing Attack Gets No Free Pass: With all the hand-wringing about the missed tackles and turnovers and penalties the last several weeks, one group that's getting left out of the criticism is the running back contingent. The Cowboys' rush offense is averaging a measly 83.4 yards per game, fourth worst in the league. Last night, Felix Jones and Lance Dunbar were only able to scrape together 65 yards on 18 carries. There are no excuses for a performance like that against a bottom-10 rush defense that was missing its leading tackler in linebacker Sean Witherspoon.
Demarco Murray will help things a bit when he returns, as his decisiveness makes Felix Jones look like Woody Allen. The larger issue that remains, however, is that this offensive line just doesn't have the nastiness to blow open holes for these backs. That goes back to drafting and development, a path of ineptitude so incredibly beaten, that it's not even worth the effort going down at this point.
Romo Looked Slightly Off :Despite the fact that he threw a nearly identical game as foe Matt Ryan statistically, something looked awry with the Cowboys' offensive impresario against the Falcons. Whether he was air-mailing open receivers on the sidelines, or opting for a jump-ball fade to 5-foot-8 Cole Beasley instead of sneaking in a touchdown, Romo couldn't quite find a groove. To be fair, we also weren't treated to any of Romo's trademark turnovers, so there's that. Even without making a lethal mistake, it's becoming clear that Tony's patience with this team is growing thin. Perhaps it's the slo-mo montages of him shaking his head in disgust, but one wonders how many more times Romo, can get knocked to the mat and try to get himself back up.
Cowboys Again Forget The "C" In "Closing Time": This game was very similar to the Baltimore game; only with much less Cowboys run potency. In that Week 5 game, Dallas allowed Anquan Boldin to bend them over his knee at the end of the first half, setting up a touchdown to give the Ravens the lead. Flip forward to the Atlanta contest, and yet again the Cowboys' first half closing performance was dreadful. Starting at their own 12 yard line with 1:03 left, the Falcons drove all the way to the Dallas 28 to grab a game-tying field goal. This time, it was a combination of a declined penalty, an injury timeout and Matt Ryan moxie that felled Dallas. The Ratliff injury can't be faulted, but the penalty, which stopped the clock since it occurred inside of two minutes, was inexcusable. This is the thing that keeps the Cowboys from being a contender. Those tiny little moments where pitch-perfect execution is key, and they just don't get the job done.
If their first half curtsy wasn't bad enough, the Cowboys defense made sure to blow the game at the end of the game. With five minutes left and a three point deficit, the Dallas defense just needed one stop to get the ball back in the hands of a suddenly-hot Tony Romo. What ensued was a drive Cowboy fans have seen all too frequently over the past 15 years. The Falcons, starting with a penalty-aided first and 20, go on to convert three straight third downs, chewing up 5:04 and spitting out a measly 17 seconds out for the Cowboys to work with. Missed tackles, penalties and loose pass coverage all reared their head on the game-sealing drive. Jacquizz Rodgers made Cowboy defenders look like houseplants as he juked his way for critical gains. It was a drive that proved the Falcons are for real, and the Cowboys are not even close.
Let's get to some awards before this thing gets out of hand.
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Goat Of The Game: Orlando Scandrick. It's no shock that the one person getting the most screen time at the end of the game was Scandrick. It's not often that a single player, outside of a quarterback, can have such a profound impact on losing a game. The aforementioned closing drive of the game for the Falcons was practically engineered by O-Town himself. On two consecutive third downs, Scandrick extended the Atlanta drive, once via penalty and once by a horrendous attempt at an arm tackle of the Quizzmeister. The entire secondary looked terrible, leaving Falcon receivers with tons of space to operate, but Orlando shoulders the blame for not getting the job done in money time.
The "I Only Try On Sunday Nights" Award: Kevin Ogletree. If I were Jerry Jones, I'd be calling the league office to see if the rest of the Cowboys' games can be scheduled for Sunday night. In the two Cowboys Sunday night affairs, at Atlanta and New York, Ogletree has 11 grabs for 210 yards and 3 touchdowns. The other six games: 13 catches for 134 yards and zero touchdowns. Maybe it's the satiny voice of Al Michaels calling out from the press box, but there's something about Sunday nights that brings out the gamer in the young receiver. His catch of Romo's 65-yard bomb early in the game was nowhere near believable, if only because his drops have become so routine.
The "Next Man Up" Of This Eon Award: Bruce Carter. The one player on the Cowboys that deserves any kind of serious praise for their performance is Carter. Building on what is already a very strong season, Bruce played the game of his infant career. Two huge punishing tackles, disciplined open-field form and some tipped passes were just a summary of the linebacking clinic Carter threw together. When Sean Lee comes back next year, this linebacker corps will be top two in the league, with San Francisco as the only team more equipped, if that.
The Cowboys must drag themselves to Philly next week, facing an Eagles squad that is similarly reeling. The outcome of that game will likely snuff out the postseason chances for one squad, while giving a tiny sliver of optimism to the other. The mantra remains: If Dallas can play a disciplined, efficient game, they can win. Perhaps they should watch the tape of the Falcons game and just try to play like them.