With roughly 1,000 snaps on both sides of the ball, seasons can turn on a handful of plays.
That was certainly the case for the Dallas Cowboys in 2017. The fall from their 13-3 finish in 2016 to their 9-7 record this season seems precipitous, but in reality they are not that disparate.
Lost amid the 13-3 finish were the plays that tipped the season in their favor, like the overtime win against the Philadelphia Eagles or the late-game fumble recovery at the Minnesota Vikings. The Cowboys made the necessary plays — big and small — to win those games.
In 2017, they didn’t — and as a result have to watch the playoffs go on without them.
Four of the Cowboys’ seven losses in 2017 were by 20 or more points. But even in those games there were moments in which the results could have flipped.
In the 42-17 loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 2, DeMarcus Lawrence was penalized for leverage on a field goal attempt. The Broncos turned that penalty into a touchdown and 14-7 lead in the second quarter. Perhaps if there is no penalty, the Cowboys rally from that moment.
In the 27-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the Cowboys moved down the field on their opening drive of the second half mostly on the legs of Alfred Morris. After an 11-yard run to the Atlanta 12-yard line, the Cowboys went into shotgun on first-and-10 and Dak Prescott was sacked for a 7-yard loss by Adrian Clayborn. The next play lost 2 yards. The third-down play gained just 1 yard and Mike Nugent’s 38-yard field goal attempt hit the upright. Had the Cowboys stood by their powerful run game, knowing fill-in left tackle Chaz Green could not block Clayborn, maybe they grab a touchdown in that situation and make the score 17-14.
In those defeats, however, the Cowboys were listless and not competitive for large portions of the games.
But what about the three losses by less than 10 points?
Three plays stand out:
Los Angeles Rams
The Cowboys offense was rolling. They opened with a field goal and two touchdowns on their first three drives for a 17-6 lead, at which point they had nearly 200 yards of offense. The defense forced a Rams punt and the Cowboys could have taken the game by the throat with another score on their fourth drive of the game.
Instead, Ryan Switzer fumbled the punt and the Rams took over at the Dallas 18. The Rams scored a touchdown five plays later. The momentum had swung. The Cowboys led 24-16 at the half, but they never had the same control of the game. The Rams scored on seven of their last nine possessions in a 35-30 win.
Green Bay Packers
Trailing 28-24 late in the fourth quarter, Prescott put the Cowboys in position to win late against the Packers, just like he did in the divisional round of the playoffs last January. The Cowboys needed a replay review to convert a fourth-and-1 run for a first down by Ezekiel Elliott to the Packers’ 19, but Elliott then picked up 8 yards on first down.
The Cowboys had the Packers on their heels. Although they needed a touchdown, they also knew they could not leave Aaron Rodgers much time on the clock. On second-and-2, Prescott threw a fade to Dez Bryant in the end zone that fell incomplete. Instead of running the ball and chewing up more time, only six seconds ran off the clock. On the next play, Prescott used the zone-read to fool the Green Bay defense for a go-ahead touchdown. As great as that was, Rodgers still had 1:13 to pull off the comeback, which he did, throwing a touchdown pass to Davante Adams with 11 seconds remaining for a 35-31 win.
If the Cowboys had run the ball on second down, maybe they score there and the point is moot. But they threw it, and the worst-case scenario turned true.
Needing a win to remain alive in the playoffs, the Cowboys held a 6-0 lead in the second quarter against Seattle, which also needed a win to keep its postseason hopes alive. The Cowboys defense was badly flustering quarterback Russell Wilson, with Lawrence picking up a sack of 22 yards that forced a Seahawks punt from their own 8.
The Cowboys should have had terrific field position following the punt, but Kyle Wilber was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the return. Instead of having the ball at the Dallas 45, the Cowboys had it at their 35.
On first down, Bryant, who was brooding because of a lack of action his way early in the game, caught a 7-yard hitch from Prescott, but Byron Maxwell punched the ball free and K.J. Wright recovered. Five plays later, the Seahawks scored a touchdown for a 7-6 lead despite being thoroughly outplayed.
Prescott was intercepted twice in the second half, including one that was returned for a touchdown on the first drive of the third quarter, but the Bryant fumble started the downward trend in the Cowboys’ 21-12 loss.