Wherever Ezekiel Elliott watched the Dallas Cowboys’ 27-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, it had to be painful.
It had to be painful for Tyron Smith, the All-Pro left tackle who did not play because of a groin strain, to watch as well.
And it was absolutely painful for Sean Lee, who watched all but one full drive from the sideline because of a hamstring strain.
The Cowboys live with a next-man-up philosophy, like most teams, but the next-man on Sunday wasn’t good enough. Not even close.
The bleak loss ended the Cowboys’ three-game winning streak and puts clouds around everything as they welcome the Philadelphia Eagles to AT&T Stadium next week. That would be the 8-1 Eagles, owners of the NFL’s best record and coming off a bye.
At 5-4, the Cowboys might not be within hailing distance of their NFC East rivals.
Their wild-card chances took a hit as well. The Seattle Seahawks (6-3), Detroit Lions (5-4) and Green Bay Packers (5-4) all won Sunday. The Cowboys will lose head-to-head tiebreakers with the Packers and Falcons, who are also 5-4.
The Cowboys spoke bravely about being able to effectively run the ball without Elliott, who had 783 yards in the first eight games. Alfred Morris had eight yards on six carries in the first half Sunday. He finished with 51 yards on 11 carries thanks to gains of 14, 20 and 11 on the Cowboys’ first drive of the third quarter. That drive ended with Mike Nugent’s 38-yard field-goal attempt hitting the right upright to keep Atlanta’s lead at 17-7.
But the loss of Elliott wasn’t even the one that hurt the most. It was the loss of Smith. He was ruled out on Saturday because of a groin strain that kept him off the practice field all week. Chaz Green, who opened the year as the starting left guard, quickly showed he wasn’t going to be able to block Adrian Clayborn.
Green was beaten by Clayborn for a 5-yard sack on the first drive of the game and gave up a pressure that led to the Cowboys’ first punt of the game.
Clayborn, who entered the game with two sacks, had six for the game. He had just one season in his career with more sacks in a season when he had 7.5 in 2011 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, the only other player to record five sacks against Dallas was San Diego Chargers pass rusher Leslie O’Neal on Nov. 16, 1986.
Green was pulled in favor of Byron Bell with 8 minutes, 18 seconds left in the game and gave up two sacks on his first drives, including Clayborn’s sixth.
In the first eight games of the season, the Cowboys allowed 10 sacks. They gave up eight Sunday, the most Prescott has absorbed in his first two years. He had not been sacked more than twice in a game all season.
The Cowboys can only hope Smith’s absence is short.
They also must hope Lee’s absence is short, although he missed two games earlier this season with a hamstring strain. Lee was hurt late in the first quarter and spent the rest of the game on the sidelines with Dallas leading, 7-0.
Five plays after Lee was hurt, the Falcons scored a field goal. They scored on five of their next seven drives to build a 27-7 lead. Without Lee against the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay, the Cowboys lost and gave up 35 points in both games. They also gave up an average of 164 rushing yards. The running-challenged Falcons finished with 132 rushing yards.
This is not the way the Cowboys envisioned opening their time without Elliott. And it won’t get easier next week against the Eagles.