As Jason Garrett stood behind a podium inside what is normally the Oakland A’s weight room Sunday night, he could have ticked off 30, 40, maybe 50 things his Dallas Cowboys did wrong against the Oakland Raiders.
The Cowboys blew a 10-0 halftime lead. They converted 2 of 10 third-down chances. They did not sack Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. They allowed 5.3 yards per carry. They did not get a takeaway until the game’s final play, missing out on at least four opportunities. They allowed 25.8 yards per kickoff return. They were bailed out by three touchdowns called back by penalty or overturned by replay.
That’s just some of what went wrong.
But as Garrett spoke, he kept coming back to one word. It’s something he puts on T-shirts and sweatshirts for the players to wear. It is on Yeti cups. It is on a digital board inside the locker room.
Nothing was really pretty about the Cowboys’ 20-17 win against the Raiders except the result.
“Continued to scratch, continued to claw,” Garrett said. “Wasn’t our most perfect performance in any phase of our football team, but the fight was there.”
The fight was never more evident than on the Raiders’ final play. With 39 seconds left, Oakland had a third-and-3 from the Dallas 8. Carr scrambled to his right with nobody open and saw the front pylon daring him to go for the touchdown.
As he lunged forward he was hit by safety Jeff Heath, knocking the ball loose and ultimately out of the end zone for a touchback.
“I thought that play typified what we’re trying to instill in our football team,” Garrett said. “Him laying out, somehow, some way not letting that guy get to the pylon and ultimately knocking the ball out. It was a helluva play. It was an unbelievable game.”
So unbelievable that the Cowboys’ playoff chances can be symbolized by the piece of paper referee Gene Steratore used to affirm a first down on a fourth-down quarterback sneak by Dak Prescott at the Dallas 39 with 4:49 to play.
“It’s a game of inches, a game of 5-by-7 note cards,” tight end Jason Witten joked.
That was on display on the Raiders’ final drive. Anthony Brown should have ended the game with an interception of Carr with 1:05 to play but inexplicably dropped the pass. On fourth down, rookie cornerback Jourdan Lewis was called for pass interference at the Dallas 15.
A win was looking like a loss or at least a trip to overtime. The season hung in the balance before Ezekiel Elliott could return from his six-game suspension. And then Heath came up to hit Carr as the quarterback was looking for the winning touchdown.
Beyond “fight,” the play was another Garrett mantra.
“He talked about ‘finish’ all week,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “That’s been a big theme for us, and I think it showed.”
Now Elliott’s return can mean more. Now the Cowboys can envision the scenarios they need to get to the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 2006 and ’07. But all they have done is guarantee themselves no worse than the fourth 8-8 finish in Garrett’s tenure as coach.
“We got Seattle,” Dez Bryant said. “And we got to reset. As soon as I walk out of this locker room and every last one of us walk out of this locker room, let’s reset. We’ve got to get ready for Seattle.”
The Cowboys’ playoff chances are better but still not in their control. They will likely need to win their final two games and need the Atlanta Falcons to lose two of their last three games and the Detroit Lions to lose one of their final two games.
“Nothing has changed,” Prescott said. “We know where we are. Our backs are against the wall. We’ve got to win and that is what this team is about. We’re excited and we’re loving these matchups. We’re loving the position we’re in. It is what it is. We got ourselves here and we’re excited about next week. Just one at a time.”