The Dallas Cowboys remain winless since Ezekiel Elliott began serving his six-game suspension after falling 28-6 at home to the Los Angeles Chargers on Thanksgiving Day at AT&T Stadium.
Dallas' offensive struggles without Elliott in the backfield continued Thursday. The Cowboys gained 458 yards and scored 16 points combined in their previous two games, and they reached just 247 total yards against the Chargers.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Philip Rivers and the Chargers deflate the Cowboys! https://t.co/82Rg1zWhJZ2017-11-24 00:21:07
Dak Prescott was 20-of-27 for 179 yards and two interceptions.
Former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was in the booth analyzing the game for CBS. ESPN The Magazine's Mina Kimes thought that made for an interesting dynamic as he broke down Prescott's poor day:
Mina Kimes @minakimes
romo in the booth like https://t.co/CerrhGjaNX2017-11-24 00:05:53
Prescott is an easy scapegoat, but the Cowboys defense was equally culpable for the lopsided loss. Dallas allowed 515 total yards, and Los Angeles averaged 7.8 yards per play.
Philip Rivers had a season-high 434 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-33 passing.
That's not to say everything was smooth sailing for the Chargers offense.
Nick Novak missed a 35-yard field goal in the first quarter, and the team subsequently announced Novak was dealing with a back injury during the game, which left punter Drew Kaser as the emergency replacement.
Head coach Anthony Lynn's lack of faith in Kaser was evident when he decided to go for it on a 4th-and-13 at the Cowboys' 16-yard line rather than try a field goal with 13 minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the first half.
Perhaps Lynn watched Kaser miss the practice net entirely when he was warming up on the sideline:
FOX Sports: NFL @NFLonFOX
Oh man... Chargers punter Drew Kaser missed the net warming up for a potential field goal attempt after the Chargers' main kicker was injured. https://t.co/G3MCh4DpGv2017-11-23 22:14:27
The Chargers reached the red zone on each of their first three possessions but came away with only three points in the first half. Novak connected on a 22-yard field goal at the 1:56 mark of the second quarter.
NFL Network's Rich Eisen thought the first half encapsulated Los Angeles' season:
Rich Eisen @richeisen
The @Chargers are the ultimate "should be" team Always should be better off than they are. Should be 6-4 instead of 4-6 (at least) Instead of 0-0, should be up 10-0 (at least)2017-11-23 22:22:14
Of course, the Chargers' problems paled in comparison to those of the Cowboys. Dallas went scoreless and gained 84 yards through the first two quarters. David Helman of the team's official website was surprised by the unit's ineffectiveness:
David Helman @HelmanDC
Holy crap, we're already almost at the 2-minute warning. The Cowboys have run 19 plays 56 yards of offense.2017-11-23 22:22:24
Elliott's absence was a big reason the Cowboys couldn't move the ball, and Dez Bryant's disappearance compounded matters. Bryant didn't have a single target in the first half for the first time since 2013, according to NFL Research:
NFL Research @NFLResearch
Dez Bryant was not targeted in the 1st half, the first time he wasn’t targeted in the 1st half since Week 10, 2013 vs NO The Cowboys lost that game 49-17, and Bryant finished with just 1 reception on 2 targets2017-11-23 22:42:35
Bryant finished with three receptions for 37 yards on five targets.
The Cowboys' struggles didn't let up in the second half, which allowed the Chargers to bust the game open with a pair of touchdown passes from Rivers in the third quarter.
Rivers hit Hunter Henry from three yards out with 8:59 left in the quarter. Novak missed the extra-point attempt, so the Chargers settled for a 9-0 lead before Rivers found Tyrell Williams for a 27-yard touchdown. Kaser's extra point was good, so Los Angeles took a 16-0 advantage into the fourth quarter.
Rod Smith got the Cowboys on the board with a two-yard touchdown run at the 12:48 mark of the fourth quarter. Dallas went for two and failed, which didn't matter much after Keenan Allen canceled out Smith's touchdown with one of his own a little less than three minutes later.
The NFL shared a replay of the touchdown:
Oh no he didn't ... HE DID! @Keenan13Allen put the juke on, TWICE! #LACvsDAL https://t.co/Q0YKpp1QNM2017-11-23 23:55:49
Chargers cornerback Desmond King shut the door on the Cowboys' comeback attempt when he intercepted a Prescott pass and returned it 90 yards for a score with 7:41 left in the game.
That the Cowboys offense failed to consistently move the ball is a major concern for Dallas, since Elliott is out for another three games. At 5-6, the Cowboys are 1.5 games behind the Atlanta Falcons for the final wild-card spot in the NFC, and the gap may grow in the coming weeks.
The schedule is somewhat favorable for Dallas, though. The Washington Redskins, New York Giants and Oakland Raiders rank 19th, 28th and 32nd in defensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. Playing the Giants and Raiders in particular could help awaken the dormant Cowboys offense.
Since nine or 10 wins may be the requirement to reach the playoffs in the NFC, Dallas has little margin for error the rest of the season.
The Chargers, on the other hand, are trending upward after notching their fifth win in seven games. They also have a great opportunity to move to .500 in Week 13 with the Cleveland Browns awaiting them Dec. 3.
Only one of Los Angeles' five remaining opponents has a winning record, so the Chargers shouldn't be dismissed as an afterthought in the AFC playoff race.