Cowboys Facing Strong Reality Check After Shocking OT Loss to Jaguars

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVDecember 19, 2022

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 18: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) reacts after throwing a touchdown pass during the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Jacksonville Jaguars on December 18, 2022 at tIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Cowboys entered the 2022 season with the same goal as every season in Dallas—win the franchise's first Super Bowl since 1995. And for much of the season, the team appeared to have at least a decent chance of doing just that.

Despite quarterback Dak Prescott missing a chunk of the season, the Cowboys headed into Week 15 as a 10-win team that needed just one more victory to lock up a playoff spot.

However, for the second time in as many weeks, Dallas didn't play especially well against a sub-.500 team. While the Cowboys were able survive a spotty performance against the Houston Texans last week, a second-half collapse against the Jacksonville Jaguars led to an overtime loss on Sunday that essentially eliminated any chance Dallas had of repeating as NFC East champions.

This mini-slump has raised legitimate questions about the viability of the Cowboys as a contender. The offense is committing mistakes at critical points in the games. A defense that was among the best in league for much of the season has struggled and is now banged up.

The Cowboys are still going to make the playoffs. But Dallas will all but certainly spend the 2022 playoffs on the road. And given how the team has recently fared away from AT&T Stadium, it's hard to see Dallas winning three straight road playoff games to advance to Super Bowl LVII.

Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Arden Key (49) sacks Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux

For a good portion of Sunday's game, it appeared Dallas was going to shake off the funk from last week's spotty outing against the Texans. Dallas built a 21-7 lead at the half and led 27-10 with just over five minutes left in the third quarter. The offense was moving the ball consistently, scoring points on five of its first seven drives. The defense was winning at the line of scrimmage, harassing Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence and causing turnovers.

The Cowboys appeared to be cruising toward a postseason berth. Then the wheels fell off.

Even while the Cowboys were winning, there were warning signs that all was not well. Prescott has been turning the ball over with alarming frequency, including interceptions in four of his past five games entering Sunday. He threw multiple interceptions in three of those contests. Prescott's interception percentage of 3.6 percent was the second-worst in the league, and Prescott himself admitted to reporters that he has to cut down on the giveaways.

"I don't like throwing interceptions," Prescott said. "That's what bothers me. It has nothing to do with what other people say or how other people feel. It's something that I've never enjoyed, never liked, never had that accepted as a standard for myself. ... I've just got to dial that in a little bit [and] heighten that focus. But as far as the decision-making and all that, it's tough because I'm not going to change that. I'm going to continue to stay aggressive. … I've just got to stop throwing interceptions. Whether they're picked, deflected, whatever. It just can't happen anymore."

Well, it happened anymore—twice.

After the Jaguars scored a touchdown to close the gap to 27-17, Prescott's first pass attempt of the following drive was intercepted by Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins. The Jags quickly scored another touchdown, and just like that, it was a new ballgame.

In overtime, Prescott threw another pick to Jenkins—and this time it was returned for the game-sealing score.

Mike Sando @SandoNFL

Now that's a big win <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/jaguars?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#jaguars</a><br><br>Walk-off pick-six Rayshawn Jenkins<br><br>Wow <a href="https://t.co/vUIXyuDfoB">pic.twitter.com/vUIXyuDfoB</a>

After the game, head coach Mike McCarthy chalked it up as just a bad break.

"Unlucky bounce for us," McCarthy said. "Great play by them."

Prescott wasn't solely to blame to the Cowboys' collapse. The same Dallas defense that was dominant in the first half had no answers for the Jaguars after intermission. By the time Jenkins high-stepped into the end zone to end the game, the Cowboys had allowed a whopping 503 yards of offense. Lawrence topped 300 passing yards and tossed four touchdowns. Travis Etienne topped 100 yards on the ground. Wide receiver Zay Jones went over 100 yards and found the end zone three times.

The Cowboys also suffered a pair of potentially significant injuries in the game. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (the team's leading tackler entering Week 15) and edge-rusher Dorance Armstrong (second on the team with eight sacks) both left against the Jaguars and did not return.

It was not a performance on either side of the ball that inspired confidence in Dallas' viability as a Super Bowl contender. While speaking with reporters after the loss, Prescott said there's nothing to do but put the loss behind them.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 18: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on at the line of scrimmage against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half at TIAA Bank Field on December 18, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
Mike Carlson/Getty Images

"We've got to move on, just like any other week," Prescot said. "… It's about, at this point, building and trying to clean up and learn from our mistakes to make sure we're carrying momentum—week after week—as we move forward and get into the postseason."

McCarthy agreed that the Cowboys need to have a short memory, in part because of the team coming to Dallas on Christmas Eve.

"Definitely disappointed," said McCarthy. "... We'll take a look at this on the buses and on the [flight] home because when we touch down, we've gotta turn the page [to the Eagles on Christmas Eve]. We'll keep working, and we'll react properly to this."

Given how the Cowboys have played the past two weeks, it's not easy to imagine Dallas beating a one-loss Eagles team. Beating Dallas on Saturday would seal the NFC East in favor of Philadelphia. Things don't get any easier for the Cowboys from there, either.

In Week 17, the Cowboys head to Nashville to face a desperate Titans team trying to cling to first place in the AFC South. Then it's on to Washington to face the Commanders, which are desperate to remain in the hunt for a Wild Card spot.

Now, neither the Titans nor the Commanders are unbeatable by any stretch. But given that the Cowboys have lost three of four on the road, a skid to end the season can't be ruled out.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 18: Tony Pollard #20 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half at TIAA Bank Field on December 18, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
Mike Carlson/Getty Images

In any event, the Cowboys will be hitting the road once the postseason starts. If they can hold on to the No. 4 seed, Dallas would be favored against the NFC South "champion." The Cowboys have a blowout win over the second-seeded Vikings as well. To be fair, when Dallas is playing at the top of its game, it can beat anyone—including the Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

But it's been awhile since we saw the Cowboys at anything near their best. Instead, it has been sloppy, turnover-filled offense and distressingly porous defense. At a time in the season when teams are trying to build momentum for the playoffs, the Cowboys are barreling in the wrong direction.

That nearly three-decade Super Bowl drought appears to be on the verge of getting one year longer.