The Dallas Cowboys aren't ready to compete for a Super Bowl. At best, owner Jerry Jones' team is a year away from legitimate contention.
Sure, the Cowboys still hold a one-game lead in the NFC East, but Sunday's 23-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium—Dallas' first shutout since Nov. 16, 2003, against the New England Patriots—showed a squad unprepared to consistently compete against the NFL's best.
Two weeks ago, Dallas appeared to be destined for bigger and better things after defeating the New Orleans Saints, ending their 10-game winning streak. The Cowboys did so by taking advantage of a ball-control offense and by playing fundamentally sound defense.
However, New Orleans is the only team with a winning record that Dallas has beaten. It seems more like that moment will be the zenith of the Cowboys' campaign instead of an upswing toward further success.
If the Saints victory is Dallas' pinnacle, Sunday's loss is its nadir. The real version of the 2018 Cowboys falls somewhere between those two points, and it's easy to identify areas in which the team can improve before the 2019 campaign.
"We just hurt ourselves from the beginning," quarterback Dak Prescott said after the game, per the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota. "We never really gave ourselves a chance."
Prescott even called the loss a "wake-up call."
It shouldn't be. The Cowboys have too slim of a margin to not play their best football, and they still have a chance of winning difficult matchups. Their brand of football, when executed, is tough to handle.
Anything less than a near-perfect performance places them at a disadvantage because of a ramshackle offensive front, too much reliance on running back Ezekiel Elliott, an inability to push the ball downfield and a defense still finding its way.
Each problem became evident against the Colts.
The offensive line was missing Zack Martin (MCL sprain) for the first time since his arrival in 2014, and it couldn't handle Indianapolis' athletic front. The Colts defensive line is built differently than most. Both tackles—Denico Autry and Margus Hunt—came into the league as defensive ends. Neither tips the scale at 300 pounds, yet the duo can be quite disruptive. Autry and Hunt regularly worked their way into the backfield courtesy of Dallas' patchwork offensive interior.
The Cowboys tackles didn't fare much better. Rookie defensive end Tyquan Lewis had a breakout game with two sacks. In total, the Colts registered three sacks and hit Prescott five more times. Dallas' third-year signal-caller has been sacked 51 times this season. Only the Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson has been brought to the ground more often.
Not long ago, the Dallas offensive line served as the standard-bearer for all front fives. Injuries and a couple of departures destroyed the unit. The Cowboys felt Martin's absence. The fact that four-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick was placed on injured reserve and couldn't play this season after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (an autoimmune disorder) hasn't helped. Left tackle Tyron Smith dealt with a neck stinger and shoulder injury as well.
If the Cowboys get these three back together on the field and healthy, it will make a significant difference. Connor Williams' expected progression from his first to second seasons can't hurt either.
"I think Connor Williams is gonna be a mainstay in our offensive line for many years to come," director of player personnel Stephen Jones said Saturday during an interview on 105.3 the Fan (via Machota). "... I think we'll be talking about him just like we do several of the other players on our offensive line."
Protecting Prescott is of the utmost importance since the quarterback seems incapable of shouldering the Cowboys offense. In fact, the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year only ranked top-10 overall in one category entering Sunday's contest. His 68.2 percent completion rate was good enough for ninth. The rest of his production has been average.
An inability to consistently push the ball down the field is concerning. Prescott averaged a meager 5.3 yards per attempt against the Indianapolis defense, which runs a scheme that should be familiar to Prescott because Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus came from the Dallas coaching tree.
The Cowboys already improved in the passing game with the midseason addition of Amari Cooper. He's developed into the team's WR1. However, Indianapolis didn't allow the receiver to get loose. Cooper managed four receptions for 32 yards.
Dallas needs to add more to its wide receiver corps, whether through free agency or the draft. Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin don't scare anyone. Defenses can role their coverage toward Cooper without fear of being burnt by another target.
Tight end is even worse. Yes, Blake Jarwin led the team Sunday with 45 receiving yards. The unit lacks a mismatch, though. All four of Dallas' tight ends—Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, Dalton Schultz, Rico Gathers—have managed 58 receptions. Jason Witten caught 63 by himself during his final, age-35 season.
An improved surrounding cast will help both Prescott and Elliott.
The 2016 fourth overall pick is special. Elliott is a true workhorse and led the league in carries (268) and overall touches (333) heading into Week 15. He added 25 more this weekend.
The Cowboys would be wise to draft another talented running back and make sure they are maximizing Elliott's long-term potential. Even the best running backs have short shelf lives. Dallas can't run Elliott into the ground. The team should add an additional prospect to create another threat when Elliott needs a rest.
A healthy line coupled with more weapons will drastically improve a mediocre offense. Those things won't come by the end of the season, though.
Defensively, the Cowboys are megatalented, with defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, cornerback Byron Jones and linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. When the group is playing well, it can slow down or stop any offense.
The Colts, however, bullied Dallas at the point of attack. The Cowboys weren't just moved off the ball; the Colts linemen drove Dallas defenders into the ground. Rookie left guard Quenton Nelson paved the way for both of Indianapolis' touchdowns and destroyed defensive linemen in both instances.
David Irving has been away from the team because of personal issues, and his return would bolster the defensive front. The team should add more bulk along the interior, whether or not Irving returns.
Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins couldn't hold the point and let the Colts run wild. The unit allowed 178 rushing yards, including 139 and a pair of touchdowns to Marlon Mack.
"I was real average today," Woods tweeted afterward. "I'll bounce back."
The rest of the defense—which allowed only 18.9 points per game heading into Week 15—didn't look anything like it did against the Saints. It missed tackles and had no big plays, and its inability to physically hold up against the Colts will have the front office reconsidering how it can add pieces this offseason.
If the Cowboys make the right moves, their window to compete will be wide-open in the NFC East and beyond. The Washington Redskins have a major problem at quarterback after Alex Smith's devastating leg injury. The Eagles must rebuild their secondary while doubts start to creep in regarding Carson Wentz's long-term durability. The Giants have plenty of their own issues to address, including the future after Eli Manning.
A more explosive offense coupled with a consistent defense should allow the Cowboys to challenge the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints as the NFC's best. But they have plenty to accomplish first.
Right now, Dallas looks far more like a one-and-done postseason candidate with an understanding of its limitations.
"I think a loss like this was very much needed," Elliott said, per the Dallas Morning News' Kate Hairopoulos. "It's better for us in the grand scheme of the season. We needed to get put in check. We needed a reality check."
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.