What Cowboys’ shocking loss to Broncos means for 2021 NFC playoff picture

The Cowboys’ playoff push toward NFC championship contention hit a speed bump at home in Week 9. Heavily favored against the visiting Broncos with Dak Prescott returning from calf injury to start at quarterback, Dallas dropped an all-around dud vs. Denver, losing 30-16.

The game was not as close as the final score indicated, as the Cowboys did some cosmetic work late with Prescott leading two meaningless touchdown drives on their final two possessions to avoid the extra embarrassment of a shutout. When the outcome of the game was still in doubt, the Broncos dominated from start to finish.

Why did the now-7-2 Cowboys, who had been rolling since a Week 1 loss at the Buccaneers, fall so hard in a midseason test? Here’s a breakdown of the break down, and what it means for Dallas going forward:

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What happened to Cowboys on Sunday?

1. Their run defense failed miserably

The Broncos’ offensive line was without ace left tackle Garett Bolles but they destroyed the Cowboys up front with their blocking. Dallas went into the game as the No. 6 run defense in the NFL, allowing on average only 88.3 rushing yards per game. That won’t be their ranking after the game.

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They allowed well more than double that, 191 rushing yards to the Denver combination of veteran Melvin Gordon (21 carries, 80 yards) and rookie Javonte Williams (17 carries, 111 yards). The Cowboys got worn down early and never could recover. They seemed stunned by the relentless ground game and looked sloppy and undisciplined at times. Everything snowballed with the offensive ineptitude.

2. They turned two turnovers into six

The Cowboys had a key red zone interception thrown by Prescott. They also turned a blocked Broncos punt that should have been like a takeaway inside the red zone and made into a muffed return that allowed an eventual Denver field-goal drive to continue.

The Cowboys also went 0-for-4 going for it on fourth down, just missing all the opportunities. They would haven’t needed to go for it so many times had they not been only 5-of-13 on third down. The Broncos, meanwhile, protected the ball despite Teddy Bridgewater being pressured into four sacks. Big upsets come down to critical situational mistakes and the Cowboys made a lot more of them.

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3. Dak Prescott was rusty in a one-dimensional attack

The Broncos’ defense did overachieve for Vic Fangio in the first game without Von Miller. The negative game script and Ezekiel Elliott playing through a knee contusion confirmed that the Cowboys would need stray away from sticking with the run.

Prescott was uncharacteristically inaccurate facing a teeing off defense, completing only 48.7 percent of his pass attempts (19-of-39, 232 yards, 5.7 yards per attempt, 84.6 passer rating). The Cowboys rested him in Week 8, which turned out to be a wise decision as backup Cooper Rush led them to victory against the Vikings. But despite a week of strong practice for Prescott, a bye plus a missed game made him shaky shaking off some dust against a well-constructed pass defense.

What does this mean for the Cowboys in the NFC playoff picture?

The Cowboys missed a big chance to go up on the idle Buccaneers. Also later in Week 9, the Packers (7-1) went in as big underdogs at the Chiefs minus Aaron Rodgers and the Cardinals (7-1) went on the road vs. the 49ers without Kyler Murray. The Rams (7-1), who beat the Buccaneers but lost to the Cardinals, instead look poised to take over the NFC’s driver’s seat Sunday night against the Titans at home.

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The Cowboys have a presumed “get-well game” against the Falcons back home in Dallas next week, but then again, that team just beat the Saints on the road as big underdogs. Then things get harder with a trip to Kansas City, a home game vs. Las Vegas and another road test in New Orleans.

They were bound to lose a second game in that stretch, but it just came earlier against Denver. The Cowboys now have less margin for error in that next month stretch, before December division games against Washington and New York.

Dallas’ chances for the No. 1 seed, the lone bye and home field advantage looked pretty good. But knowing how stacked and daunting the top of the NFC playoff field is, one bad loss can haunt them for a while, already having lost the tiebreaker to Tampa Bay.