INDIANAPOLIS – If the Cowboys were feeling themselves coming into this game, they won't be on the way out of town.
To hear it from them, as they licked their wounds after a shutout loss, perhaps that's a good thing. Having fallen, 23-0, for their first loss in six weeks, that was at least the hope in the Cowboys' locker room – that Sunday was more of a wakeup call than a sign of things to come.
"I think a loss like this was very much needed. I think it's better for us in the grand scheme of the season, and I think we needed to get put in check," said Ezekiel Elliott. "I think we needed a reality check and we needed a reminder that we still have a lot of ball left and nothing is going to be given. We have to go out there and take everything."
If that's the message the Cowboys needed, it's hard to imagine it being communicated more clearly. They were dominated in every way imaginable in Indianapolis, with the Colts racking up 370 yards of offense and obviously allowing no points.
"Any competitor never wants to get shutout," said Dak Prescott. "A shutout definitely hurts, a shutout pisses you off – especially when you're down there early in the red zone and you have opportunities to score and you don't."
The red zone problems looked familiar to anyone that has watched this team all season – but that's where the similarities stop. The Cowboys didn't move the ball as well as they have in the six weeks since they traded for Amari Cooper, as Elliott was the only member of their offense who ever got going.
The defensive struggles were even more mystifying. The Cowboys' have been stout against the run all season, but they were gashed for 139 yards and two touchdowns by Marlon Mack. That balance allowed Andrew Luck to help the Colts convert 8-of-12 third downs on the day.
"If anything, we're all coming together saying 'Hey, in a way we needed this,'" Prescott said. "I don't know if we thought we were too hot to trot on our five-game win streak or whatever it was, but we simply just got beat in every facet of the game – simple as that."
It wasn't something the Cowboys saw coming before the game, though it's certainly something they'll be hoping they can learn from.
"You don't come into a game thinking this is going to happen. It's just one of those games that's a good wake-up call," said Byron Jones. "We've still got everything we want … so we can still push and get where we want to go."
Obviously, the preference is that a team closing in on a division title wouldn't need a wake-up call. The Cowboys entered Sunday with a chance to claim the NFC East crown, one way or another. A win would have cemented their place in the NFC playoffs, as would losses from both Washington and Philadelphia.
Instead, they headed home from their first shutout loss in 15 years, while Washington's 16-13 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars means the division race stays open for another week.
Asked if that missed opportunity adds to the disappointment, thought, Prescott said the nature of the loss is motivation enough.
"The way we didn't give ourselves a chance just pisses me off, pisses everybody off," he said. "We knew what was on the line, it's been on the line, it'll be on the line next week."
He is right about that part. As disappointing as the loss was, Sunday's setback doesn't drastically alter the Cowboys' playoff picture. A win next weekend against Tampa Bay would still win them the NFC East.
But as they turned the page toward Week 16, the Cowboys made it clear: that won't matter if they can't correct the problems from Week 15.
"We've got to go watch this game. We have to go and figure out what went on," Elliott said. "But I wouldn't at all say that this is our team. This is not the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. That's not who we are. So we've got to take our medicine and get ready for this game next week."