ARLINGTON, Texas – Clearly, something was off this afternoon.
It's difficult to put a finger on what exactly it was, but the Cowboys were pretty clear that something was missing in this 30-16 demolition at the hands of the Broncos.
Most notably, according to many, was a lack of physicality.
"That's something we take pride in, coming out there and out-hitting everybody. That wasn't the case today," said Jayron Kearse. "They out-physicaled us – offense and defense. We just have to take this as a piece of humble pie and get back to the drawing board."
Defensively, Kearse has been a big part of that calling card, bringing a sense of attitude to a defense that has dictated a lot of its games to this point in the season.
It wasn't just that the Broncos racked up 30 points in this contest, but the way they did it was particularly demoralizing.
The Denver duo of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III combined for 191 rushing yards against this Dallas defense, which had been solid if not spectacular in that department. The Cowboys' front seemed to get washed out on many occasions. And even when tacklers got past their blocks, they seemed to get carried for additional yardage – to the tune of 4.6 yards per carry on the day.
"I just know, as a defense, we had a lot of leaky arms – made contact with the running back, and he got another three yards after contact," said Randy Gregory. "Things like that, we have to clean up. We weren't really doing that earlier in the year."
Physicality was part of it, but the Cowboys' overall energy level just didn't seem to match a feisty Broncos team that was trying to claw back above .500.
"This is the first time I've felt clearly our energy didn't exceed our opponent, and that's disappointing," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy.
Come up with any excuse you prefer. The Cowboys were playing a noon game after a run of primetime and late afternoon kickoffs. Maybe Sunday's time change to standard time messed with the team's psyche. Maybe Denver's decision to trade franchise legend Von Miller on the Monday before this game signaled a lack of interest to a Cowboys team that was on a roll.
Maybe none of that was the case. It ultimately didn't matter. It's just another reminder of the razor thin margin of error in the NFL.
"I don't think we came out thinking we already had the game in the bag, I just think that we didn't play good football," said Ezekiel Elliott.
On that point, all can agree. The Cowboys struggled to their worst offensive performance of the season, to go with a defense that allowed its highest point total of the season. That's not to mention a kicking game that saw a rare but costly error cost the team a punt block that would have provided a short field at just the right time.
"We've been put through adversity before and we've dealt with it good," said Leighton Vander Esch. "But for this one, we were punched in the face."
On the bright side of a gloomy day, one ugly loss doesn't count more in the standings than any other result. The Cowboys still possess a large lead in their division, with nine games still to play and pick themselves back up. That's probably why Vander Esch said this can be a positive thing in the long run, even if it's not a result anyone wants to chew on for the next week.
"I think we can learn a lot from this," he said. "I think it's going to make our group strong and better for next week and the week after and throughout the season."
That'll play out in the coming weeks, starting with the Atlanta Falcons. In the meantime, the Cowboys are left to merely tip their cap and start the process of moving on.
"We just weren't the more physical team today," McCarthy said. "I thought it showed -- up and I give them a lot of credit."