HOUSTON – Just five? Not sure you could limit this piece to only five plays that changed the game. There seemed like a ton of plays that changed the game just in the final few minutes of regulation and then overtime alone.
There were goal-line stands, clutch kicks, missed kicks, pass interference penalties and, of course, a big game-changing play in overtime.
Like all games, there are several plays that go unnoticed, or could be overlooked. Still, they play a huge role in the eventual outcome. Let's look at five plays that changed the direction of this game – and maybe some bonus plays as well.
Zeke screen stopped for a loss – It's hard to think a play in the first five minutes of a game that went into overtime would be a game-changer. But the Cowboys had third-and-2 from the Texans' 8-yard line and they tried to get Ezekiel Elliott out in the flat. But the pass took too long to get there and by the time Elliott had the ball in his hands, he was swarmed by defenders for a 1-yard loss. The significance was that the Cowboys wasted a chance for a touchdown and had to settle for a field goal in what turned out to be a low-scoring affair.
Woods penalty extends drive - Midway through the second quarter, the Cowboys needed a defensive stop and had the Texans on a third-and-4. Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson was flushed out of the pocket and fired a pass to wideout Keke Coutee that went incomplete. However, Cowboys safety Xavier Woods was called for a personal foul for hitting a defenseless receiver to extend the drive. On the next play, running back Alfred Blue rushed for 17 yards for the Texans, who finished the drive with a field goal to extend their lead over the Cowboys to 10-6.
Drop, No-Call and Challenge – This play has three different elements to it. With 4:02 left in the third, the Cowboys and Texans were tied 13-13 but the offense looked to be on the move. On first down from their own 40, Dak Prescott found Tavon Austin open on the sideline for what looked like a first-down catch near midfield. Austin got his two feet down but when he went out of bounds, the ball popped out when he went to the ground, right in front of the Cowboys' bench. Still, Jason Garrett decided to challenge the play, and it was upheld for an incomplete pass, costing a timeout. Not only that, Prescott was drilled with an apparent targeting shot from Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who led with his helmet into the quarterback's chest. The Cowboys don't get the 12-yard gain, or the 15-yard penalty and lose a timeout in the process.
Williams' holding wipes out big run – On the final play of the third quarter, the Cowboys were looking to build a drive with the score tied 13-13. Elliott went for 11 and then 15 yards out to the Cowboys 41. However, rookie guard Connor Williams was called for a holding penalty, moving the ball back to the 20 and first-and-20. The Cowboys didn't get a first down from that and had to punt, which led to the Texans getting good field position and eventually taking the lead with a field goal.
Gregory's penalty keeps drive alive – With the game tied in the fourth, the Texans had a third-and-8 and couldn't covert a first down with a short throw over the middle. But Randy Gregory, who has been flagged earlier this year with a drive-changing penalty, was called for illegal use of the hands, giving Houston a first down. The Texans kept the ball and drove for a go-ahead field goal.
Watt's sack stifles another late drive – The back-and-forth game was late in the fourth quarter and Austin had just delivered a 25-yard punt return to give Dallas the ball at its own 45 with 3:25 left. The Cowboys needed about 15-20 yards to get into legitimate field-goal range for Brett Maher. But on second-and-8, Prescott was sacked for a 9-yard loss by Watt. That forced third-and-17 and the Cowboys didn't even make an attempt to get a first down and had to punt. Without that sack, the Cowboys could've had two solid attempts to get into range for the go-ahead kick.
Pre-Hail Mary pass comes up short – The Cowboys kept Maher over Dan Bailey mainly because of his booming leg. So when Garrett said he was hoping the Cowboys would get to the Texans' 40-yard line at the end of regulation, it's very likely he would've tried anything on the Houston side of the field. After Woods' interception gave the Cowboys the ball with 10 seconds left at their own 47, the offense had one timeout and needed a few yards. Prescott couldn't convert a pass to Cole Beasley over the middle that likely would've netted about 8 yards. A complete pass there, with a timeout, would've put the ball at the Texans' 45, if not closer. Maher would've at least tried a 62-yard kick, considering he drilled a 57-yarder into the net back in the preseason. Yes, the stakes would've been much different, but there's no doubt he has enough leg to at least try.
Zeke stuffed for no gain in OT – The game went full circle. Just like Elliott was stopped on third-and-short back in the first quarter, he couldn't get the first down in overtime with the Cowboys facing a third-and-1 (almost 2 yards) near midfield. It was a zone-read option and Prescott chose to give it to Elliott, who was stopped for no gain. The Cowboys then decided to punt it to Houston, who started at their own 10-yard line. Thanks to a 49-yard pass to Hopkins, the Texans were able to get into an easy field-goal position for the win.