Wanting to break whatever road curse seems to be plaguing them, the Dallas Cowboys came into this Christmas Eve showdown at the Miami Dolphins needing to keep pace in the chase for the NFC East title. Instead, Dallas dropped its second straight game, losing 22-20 to the Dolphins and thus falling to 3-5 away from home on the season.
Entering this matchup, the Cowboys were second in the NFL for points scored with 431, trailing only their hosts as Miami ranked first at 441. Meaning, with two of the top offenses in the NFL facing off, this had all the makings of a shootout. But on a rain-soaked day in South Florida, this turned into a defensive battle of sorts as both sides struggled to reach the end zone.
Initially, Dak Prescott and the offense seemed to be in sync as the quarterback connected with CeeDee Lamb four times for 93 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter alone. But the star wide receiver was largely a non-factor through the middle two quarters before getting involved again in the fourth. By no coincidence, the success off the offense followed that same pattern.
Prescott would finish the game with 253 passing yards and two touchdowns for an impressive 107.9 quarterback rating. And Lamb, of course, was the primary recipient of that effort, leading the team with six catches for 118 yards.
On the ground, the Cowboys averaged just 3.9 yards per carry for a total of 97 rushing yards. Overall, Dallas finished with 339 yards of offense, though converting just 33 percent of both its third down tries and red zone opportunities.
Defensively, the Cowboys allowed the Dolphins to put up points on six of their nine possessions with one of those drives also reaching the Dallas 4-yard line. But most of those ended in field goals, as Dan Quinn's troops surrendered just one touchdown. Miami finished with 375 yards of offense on the day, which included just a 3.5 yards per carry average when running the ball. Tua Tagovailoa threw for 293 yards and a touchdown for a 98.1 mark while Tyreek Hill led club receivers with 99 receiving yards.
Wanting to make an immediate statement and gain an early lead – Dallas being 6-0 this season when scoring on the opening drive – the Cowboys won the coin toss and chose to take the ball. And when they then methodically marched all the way down to the Miami 1-yard line in 15 plays, everything seemed to be going accordingly to plan.
But then disaster struck. After Tony Pollard was pulled down at the 1-yard line to set up first-and-goal, fullback Hunter Luepke and Prescott mishandled the handoff on the next snap, and Dolphins' safety Brandon Jones recovered the fumble. With that, the scoring chance came to a shocking end.
Not helping matters was the fact that Tagovailoa soon thereafter connected with wideout Jaylen Waddle on a 50-yard completion to cross midfield. The Cowboys would hold the line, but Jason Sanders was good on a 57-yard field goal to get Miami on the board first.
In another one minute and 20 seconds of game clock, though, Dallas would have its lead. Prescott got the series going with a 22-yard throw to Lamb and then just two plays later went back to the star receiver. Catching the pass over the middle, Lamb outraced and outmaneuvered the Dolphins' defense all the way to the end zone. The 49-yard score extended his touchdown streak to seven games.
Keeping the momentum going, the Cowboys decided to put up their own goal-to-go defensive stand. Miami came right back and worked its way to the Dallas 3-yard line, but there the home team only went backwards 2 yards before coming up empty on a fourth-down pass attempt from the 5.
The Dolphins, while holding Dallas to just 9 yards in the second quarter, closed the gap after following up a 16-yard punt return with a short 31-yard drive that resulted in a 52-yard field goal. They then took possession again with only 2:23 left in the second quarter, which was plenty of time to grab the lead before the end of the half.
Tagovailoa started things off at his own 29-yard line with an 11-yard pass to tight end Durham Smythe and would go on to complete 6 of 7 attempts for 57 yards. Helped by a questionable roughing the passer call on Micah Parsons, the Dolphins got their touchdown on the next snap when Tagovailoa tossed a 4-yarder to Raheem Mostert to give Miami a 13-7 advantage at the break.
Although the Dallas defense kept the Dolphins in check as the second half got underway, a 58-yard punt forced Prescott and company to start at their own 2-yard line for their first third-quarter series. A quick three-and-out and ensuing punt of their own sent the ball back to Miami, who, ahead in the field-position battle, started at its 40-yard line and eventually set up Sanders for a 54-yard field goal and nine-point edge.
However, Dallas wasn't done yet. Prescott came right back and found receiver Jalen Tolbert down the field for a 45-yard completion. The Cowboys then appeared to have a first down at the Miami 11 when the quarterback later scrambled for a 14-yard pickup. But the gain was negated by an illegal shift penalty, which forced Dallas to eventually settle for a 43-yard Brandon Aubrey field goal to keep it a one-possession game.
Sanders, though, kept the field goal parade going as he capped a nine-play, 58-yard drive with a 35-yard field goal to bump the lead back to 19-10 at the end of three quarters.
Continuing the tit-for-tat, Aubrey took his turn. As the clock ticked over into the final frame, Dallas marched 60 yards on 10 plays with Prescott completing three passes for 24 yards and scrambling up the middle for another 22 more. But the drive would stall at the Miami 15, leaving it in the hands of the Cowboys kicker, who split the uprights on a 33-yard field goal.
Needing a defensive stand, Dallas got it, forcing a punt that gave the offense possession at its own 31-yard line. That's when Prescott went to work, leading his team to a 17-play, 69-yard drive to pay dirt. Fourth downs proved to be the difference as the quarterback found Lamb for an 11-yard gain on fourth-and-2 at the Miami 43-yard line with KaVontae Turpin then drawing a defensive pass interference call on fourth-and-goal at the Dolphins' 4-yard line to provide a new set of downs at the 1.
And while Prescott was immediately sacked for a 7-yard loss, two snaps later he targeted Brandin Cooks, who came down with the catch in the left side of the end zone to give Dallas a one-point lead.
But that still left 3:27 on the clock for Miami, the Cowboys now required to put up perhaps its biggest defensive effort of the season. Unfortunately, they couldn't.
The Dolphins worked the clock to perfection, racing down the field (helped by a 15-yard facemask penalty) and then picking up first downs when needed to set themselves up for a last-second field goal. And Sanders remained perfect, good on the chip-shot 29-yarder to win the game.
With the loss, the Cowboys moved to 10-5 on the season and again will need some help to stay atop the NFC East. They'll next return to the comfy confines of AT&T Stadium to face the Detroit Lions, winners of the NFC North.