Missed opportunities, poor red zone play, third-down deficiencies. In the end it all added up to a 28-14 Dallas Cowboys loss to the Tennessee Titans in front of a sold-out crowd and a prime-time Monday Night Football audience.
This was a matchup that featured two of the NFL's premier defenses with Dallas coming into the game having given up the fewest average points, 17.6, and Tennessee ranking third at 18.1.
But on this night, it was the visiting defense who outplayed the home side. As a group, the Cowboys sacked quarterback Marcus Mariota four times and provided two fumble recoveries, but as the game wore on, the defense wore down. The Dallas unit eventually gave up 340 yards of offense to the Titans, including 125 on the ground.
And where Dallas really came up short was on third downs. Tennessee was able to convert 11 of 14 third-down attempts, an ugly 79 percent success rate surrendered.
Conversely, on the other side of the ball, the Cowboys offense had its troubles against the Titans' stout defense. After Ezekiel Elliott got off to a fast start, rushing for 29 yards on Dallas' first possession, he was held to just 32 the rest of the way to finish with only 61 yards rushing.
As the running game struggled, quarterback Dak Prescott couldn't pick up the slack. He completed 67.7 percent of his pass attempts for 243 yards and a 99.3 passer rating. But behind an offensive line that is perhaps in transition, he was also sacked five times, threw an interception and lost a fumble, both of which eventually led to Titans points.
This was also the debut of newly acquired Amari Cooper, who caught three passes for 30 yards and a touchdown in the first half, before totaling two catches for 28 yards in the second, leading the team in both receptions and receiving yards.
His score opened the scoring for Dallas, and the first quarter ended with the Cowboys actually owning a 7-0 lead. But if anything, it felt like a disappointment.
On the team's opening possession of the game, the offense marched 55 yards to the Tennessee 20, but there the drive stalled. Even worse, Brett Maher then pushed his 38-yard field goal to the right, no good.
Defensively, though, Dallas started strong and the unit forced fumbles on each of the Titans' first two series. The first turnover came when defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence exploded around the right end to slap the ball out of Mariota's hands with Sean Lee eventually falling on the bouncing prize at the Tennessee 15-yard line.
Four plays later, the Cowboys were in the end zone. Prescott found Cooper on the left side, the receiver then diving just inside the pylon for his first touchdown with the team and an early advantage.
But when the defense provided yet another fumble recovery on the Titans' next go-round, this time Jaylon Smith pouncing on a handoff miscue, the Dallas offense couldn't capitalize. Prescott was able to get his team to the Tennessee 6-yard line, but the quarterback threw into double-coverage trying to connect with Cooper in the end zone, and Titans safety Kevin Byard came down with the ball to ruin the scoring threat.
To that point, Tennessee had managed only 18 yards of offense. But given the gift, the visitors then went on an 80-yard march as the clock ticked over into the second quarter. Mariota completed 5 of 6 pass attempts for 49 yards and also ran twice for 13 more before running back Derrick Henry bulled his way in from the 1-yard line to tie the game, 7-7.
It wasn't tied for long. With the Cowboys offense now struggling and the defense unable to get off the field, the Titans came right back on their next series with another trip to the end zone. Dallas looked like they might come away unharmed when defensive tackle Daniel Ross appeared to have a sack on a third-and-10 at the Tennessee 46. But the Titans called timeout just before the snap to negate the play.
With new life, Mariota then immediately threw a 36-yard pass down the right seam to Darius Jennings that split three Cowboys defenders. That was then followed on the very next snap by running back Dion Lewis taking a screen pass on the right side and racing 18 yards to pay dirt. Suddenly, after looking so dominant early in the game, the Cowboys found themselves down, 14-7.
But Dallas found a spark just before the half. Taking over at their own 22-yard line after the ensuing kickoff, the Cowboys needed only 3:32 of clock to go the needed 78 yards for the score. Prescott connected on 4 of 6 pass attempts, the last of those a 23-yard toss down the left sideline to a wide open Allen Hurns to even things up going into the break, 14-14.
Unfortunately, though, the Cowboys couldn't carry that momentum into the second half. And when Prescott was stripped of the ball on third-and-13 at the Dallas 42-yard line on the Cowboys' first possession of the third quarter, Tennessee was again set up with great field position.
It took seven plays, but Mariota led his team to the score, his shuttle pass to tight end Jonnu Smith providing the points and the 21-14 lead.
With the Cowboys unable to muster much offense, the Dallas defense simply began to tire. Linebacker Sean Lee was lost for the game with a hamstring injury and defensive end Taco Charlton also left with a shoulder issue, the depleted ranks starting to give up yardage.
Tennessee was able to reach the Cowboys 9-yard line on its next possession, but the home side caught a break when Mariota missed an open receiver in the end zone and then kicker Ryan Succop clanked his attempt off the left upright, no good.
The good luck was short-lived, however, as the Cowboys could do nothing on their next series, punting away to the Titans, who started on their own 36-yard line. But eight plays and 64 yards took Tennessee to the end zone, Mariota scrambling up the middle on third-and-1 at the Dallas 9-yard line to earn the score and give the Titans a two-touchdown lead, 28-14.
The Cowboys finally tried to open up their offense – Cole Beasley wasn't even targeted until the fourth quarter – but it was too little, too late. On fourth-and-10 at the Tennessee 13-yard line, a scrambling Prescott threw his desperate pass out of the end zone. Game over.
With that, the Cowboys fell to 3-5 on the season, their playoff hopes slowly slipping away. They'll now head to Philadelphia to take on the rival Eagles next Sunday night.