It was with heavy hearts that the Dallas Cowboys took the field for their annual Thanksgiving game, still grieving from the loss of strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul.
So perhaps they could be somewhat forgiven for coming up short in their matchup against the Washington Football Team, falling to their division rivals, 41-16.
Also not helping was the fact that the Cowboys lost two key players on the team's very first drive. On an offensive line that has seemingly been snake bit all year, both starting tackles, Zack Martin and Cam Erving, were sidelined due to injury early in the game.
Without those two, particularly the cornerstone Martin, the Dallas offense struggled with Ezekiel Elliott rushing for only 32 yards on 10 carries, the team totaling just 60 yards on the ground as a group. Andy Dalton completed 71. 4 percent of his passes, but totaled only 215 yards through the air, 112 to Amari Cooper, as the Cowboys finished with 247 yards of offense overall.
On the other side of the ball, the Dallas defense surrendered 338 yards of offense, but was continually put in difficult situations due to questionable play calls and turnovers. Washington started three of its possessions deep in Cowboys' territory, and also had an interception return for a touchdown as well, those four swings of momentum totaling 24 points.
Which was basically the difference in the game.
The Cowboys were able to come right out on their first possession of the day and get on the board with a 33-yard field goal from Greg Zuerlein. But the points came with a price as the starting left tackle Erving went down on the drive's sixth play with a knee injury, only to be followed four snaps later by starting right tackle and the perennial All-Pro Martin leaving the game with a calf injury.
Making matters even worse, on Washington's next series defensive end Randy Gregory headed to the sideline due to an eye injury (he would return later), and the Cowboys allowed Washington two first downs by penalty. The visitors took advantage and marched 75 yards in 12 plays for the touchdown, Antonio Gibson getting the honors with a 5-yard run around the right end for a 7-3 lead.
Washington may have taken 6:53 to chew up their 75 yards, but the Cowboys needed only 2:29 to go the same distance. Two plays into the second quarter, Dalton found Cooper streaking down the right sideline, the wideout racing to the end zone for a 54-yard touchdown, the team's longest score of the season.
Unfortunately, Washington responded with 10 unanswered points, beginning with a 23-yard field goal. They then caught a break when Dallas decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at its own 34-yard line. But Dalton's quick pass to CeeDee Lamb fell incomplete, setting Washington up with prime field position. And indeed, the team crossed the goal line when Alex Hill connected with Logan Thomas for the 5-yard score.
In an effort to wrestle back the momentum, Dalton took over with just over two minutes remaining in the quarter and completed 7 of 8 passes for 40 yards to give Zuerlein a chance to kick a 32-yard field goal with 23 seconds left. His successful boot narrowed the score to 17-13 at the break.
So much for momentum. The Cowboys had obviously hoped to take the first possession of the second half and add to their point total, but instead Ezekiel Elliott's fifth lost fumble of the year gave Washington the ball at the Dallas 33-yard line. At least the defense held, thanks in part to a DeMarcus Lawrence sack, Washington having to settle for a 36-yard field goal.
The Cowboys, however, finally caught a break of their own when pressure by defensive end Aldon Smith forced quarterback Alex Smith to throw wildly and into the waiting arms of linebacker Jaylon Smith, who raced down the right sideline on a 43-yard return to the Washington 4. But Dallas couldn't punch it in, actually losing yards before Zuerlein converted the 28-yard field goal.
Even though the deficit was now just four points, 20-16, any hopes of a late comeback were soon dashed. With the Cowboys facing a fourth-and-10 at their own 24-yard line, the team tried an ill-advised fake punt, a reverse by Cedrick Wilson that actually lost a yard. With that, Washington started its third possession of the game deep in Dallas territory.
And all the visitors needed was one play to reach the end zone, Gibson rushing off left tackle 23 yards for the touchdown. With the lead now 11, the game was essentially over.
Not that it mattered, but Washington would add 14 more points late to qualify the blowout. Gibson added another touchdown, this time a 37-yard run, which was followed by defensive end Montez Sweat then batting a Dalton pass in the air, catching it himself and running 15 yards for the score, the first touchdown of his young career.
With the loss, the Cowboys fell to 3-8 on the season and saw their hopes of somehow winning the division become even more of a challenge, the disappointing defeat bringing an end to an already heartbreaking week.