Most thought that the Dallas Cowboys would be no match for the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, that a loss was inevitable. The question really was whether or not the home team could even be competitive.
And yes, they did lose, 24-19, but the Cowboys were not only competitive, they had a chance to win this one. They held the lead into the fourth quarter while looking at times like an entirely different team than the one that had been largely ineffective the previous two weeks.
The doubts surrounding Dallas' struggling offense had only increased heading into this matchup with Garrett Gilbert taking over behind center. After all, the Cowboys were starting their third different quarterback in as many games and their fourth quarterback overall for the season. The last time that many signal callers made a start for Dallas in a single campaign came in 2015, which included current offensive coordinator Kellen Moore earning two of those.
But Gilbert proved up to the task, shocking one and all by largely looking the part while completing 21 of 38 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 28 yards in contributing to a ground attack that churned out 144 rushing yards, led by Tony Pollard's 6.3 yards per carry average.
In all, Dallas recorded 364 yards of total offense to Pittsburgh's 355, were better on third downs, converting 47 percent to the Steelers' 38 percent, and dominated the time of possession, 33:24 to 26:36.
It just wasn't enough, as in the end a series of miscues led to the Cowboys' ultimate defeat.
Dallas came out with a strong start, though, as the defense forced the Steelers to punt on both of its opponent's first quarter possessions. In between those defensive efforts, Garrett made his Cowboys debut, and on their first series, the quarterback methodically marched his team down the field, the offense going from its own 15-yard line to the Pittsburgh 14.
The drive saw Garrett connect on 3 of 4 passes, already surpassing his career total of two completions coming into the game. His big throw of 32 yards to Amari Cooper was also a personal best.
So while their initial drive stalled, leaving Greg Zuerlein to kick a 38-yard field goal, the Cowboys were showing some unexpected signs of life.
And what do you know? That momentum continued into the second quarter. After the Dallas defense stopped Pittsburgh on fourth-and-1 at the Cowboys' 35-yard line, Gilbert was simply brilliant on his team's next possession. Twice he scrambled out of the pocket for a combined 26 yards, found tight end Dalton Schultz for 16 more, and then on third-and-7 at the Pittsburgh 20-yard line, he threw a perfect pass to CeeDee Lamb on the right side of the end zone for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead. The score was the team's first in three games and the first of Garrett's career.
A bit of razzle-dazzle by the punt return unit pushed the advantage to 13-0. Cedrick Wilson hauled in the punt at his own 7-yard line, then threw it across the field to teammate C.J. Goodwin who raced down the left sideline for a 73-yard return. A block-in-the-back penalty on Dallas moved the ball back to Pittsburgh's 31-yard line, which led to Zuerlein's 44-yard field goal.
The momentum, though, shifted dramatically just before the half, as the Steelers responded with a nine-play, 75-yard drive that saw them reach the end zone for the first time on the day. Roethlisberger appeared to be shaken up on one play, his knee bending awkwardly after being sandwiched between Cowboys defensive linemen DeMarcus Lawrence and Neville Gallimore. But, he stayed in the game and eventually completed a 17-yard pass to James Washington for the touchdown, Pittsburgh missing the extra-point attempt.
That's when disaster first struck the Cowboys. Initially, a 19-yard gain on their ensuing possession was wiped out due to an illegal formation penalty, and then with just over a minute remaining in the second quarter, Lamb caught a pass at the Dallas 35-yard line, only to have the ball knocked loose and into the arms of Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
That gave the visitors the ball in Dallas territory with 51 seconds on the clock, plenty of time for Pittsburgh. The Cowboys defense held, and the Steelers first attempt at a 54-yard field goal sailed wide left. But a false start penalty was called, meaning the play was dead before it ever started, a penalty on Pittsburgh that actually worked in its favor.
Given another chance, this time kicker Chris Boswell was good from 59 yards – the longest field goal in Steelers history – narrowing the score to 13-9 at the break.
Despite the hiccup at the end, it was as entertaining a half of football as the Cowboys had played all year. And they rebounded from that tough finish to the second quarter to get things rolling again in the third.
Using a deliberate, ball-control offense, the Cowboys had two possessions in the quarter, the first lasting 11 plays and 4:43 of clock with Zuerlein kicking a 45-yard field goal. That was followed by a 39-yard field goal after Dallas chewed up 6:26 of clock on 12 plays to take a two-possession lead, 19-9.
Unfortunately, there is a reason Pittsburgh has yet to lose a game and their experience and perhaps talent finally rose to the top in the final quarter. The fourth began with Roethlisberger finding JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 31-yard field goal, but the Cowboys were still in the driver's seat, as on the following kickoff, rookie Rico Dowdle hauled in the ball at the 1-yard line, slipped to the right sideline and raced downfield for a 64-yard return to the Pittsburgh 36.
But then, after playing such a great game, things completely fell apart for the home side.
It began on third-and-goal at the Steelers' 5-yard line. Gilbert, under heavy pressure, lofted a pass into the center of the end zone, but the only one there to catch it was Pittsburgh's Fitzpatrick, who after a short return and a Pittsburgh penalty, gave the visitors the ball on their own 1-yard line.
The defense then had a chance to return the favor, Tyrone Crawford stripping the ball from Roethlisberger and Aldon Smith recovering. Instead, Jaylon Smith was called for illegal contact, giving the ball back to Pittsburgh.
On the very next snap, Leighton Vander Esch was called for unnecessary roughness, giving the Steelers another 15 yards. When the drive was all said and done, the Cowboys were probably lucky that Pittsburgh was only able to add a 43-yard field goal, the game now 19-18 with 7:11 left.
But the more the seconds ticked off the clock, the more the Steelers seemingly took control. And the more help they got from Dallas.
On Pittsburgh's next series, the Cowboys appeared to have them stopped when Roethlisberger overthrew his target on a third-and-10 at his own 21, bringing up a punt. However, a blitzing Jaylon Smith was called for roughing the passer, giving the Steelers 15 yards and a fresh set of downs.
Pittsburgh took advantage of the gift, Roethlisberger finding wideout Diontae Johnson for a 42-yard completion that was followed two plays later by an 8-yard pass to tight end Eric Ebron for the score. Although their two-point conversion failed, the Steelers finally took the lead, 24-19.
The Cowboys had one last chance with just over two minutes remaining, but with Pittsburgh's defense bringing the pressure, Gilbert was sacked for a 17-yard loss on a fourth-and-8 at his own 41-yard line, turning the ball over on downs.
Dallas had one last chance, stopping Pittsburgh on fourth-and-1 to take over at its own 19-yard line with 38 seconds remaining. The Cowboys then made it interesting after Gilbert completed a 32-yard pass to Lamb down the left sideline and a 20-yarder to Michael Gallup across the middle to the Steelers' 29-yard line.
But that would be the last hurrah, the Cowboys coming up short in their upset bid as Gilbert's final pass into the end zone was knocked away, incomplete. At least they could perhaps take some consolation in the fact that the Cowboys proved the doubters wrong and gave the NFL's only remaining undefeated team all they could handle.