ARLINGTON, Texas – As darkness fell outside AT&T Stadium on a clear Thanksgiving night, the Cowboys' offense finally looked like the group that has earned the NFL's No. 1 ranking for much of the season.
"We got it going late," quarterback Dak Prescott said after the team's 36-33 overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. "But too late."
That's been the pattern in three November losses that dropped Dallas' first-place record in the NFC East to 7-4.
Prescott (32-of-47, 375 yards, 2 touchdowns) and the offense forced overtime Thursday with a 14-point fourth quarter that featured three scoring drives and three pass plays of at least 30 yards: 41- and 32-yard catches by wide receiver Michael Gallup and a 32-yard touchdown grab by tight end Dalton Schultz.
But in OT, the offense went three-and-out from its own 7-yard line and the Raiders kicked the winning field goal following a 33-yard pass interference call on cornerback Anthony Brown -- his fourth penalty in a game littered by 28 yellow flags (14 for each team).
The three-and-out in OT was Dallas' fifth of the game. They failed to gain a first down on two of their first three drives as the Raiders surged to a 17-6 lead by midway through the second quarter.
A late touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott did cut the deficit to 17-13 by halftime. But lately, the Cowboys have found themselves playing catch-up too often.
In their seven wins, they've averaged 16.1 points in the first half. In these three recent losses to the Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders? Just 16 points combined.
"We've got to start faster," Prescott said.
There are obvious reasons why the offense hasn't met its dynamic standard lately.
Wide receiver Amari Cooper missed his second straight game Thursday because of COVID-19 protocols. Fellow starter CeeDee Lamb did not play against the Raiders after suffering a concussion near the end of the first half against the Chiefs four days ago.
The offensive line has been in a state of flux. Left tackle Tyron Smith (ankle) returned from a three-game absence Thursday, but the club has made changes at two positions the last two games. (Connor McGovern and Terence Steele have moved into the starting lineup at left guard and right tackle, though veterans Connor Williams and La'el Collins briefly rotated at those respective spots Thursday.)
And running back Ezekiel Elliott has been dealing with a knee contusion in recent weeks that's clearly giving him "some limitations," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. Elliott was able to push through it again Thursday, but he and Tony Pollard combined for only 64 yards on 20 carries (3.2-yard average).
All that said, Prescott and the offense aren't making excuses. They've also left plays on the field with penalties, drops and missed throws.
"We've got to be better all the way around," Prescott said. "…We've all got to buckle up and be accountable for what's happened and get better in every aspect. When that happens, we'll move forward. The run game will be better, the pass game will be better, we'll be able to do the actions off of that and play complementary football to one another."
Despite the slow start, head coach Mike McCarthy said he was "proud" of the team's resilience and thought the offense's up-tempo approach in the second half got them in rhythm.
"I thought the offense did a really good job with that," he said. "We just weren't as clean as we would have like to have been in the run game. Once we got going and put some points on the board, and Tony had the big kickoff return (100 yards for a touchdown), that got us going too. Coming off a short week, we knew this would be a tough one. I think this game is always tough regardless when you are in this type of run here."
Prescott's deep completions to Gallup and Schultz in the fourth quarter made the Raiders pay for playing tight man coverage on the outside, a tactic used by the Broncos and Chiefs, too.
"Whether that's the formula or not, we did OK with that once we got going," Prescott said. "We've got to do that faster. We've got to find some plays early in the first quarter, early in the first half that can get us rolling. And then from there, we're tough to stop."