It was a decision that helped seal the game, but not in favor of the Cowboys, though the outcome could've been wildly different if it worked
JACKSONVILLE — For the second time in roughly two months, the Dallas Cowboys were unable to hold onto to a sizable lead against an opponent they had in their clutches. In Week 9, it was the Green Bay Packers, losing that contest by a field goal in overtime. In Week 15, it was the Jacksonville Jaguars, who clawed back from a 17-point deficit to earn a 40-34 victory in overtime on a walk-off pick-six.
The sequence of events that led to the collapse is a long one, and includes seeing their red-hot start in third-down conversions dwindle to zero in the third quarter, the two touchdowns allowed by the secondary as Trevor Lawrence targeted Kelvin Joseph heavily, the struggles in run defense, and more — in a second half that didn't see the Cowboys come back alive until it was ultimately too late.
What happened late in the fourth quarter is what will ultimately haunt the Cowboys as they watch film from this game, however, having it in hand (despite their list of self-inflicted wounds) but unable to put it away when it mattered most.
Following a potentially game-saving forced fumble against Trevor Lawrence by safety Jayron Kearse, recovered by Micah Parsons, the Cowboys took possession on their own 38-yard line with a 34-31 lead and the Jaguars owning all three of their timeouts.
Two handoffs later, the Jaguars had just one timeout remaining, and the Cowboys were facing third-and-10.
Get a first down and the Jaguars would have been forced to stop the clock and, as such, Dallas could've theoretically used Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard on a handoff to milk the clock down not only on the next play itself, but also on the play clock (40 seconds) in a punt situation.
That means there was a chance, worst-case, for the Jaguars to field their punt from Bryan Anger with roughly 40(ish) seconds and no timeouts, having to drive the majority of the field to get into field goal position.
Instead, on third-and-10, Dak Prescott dropped back and took a shot down the left sideline to Noah Brown that fell incomplete, stopping the clock and allowing the Jaguars to retain their final timeout while also taking possession with more than one minute left on the clock.
Asked about the decision, Prescott explained.
"It was a one-on-one," he said. "We had a crossing route with CeeDee [Lamb] and they put two or three guys on him. I just tried to throw it deep and give Noah [Brown] a chance."
Seven plays later, the Jaguars successfully tied the game on a 48-yard field goal as time expired, using their final timeout to help force overtime, where they eventually won the game after Prescott's intended pass to Brown ricocheted off of him and into the hands of a waiting Jaguars defensive back for the aforementioned game-winning interception.
For his part, head coach Mike McCarthy made it clear he wasn't playing for overtime.
He was playing to end the game on that third down.
"The decision there [at the end of regulation] was, offensively, do you play conservative and run the ball to take time off [of the clock], or do you try to win the game?" said McCarthy. "It's a simple decision. If it converts, it's a great call. If it doesn't, you get criticized for it."
As with any risk, there's either a reward waiting on the other side of it or there's a penalty. There were numerous times in the pre-McCarthy era wherein the Dallas coaching staff was mauled for what many labeled as "playing to not lose" as opposed to "playing to win".
With a chance to instantly right all of his team's wrongs from the previous 58.5 football minutes against a surging Jaguars offense versus an injured Cowboys defense, McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore went for the kill shot.
At times in the recent past, it's found its target but, on Sunday in Jacksonville, the bullet ricocheted and hit the Cowboys square in the chest. McCarthy knew there was a chance it could, but given the chance, he'd pull that trigger again.
But, better still, would be the Cowboys no longer shooting themselves in the foot.