ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Don't blame the weather, because it mostly played nice, especially considering the location and date. Don't blame the surface, because it was turf and didn't get messy even when the rain became consistent in the second half. The problem is the Dallas Cowboys are trying to figure out what intangible to blame after a blowout loss at the hands of the Buffalo Bills.
Speaking to the tangible aspect of the contest, they can point at the three personal foul penalties that led to 18 of the first 21 points scored by the Bills to begin the game — creating a 21-3 deficit that allowed Josh Allen to avoid throwing and James Cook to exploit a run defense that was without Johnathan Hankins; and that's one example of what went wrong in Orchard Park.
With this loss, the Cowboys are now 3-4 on the road and they are very much locked into a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde battle with themselves when comparing their dominance at home with their complete lack of it when they're away from AT&T Stadium.
"It's a gap, and that's part of my message," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "We play so well at home. There's just too big of a gap on our road games. We're conscious of it, and we've got a long flight home to think about it, and to talk about it. We've got to move on to Miami in the morning, and get this one corrected but, yes, we've gotta be better."
McCarthy has stated time and again that he's looking forward to the challenge of the December stretch, one that includes three of four road games and two against high-level opponents. The fact remains the Cowboys are still looking to check this box before the playoffs arrived, having clinched a seat ahead of kickoff, and up next comes a daunting task in South Beach.
It's the Miami Dolphins, a high-flying team that is also the fastest in the league, overall, who will be waiting for the Cowboys' arrival next weekend.
"I just this stretch really lays up well for us," McCarthy said. "It gives us three tough road games and I don't think anybody expected to play the way we did tonight."
It's a 31-10 finish in Buffalo that wasn't as close as that score would imply, and one that featured Cook racking up an eye-popping 221 yards from scrimmage (179 rushing) and two touchdowns.
That's the most allowed by the Cowboys from a running back since Todd Gurley delivered 215 yards from scrimmage in Week 4 of the 2017 era and, obviously, that makes this the high mark in the Dan Quinn era.
The defense couldn't find its groove in that area, and the Bills used the big lead to continue pummeling them in it, and that helped keep Dak Prescott and the offense, who was also struggling, off of the field and on the sideline far more often than not.
In total, the Bills possessed the ball nearly 10 football minutes more than the Cowboys, and literally doubled their number of first downs — gassing the defense.
It's almost literally the exact opposite of the team that takes the field for Dallas, in Dallas.
"It's a huge difference and, really, that's what these next couple weeks are about — is figuring out that difference, and trying to close that gap," said Prescott. "We want to come out and start how we do at home, and that's just not been the case. We've gotta find out what those answers are … we can't be two different teams: winning at home against a good team last week and then come out here today and not get anything done in all three phases."
The defense did force a fumble against Stefon Diggs that was recovered by the Cowboys, but McCarthy didn't get the review quickly enough to throw the challenge flag (he says he had his hand on it) and Allen ran a hurry-up to negate the chance.
It was a microcosm of the game itself, one that felt out of control from early on, and not like in Week 5 against the San Francisco 49ers, but more so because whenever the Cowboys had the Bills in position to back them into a corner, they walked back to the middle of the ring and allowed them to escape.
Self-inflicted wounds doomed Dallas, and that's definitely something tangible (as well) that they'll have ample opportunity to discuss on the flight home and over the next several days.
"Honestly, it's unacceptable at this point," said All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons. "There's no excuse for it. It's mind-boggling and I don't understand why we're not playing well, and why we're not coming together on the road. We've something we need to look at and get better at, because we're back on the road next week."
And, with that, what awaits them in Miami is no longer a simple pop quiz. It's an exam they have to pass, and for very obvious reasons. Even the Super Bowl is on the road, if you want to consider that here as well, and you should.
Fixing the problem has to begin now, and not later, if there is to be a later at all.