The Cowboys couldn't handle the pressure – of both the game – and the Giants' defense in this season finale.
Here are 10 takeaways from Sunday's 23-19 loss to New York.
Andy Dalton couldn't solve the Giants' Rubik's Cube.
Despite his best efforts, Dalton couldn't solve the Giants' umbrella defense. The veteran's stat line doesn't necessarily reflect it (completed 29 of 47 passes for 243 yards and an interception) but the Cowboys' QB1 couldn't make enough plays in the passing game to put enough points on the board. Dalton patiently attacked the short and intermediate areas of coverage with a variety of pinpoint throws to pass catchers on an assortment of quick routes. Although the dink and dunk tactics enabled the Cowboys to move the ball from the 20-yard line to the 20-yard line, the veteran couldn't make the necessary "dime" throw to pierce the Giants' red zone coverage. With Dalton unable to make a critical touchdown toss, the Cowboys couldn't put up enough points to win a critical divisional match-up.
Tempo, tempo, tempo.
Credit Kellen Moore for pushing the pace in the second half. The Cowboys jumped in and out of their "hurry up, no-huddle" after halftime to ignite a dormant offense. The quickened pace helped Dalton find his rhythm as a passer with the Giants forced to utilize more generic looks due to potential communication issues and limited substitutions. The veteran carved up the Giants' vanilla defense with an assortment of short and intermediate throws against soft zones. In addition, the faster pace helped Ezekiel Elliott find more running room against a tired defense that was weary from a heavy workload in the second half.
The O-Line loses the battle in the trenches.
The Cowboys might've walked away with a win but it is impossible to ignore the Giants' domination at the point of attack. The combination of Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, and Dalvin Tomlinson beat up and bullied the Cowboys' frontline. The Giants amassed six sacks and harassed Dalton repeatedly in the pocket. Williams, in particular, was a menace to the veteran quarterback with his combination of strength, power, athleticism and relentless overwhelming multiple blockers at the line. The sixth-year pro finished with three sacks and five QB hits in a dominant performance that sparked a Giants' defense that carried the day.
Red zone woes prove costly.
It is hard to win games in this league when you're forced to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. The Cowboys' inability to cash in their red zone chances ultimately cost them a chance to earn a possible playoff berth. The Cowboys finished with a 25-percent efficiency rate in the red zone despite having several prime opportunities to score touchdowns. The disappointing output is part of a season-long trend in which the Cowboys have seemingly blown multiple chances to score in the red zone each. Whether it is the play calling or execution, the Cowboys didn't get it done when it mattered most and the inability to score touchdowns against the Giants (and others) will force the coaches to do a deep dive on their red zone offense this offseason.
Not enough Zeke.
Perhaps the need to chase points altered the Cowboys' game plan but Ezekiel Elliott needed to be a bigger factor in a "win or go home" game. The All-Pro runner finished the game with 17 total touches (14 rushing attempts) for 61 scrimmage yards. Although his production wasn't up to par on the ground (42 rushing yards), the Cowboys needed to put the ball in their best player's hands to give them the best chance of winning. When he touched the rock, he ran hard and displayed the trademark grittiness that's made him a dominant runner for most of his career. That's why it is baffling to see the Cowboys lean on the passing game instead of putting the game on No.21's shoulders and trusting him to make enough plays to carry the offense.
The turnovers keep coming.
The Cowboys' turnover streak continued against the Giants with the defense coming up with a pair of takeaways (interception and a fumble recovery). The turnovers helped the Cowboys claw their way back into contention after behind early in the game. Moreover, it confirmed to Mike Nolan and the players that turnovers happen when defenders are playing with an outstanding effort, discipline, and physicality. The Cowboys started to generate more turnovers when they exerted more energy and started to focus on better execution.
The secondary comes up short.
Nolan and Co. will need to re-examine their methods when it comes to defending the Giants going forward. Perhaps it is the personnel instead of the scheme but the Cowboys were unable to suffocate a Giants' aerial attack that's been punchless for most of the season. Daniel Jones tossed for 229 passing yards with the majority of his throws going to Sterling Shepard. The Giants' shifty pass catcher is a solid player but he shouldn't top the 100-yard mark in a game. The Cowboys played too soft in coverage and allowed him to catch whatever he wanted without challenging him at the line of scrimmage or throughout the route. Opting for the easy access approach was a bit of a surprise based on the Giants' personnel and the magnitude of the game.
The run defense is still leaky.
Despite showing signs of improvement down the stretch, the Cowboys' porous run defense showed up at inopportune times against the Giants. The Cowboys allowed the pedestrian Giants' offense to amass 125 rushing yards on 28 attempts with Wayne Gallman popping a handful of big runs to move the chains. The Giants' RB1 tallied 65 rush yards on 11 attempts but he delivered when it mattered and that's a major concern. The Cowboys couldn't stop the Giants' running game in obvious run situations and that's a season-long problem that needs to be resolved.
The Jaylon Smith dilemma
The Cowboys' star linebacker led the team in tackles again but I don't know if he is really an impact player. He rarely makes the splash plays (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and interceptions) that change games and it is hard to count on a star player without playmaking ability. Moreover, Smith is a bit of a liability in coverage, and his inability to stay close to tight ends and running backs limits the coverages that can be utilized in the game plan. While Smith believes he is playing like a five-star talent for the team, he should take a closer look at his game and deficiencies to see how he can improve as a key contributor going forward.
"Greg The Leg" gives the Cowboys a chance.
After struggling for parts of the season with his consistency, Zuerlein was a perfect four of four during the regular-season finale. He nailed kicks from every range, including a long-distance both from 57 yards that kept the Cowboys close at halftime. The veteran's ability to put the ball through the uprights played a critical role in the Cowboys' ability to play a close game with the offense unable to punch it in inside the red zone.