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Spagnola: A Few Bad Plays Spoiling Season


FRISCO, Texas – So close, yet so far.

Come on, let's look at this precarious predicament the Cowboys are in heading into the final game of the regular season, the one scattering-shooting blame is hitting the head coach, the coordinators, the quarterback, the owner/president and general manager, all the way to anyone else walking into the line of verbal fire.

So frustrating, since the Cowboys have lost three of their eight games this year by a grand total of eight points, the equivalent of one touchdown and a two-point conversion.

By two to the Saints on the road.

By two to the Jets on the road.

By four to the Patriots in the rain, wind and cold on the road.

Think about that. Win those highly winnable, close games and the Cowboys, instead of sitting here at this deeply disappointing 7-8 quandary …

Instead of being sentenced to second place in the NFC East, one game behind the 8-7 Eagles with one to go …

Instead of desperately needing to beat the 3-12 Redskins Sunday in the final regular-season game of 2019 and simultaneously rooting for the 4-11 New York Giants to beat the Eagles, who once again desperately need one more win to clinch the division title …

Instead, well, these roundly-mocked Cowboys already would be 10-5.

That's right, assured of winning back-to-back NFC East titles, with the fourth seed in the NFC playoffs already locked up and able to load manage their walking wounded for Sunday's 3:25 p.m. start against Washington, including allowing quarterback Dak Prescott a couple of more weeks to treat and rest the sprained AC joint in his right shoulder.

Yep, close, yet so far.

Thus, everyone and their brother is wanting to know why. Why the Cowboys have lost six of seven games this season decided by no more than seven points – one score – while as newly-minted Hall of Famer Gil Brandt points out this week that the Cowboys currently have the best point differential of plus-82 and best yardage differential of plus-1,426 yards of any sub-.500 team in the Super Bowl era.

This when in 2018, as we know, the Cowboys won eight of their 10 games by no more than one possession and, as Gil figured out, were the darlings of the close calls, with only a plus-15 point differential and but a 233 yardage differential.

You know, in both cases, a play here, a play there.

As 16-year veteran Jason Witten points out, he going into last Sunday's near winner-take-the-East game at Philadelphia, and could have been talking about these close calls, "A handful of plays make the difference in those games, the small details. More important now than ever when you play in these games, those small details – details more than just the hype of winning the division, that's what's going to allow you to be successful."

Well, stay with me on those "small details" because here come five reasons, five dang plays out of 935 in these first 15 games. Why the Cowboys' playoff chances, with so much expected of them this season, are on the teetering brink.

Take the Saints loss. At New Orleans. With Teddy Bridgewater starting for the injured Drew Brees. With the Cowboys riding in high at 3-0.

They are trailing but 6-3 midway through the second quarter. On a third-and-4 at the Cowboys' 31-yard line, with 7:13 left in the half, Dak hits Witten on a simple down and in, Witten beating Saints linebacker A.J. Klein. Has the first down. Is proceeding toward the 50, probably going to move into Saints territory. But of all things, Klein, from behind, knocks the ball out, recovered by teammate Von Bell. End of a prime scoring opportunity with the offense on the move. Cowboys lose by two.

Next possession, 1:36 left in the half, Cowboys facing a fourth-and-1 at their own 43-yard line. Cowboys still trailing, 6-3. Gotta go. Need points. Dak hands off up the middle to Ezekiel Elliott, of course. Zeke is going strong, yet Connor Williams misses his block on David Onyemata, who sideswipes Zeke, yet Zeke still plunges forward for at least 2 yards and the first down. But on the way down, with Bell yanking at the ball, as he hits the ground, the ball comes out. Small details, right?

All of the officials could see at the end of play that the Saints had the ball. Ruling on the field, fumble. Video replay appears to show Zeke's elbow hitting the ground before the ball comes out. Call on the field stands. Saints ball at the Cowboys' 44-yard line. Even worse, Saints close the half with a field goal they never should have had. Now, 9-3 Saints. Cowboys lose by two, 12-10.

Let's move on. Jets game. Cowboys facing a third-and-1 at the Jets 6-yard line, trailing 7-3, and struggling on offense. Just 4:29 left in the half. Zeke is stuffed for a 1-yard loss. Garrett knows this team needs a touchdown after having lost two straight. Goes for it on fourth down. This time, the Cowboys fake a handoff to Zeke. Dak keeps, going left. Minus-1 again. Jet's ball at their own 8. And with Jets second-year quarterback Sam Darnold playing for the first time in four weeks, he lets fly on a deep post to Robby Anderson. Chidobe Awuzie is beat on a double-move. Safety Jeff Heath, can't get over quick enough. Gosh almighty, a 92-yard touchdown pass, Anderson's first touchdown of the season. Now Jets, 14-3. Cowboys lose by two, 24-22.

And there this, on that cold, rainy, windy day in Foxborough, Mass., Cowboys 6-4, having won three of their past four, but both teams having problems moving the football and Cowboys kicker Brett Maher missing from 46 yards out on a field-goal attempt, hitting the left upright on the previous possession. Cowboys forced to punt from their own 30-yard line. But Pats special teams ace Matthew Slater busts through to block Chris Jones' punt. Pats recover at the Cowboys' 12. Just 1:28 left in a scoreless half. Two plays later, Tom Brady touchdown pass to N'Keal Harry, 7-0 New England. Cowboys lose by four, 13-9, that the only touchdown of the game.

Five plays. Five measly plays. Just .53 percent of the entire season. Not even 1 percent. Yet to me, 100 percent of the difference between 7-8 and potentially 10-5.

Inability to win close games.

"It's hard to point your finger on specific things, different things have happened in different games," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett reasons of why the Cowboys this season are 1-6 in those one-possession games. "We talk to our team all the time, essentially two-thirds of all the games in the National Football League are one score of each other and the teams that are able to play in the playoffs at the end of the year are the teams who win those games. Their statistics about playing in these one-score games are just like everybody else's."

Let's take the Eagles. They get to 8-7 by going essentially 6-5 in one-score games, including that overtime victory three weeks ago against the Giants, that is if you count leading the Redskins only 31-27 until returning a last-second, last-play fumble for a meaningless touchdown.

Take 12-3 San Francisco. The Niners are 4-3 in one score games. Or the 12-3 Patriots, 4-2 in one-possession games. Or the 12-3 Packers, 7-1 in one-score games. Or 13-2 Baltimore? Well, 5-1 in one-possession games, including an overtime win.

And how about this? The 11-4 Seahawks are 10-1 in one-possession games, with two of those wins in overtime and two more by just one point. The Seahawks have but a plus-44 point differential, meaning they've won their 11 games by a four-point average.

Rest Jason's case. The difference being, those teams have won the majority of those nip-and-tuck games.

"We did a really good job last year of winning those games, and we haven't done as good a job, that's what big games come down to," Garrett says. "I don't think there is one thing that big, if we just do this better we'd have won all those (games). I think it has been different things, but I do know this: The games are going to come down to it, and the teams that play the best at the end of ball games are typically winners."

True that.

And the Cowboys haven't, losing games by two, by two, by four, by four, by seven and by eight, along with 10 and 11. And get this, winning games by 18, by 10, by 25, by 27, by 17, by 23 and, oh yeah, by eight. Just one, one-score win.

And that's how you get to 7-8 with the league's top-ranked offense and 11th-ranked defense.

That's why your season is on the very brink.