ATLANTA –It's one thing to be without Zeke. The Cowboys knew that going in.
And it's one thing to be without Dan Bailey. They've been without him for the previous two weeks.
Now, it's another thing to be without Tyron Smith, Dak's protector of the blind side.
And then, 12 minutes into the game, there goes Sean Lee, too, for good, that balky hamstring balking again.
We all know there is no crying in football. No excuses, either. But come on, man, that's four Pro Bowl players, meaning your best running back, your best offensive lineman, your best kicker and now, good gosh, your irreplaceable linebacker. And when we're talking best, not just best on the Cowboys 53-man roster, but four of the best players at their positions in the entire National Football League.
Enough is enough.
But oh no, there was more. There goes Orlando Scandrick, your most experienced defensive back for a couple of series to start the second half, and already starting safety Jeff Heath leaves before halftime in concussion protocol for the rest of the game
Now, bravo for the Dallas Cowboys, they put up a bold front.
Jason Garret said it, how they believe in "next man up."
Team captain Jason Witten said it, "next man up."
But next *men *up?
At some point diminishing returns strike, and boy oh boy, they slammed the Cowboys like nothing they had ever seen so far this season at the hands of suddenly the latter-day "Dirty Birds" before 73,761 here Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
One punch after another after another, staggering the Cowboys and bringing that three-game winning streak to a screeching halt:
Falcons 27, Cowboys 7, falling to 5-4 and limping into this coming Sunday's showdown with the NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles, who propped their feet up during their Sunday bye while extending their lead in the NFC East over the Cowboys to three games without even lifting a finger.
"When you have really good players, some of the best in the league, and they're not out there, certainly that makes a difference," Witten finally relented.
Look, even though Ezekiel Elliott was missing the first game of the likely six-game suspension, even though Bailey was missing his third consecutive game and Tyron was out nursing a groin strained enough to be left at home, the Cowboys managed to grab that 7-0 lead. But the telltale signs were sprouting.
First possession, driving to the Atlanta 38, but one play later, quarterback Dak Prescott is sacked by Adrian Clayborn, blowing by Chaz Green, Tyron's replacement at left tackle, leading to a punt. But hey, they had moved the ball.
But then, now after Anthony Brown's deflected pass intercepted by Xavier Woods set up the Cowboys for a mere 21-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead, here it came, second-and-14 at the Atlanta 43, six-yard gain for the Falcons, but Lee limps off the field. Darn hamstring. Again.
You've heard sometimes when it rains, it pours. Well, this became a deluge. Oh sure, the Cowboys did hang in there to force the Falcons (5-4) to settle for Matt Bryant's eventual 50-yard field goal to end the first quarter on the sixth play following Lee's exit.
But the storm clouds were circling.
Next possession, the Cowboys drive to Atlanta's 37, third-and-8. Bang, Dak sacked again, and again by Adrian Clayborn, this time having backed off with the Falcons in a zone blitz, nailing Dak as he was running out of the pocket from intense pressure. Trouble brewing, since Clayborn now had two sacks in three series, matching his previous eight-game sack total this season. Already.
Then came the play that may have crushed momentum more than ever. Punter Chris Jones executed a perfect fake punt, passing 16 yards to Brice Butler for a first-down to the Atlanta 21. But … but … flag. As Butler, lined up as the gunner left, was wrestling with Falcons cornerback Robert Alford, who had no idea a pass was coming, he was called for offensive passing interference, pushing off to break away from Alford holding him up.
So instead, well, you know the rest of the story.
While Jones pinned the Falcons at their 2-yard line on the ensuing punt, this would be the last time the Cowboys would stop the Falcons until there were four minutes left in the game. Once again, just as they couldn't survive without Lee in those back-to-back losses to the Rams and Packers, giving up 35 points in each of those games, the Cowboys couldn't stop the Falcons.
Touchdown. Touchdown. Touchdown. Field goal. Twenty-seven consecutive points. And who knows, the Falcons might have even scored more if they needed to.
But they didn't, and you know why:
Sack. Sack. Sack. Sack. Sack. Sack. Sack. Sack.
That's right, my repeat key did not get stuck.
Why, Adrian Clayborn recorded four more sacks. That made six, not only a single-game record for Atlanta, but also the most by a Cowboys opponent, earning him a $750,000 bonus for reaching eight sacks this season if he finishes the year on the 53-man roster.
This saga gets uglier. Atlanta finished with eight sacks, most by a Cowboys opponent since 1991 when Troy Aikman was sacked a club record-tying 11 times by the Eagles in that 24-0 beating at Texas Stadium. But come on, those Eagles had Jerome Brown and Reggie White and Clyde Simmons, who had 4.5 of them that day.
Clayborn, who hasn't had more than 5.5 in any of the past five seasons and just 7.5 over the past three, beat Green four times before the Cowboys finally cried Uncle, sending in veteran backup Byron Bell. Ha, why he managed to give up two more sacks, including Clayborn's sixth.
Someone please lay healing hands on Tyron. Fast.
"That was a big issue in the game," Garrett said, and later added, "That was a big story in this ball game."
Check this out.
Cowboys possession No. 4, still leading 7-3: Third-and-9, at the 49, Dontari Poe beats Zack Martin, sacking Dak. Punt.
Possession No. 5, now trailing 10-7: First-and-10 at the Atlanta 39, 15 seconds left in the half, Clayborn beats Green, not only sacking Dak but forcing a fumble he recovers.
Possession No. 6, now down 17-7: First-and-10 at the Atlanta 12, Clayborn sacks Dak for minus-7, the main reason why Mike Nugent was attempting a 38-yeard field goal he clangs off the right upright. No good, the first Cowboys missed field goal between 30-39 yards, save one blocked, since the third game of the 2013 season, and the first missed field goal of less than 40 yards since that time, having gone 63 of 63.
Possession No. 7, trailing 24-7: Third-and-12 at their own 23, Clayborn sacks Dak, minus-7. Punt.
Possession No. 8, trailing 27-7: Fourth-and-6 at the Atlanta 20, Brooks Read beats Bell to sack Dak. Turnover on downs.
Possession No. 9: Second-and-2 at the Dallas 36, Clayborn beats Bell to sack Dak, forcing a fumble Atlanta recovered.
Seriously, can't make this stuff up. One man nearly single-handily wrecked the Cowboys offense. Get this: Not only was Dak sacked eight times, six of those by Clayborn, but he was hit 10 more times, seven of those by Clayborn. And Atlanta also registered nine tackles for loss.
Worst part about all this: The Cowboys started chipping Clayborn, keeping a running back in to nudge him before going out. A fullback and tight end at times, too. Even one time they shifted their protection to the left, going to double him with left guard Jonathan Cooper, but Clayborn still motored around Green to the outside that time.
"I mean, we just got our asses kicked," Prescott was left saying, "and we'll get better from it."
They had better.
Because know the Eagles were taking copious notes while licking their chops. They already have 25 sacks, a four-way tie for eighth in the NFL, led by defensive end Brandon Graham with five and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox with 4.5. The Eagles defensive front nearly has all of them (20.5).
If the Cowboys can't fix Tyron, in the infamous words of Dez Bryant, they gotta "fix this (stuff)" with their protection.
You know what they say about birds of a feather …
Otherwise, Zeke or no Zeke, Sean Lee or no Sean Lee, Bailey or no Bailey, they got no shot going forward.