DENVER – Lightning began bouncing all over this Mile High City Sunday afternoon.
The bolts provided by Mother Nature caused a 1-hour, 2-minute delay with 33 seconds left in the first quarter of this Dallas-Denver matchup, dispatching the Cowboys and the Broncos to their respective locker rooms and the majority of the 76,919 people at Sports Authority Stadium at Mile High scurrying for cover.
There were no known strikes from these aerial displays in the area.
But, have mercy, the most damaging bolts on this fall afternoon were delivered by the Denver Broncos offensive and defensive lines, stopping this most promising Dallas Cowboys team in right in its tracks, thus absorbing the worst beating since the 2013 season.
Broncos 42, Cowboys 17, the 25-point loss easily worse than anything that happened last year, even worse than anything happening in that 4-12 season of 2015. Why, you would have to go back to 2013 when the Cowboys were clobbered by the Saints in New Orleans, 49-17, to find the last the time the Cowboys were walloped by more than the 25-point bruising they absorbed on Sunday.
Now, it's one thing for the Broncos to score 42 points against the Cowboys. The last time the two teams met, uh, during that same 2013 season when Dallas finished with the 32nd-ranked defense, Denver laid 51 on the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in its narrow three-point victory, 51-48. But heck, that was Peyton Manning playing for the Broncos, throwing for 414 yards, not Trevor Siemian.
But most surprising – check that, shocking – was the Cowboys scoring just 17 points after a modest 19-point outing in the season-opening 19-3 victory over the Giants. Equally so, the Cowboys were able to total just 268 yards, convert only three of 14 third downs and run for a humiliating 40 yards – Ezekiel Elliott averaging less than a yard-a-carry (9 for 8 yards) in a career low. Then there was the Cowboys scoring just two touchdowns, and now but three in two games.
"That was not us as a team," a somewhat shell-shocked owner Jerry Jones said. "But that might be Denver."
Here was the deal heading into the game: If you had asked what are the three keys to a Cowboys victory, out of my mouth would have come:
- Cowboys have to run the ball effectively to keep that Broncos' pass rush at bay.
- The Cowboys need to stop a Broncos running game that piled up an encouraging 140 yards against the Chargers in their season-opening win, and that if the Broncos ran for the 140 yards again, the Cowboys would surely lose.
- The Cowboys had to protect quarterback Dak Prescott against this highly aggressive Broncos defensive front-7.
Well, the Cowboys went keyless, oh-for-3, which is why they are 1-1, stewing over the unimpressive start and now having to wait until a week from Monday to play again, a Monday nighter at Arizona, no easy task against that defense, too.
First, the Cowboys could not run for squat, those measly 40 yards. The Broncos stacked the line of scrimmage with their 3-4 front and the Cowboys offensive line could not budge them. Seriously, barely an inch.
"Our plan was to clog every gap, play man-three outside with the corners and their receivers and clog every gap," Broncos first-year head coach Vance Joseph said. "If (Elliott) did pop a run, it was going to be on a missed tackle. It wasn't going to be on an open gap. We knew coming to the game that was going to be our first order of business, to stop the run and clog every gap. When they went three-wides and one back, we played our normal base front with our normal secondary."
The Broncos had the personnel to pull that off.
Second, the Broncos didn't just run for those prohibitive 140 yards I talked about. Oh no, they went for 178, a combination of C.J. Anderson (118) and Jamal Charles (46), Anderson becoming the first running back to go for 100 against the Cowboys defense since one Alfred Morris of the Redskins went for exactly 100 in the final game of the 2015 season. And because of that success, Siemian was able to throw when he wanted to throw, thus the Broncos converted 9-of-12 third downs over the first three quarters.
And third, sure seemed as if Prescott was under siege all game long. OK, he was only sacked two times, both by Von Miller, and both in the fourth quarter with Denver leading 35-17. But the Broncos registered seven quarterback hits and Prescott was forced to run three times to escape danger. The pocket was rarely clean, the Broncos applying undo pressure, many times bringing five and six guys.
This was not a good day for the Cowboys offensive line, possibly poking a hole in that distinction as "the best offensive line in the league."
"They loaded up to stop the run," Cowboys head coach Jason Garret said, "and we needed to have some success throwing the ball to get them out of that defense."
Well, they didn't. Prescott needed a career-high 50 attempts to throw for 228 yards. His QB rating was just 68.6, the second lowest of his young career. While the Broncos were reeling off eight plays of at least 14 yards, the Cowboys were reduced to just three.
The Cowboys had too many drops. There were several poor routes, leading to one of Prescott's two interceptions – the second returned by Aqib Talib 103 yards for the Broncos' final score with 53 seconds remaining, pouring salt in this first wound of the season. The other occurred when Dez Bryant let a catchable ball bounce off his hands, the ball landing in Charles Harris' lap. The two interceptions in one game represented half as many as Dak had his entire rookie season.
Dak, being the quarterback, fell on his sword after the game as all good quarterbacks do.
"If I make more plays, we give ourselves a chance in that game," he very diplomatically said. "I simply didn't make the plays. There's no excuse for it, and playing like that, you won't win a game. It doesn't matter who you play."
To their credit, no one was making excuses. Like, the defense by halftime playing without three of their top four cornerbacks – Orlando Scandrick inactive (fractured hand), Nolan Carroll (concussion protocol) ruled out with 8:15 left in the second quarter and Chidobe Awuzie (hamstring) leaving the game after two series. Their absences forced the Cowboys to play rookie Jourdan Lewis at one corner in his NFL debut after missing the entire preseason and Giants game (hamstring), Anthony Brown at the other corner and rookie safety Xavier Woods in the slot for the first time in his NFL career.
The Cowboys could have blamed the game turning on a real, real ticky-tack leverage call on DeMarcus Lawrence on the heels of his third-down sack when trying to block a Brandon McManus 50-yard field goal. The personal foul worth 15 yards gave the Broncos a first down, and instead of settling for just a 10-7 lead, they went on to score a touchdown, going up 14-7 with 5:54 left in the first half. Certainly, being down 17-10 at halftime after Dan Bailey tied his career long with a 56-yard field to end the half wouldn't have seemed as bad as the 21-10 it was.
They could have blamed the blasted altitude, the quite conspicuous painted reminder on the corridor wall outside the Cowboys locker room door planting a subliminal seed that Denver is a mile high at 5,280 feet.
Or, heck, maybe even blamed the lightning-caused delay, though the game-delaying bolts were far less destructive than those Broncos fronts lighting up the Cowboys for real.
But they took the Mile-High road instead.
"Honestly, thankfully it's Week 2 and not later in the year," Prescott said. "There's a lot of football left to be played this season."
There sure is, and it darn well needs to be a whole lot better than this.