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Spagnola: Can't Seem To Get Over That Road Bump


MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – This one hurts, really, really hurts.

Nothing like them other road losses, nope, not anything like the 42-10 at San Fran. Nothing like the 31-10 the previous Sunday in Buffalo, as if the Cowboys went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. And really, not like the tantalizing 28-23 loss at Philadelphia.

Nothing like any of those.

Nope, the Cowboys fought their hearts in this one. Played hard. Showed some mettle. Don't dare let anyone tell you this Cowboys team isn't physical. They were.

As Dak Prescott said, "This one sucks, it hurts. Especially as you said, in the manner that we lost one."

Got off to a good start in this one against the AFC East Division leading Dolphins. Had a middle of the game lull, falling behind 19-10. Yet scored 10 consecutive fourth quarter points in valiant comeback fashion to lead 20-19 with just 3:37 left to play.

But in the bitter end, with seemingly Santa Claus ready to deliver gifts to the erstwhile NFC East Division leaders, the defense needed one more stop. The offense needed one less turnover and of course one less possession inside the 20 without a touchdown.

Thus, Dolphins 22, Cowboys 20, in a riveting contest on Christmas Eve here at Hard Rock Stadium, Jason Sanders walking off the game with his fifth field goal, this one a chip shot from 29 yards out after making three others from 57, 52 and 53 as the final two seconds ticked off the clock.

Bah humbug.

The Cowboys dropping to 10-5, now technically a half game behind the Philadelphia Eagles (10-4), who play the Giants next on Christmas Day.

The Cowboys losing consecutive games for the first time this year; for the first time since losing two straight to Kansas City on Nov. 21, 2021, and then four days later to Vegas on thanksgiving; for the first time after recovering from 10 losses along the way to win the next game.

Why for the first time in 39 games.

"We have to play better than we did today because you have to play above it on the road, and road warriors we will be," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy lamented after Cowboys lost their fifth game on the road, four of those against teams with winning records – now two with 11 wins, the Eagles with a chance to get to 11on Christmas and Buffalo now sitting there with nine.

But at least on second thought, "I think the resilience, the battle, the grit that you are looking for, I think we clearly have that."

Here is what the Cowboys didn't have. No Pro Bowl caliber left tackle Tyron Smith, and this is not to say his absence caused all these problems. But after the Cowboys ripped the Dolphins defense the first two drives of the games, DC Vic Fangio decided they couldn't handle Dak Prescott playing it straight. They started blitzing and blitzing and blitzing.

The Cowboys crumbled for the majority of next two quarters. Why the Cowboys had gained 154 yards in the first quarter alone but only nine more yards after that while falling behind 16-7 in the third quarter. They struggled mightily protecting Dak.

Getting sacked four times is bad enough. But he was hit another 12 times, no ode to The Twelve Days of Christmas. And Dak only attempted 32 passes. Is a wonder he was able to complete 20 of those for 253 yards.

Then, as in the Buffalo game, there were several game-changing plays.

Take the first possession of the game, and the Cowboys did exactly what I've been harping on: They won the toss, took the ball and systematically drove to a first-and-goal at the 1, eating up 7 minutes, 38 seconds of the first quarter. And with two running backs in the formation, Dak's handoff to rookie fullback Hunter Luepke was fumbled away. Worse part, Luepke end up in the end zone. Problem was he didn't have the ball, Miami's Brandon Jones recovering at the 2. That's leaving seven points on the field.

"The one giveaway was costly," McCarthy said, leaving the 11-4 Dolphins one victory away from clinching their first division title since 2008

Still leading 7-6 near the end of the first quarter, Micah Parsons on an incomplete pass after the Cowboys seemingly forced a third-and like 7 is called for roughing Tua Tagovailoa with a late hit, plus 15 yards. First-and-goal at the 4, leading to a Miami touchdown.         

Just a terrible call. Even Fox officiating analyst Dean Blandino saying, "The defender has to be within two steps," meaning making a hit after the release. "I just don't see a foul there." Even game analyst Greg Olsen said, "I'm, not sure what he's supposed to do," meaning Parsons got there so fast with such momentum it was a continuous play.

Parsons said head referee Shawn Hochuli told him "You should have pulled off," then Micah pointing out that "should have been a field goal." Four more costly points since the Dolphins scored a touchdown on the next play from the four.

Now this one, Cowboys penalized five yards for an illegal shift after Dak ran 14 yards for a first down on third-and-11 at the 25 to the 11. Here's what happened. When CeeDee Lamb, who had a spectacular first quarter, catching four passes for 93 yards, including a 49-yard catch-and-run touchdown, checked with the line judge to make sure he wasn't offsides. Must have been motioned to scooch back. He did a half step. But as he did, tight end Jake Ferguson was going in motion and the flag came out, not exactly the intent of the rule, Dak admitting afterward he had "no idea" why that call was made. Nevertheless.

So instead of first-and-10 at the 11, the Cowboys were now third-and-16 at the 30, leading to one of two Brandon Aubrey's field goals, this one from 43 yards out, narrowing the Dolphins lead to 16-10. There's another four points left on the field.

But here came the grit. The Cowboys scored the next 10 points, taking the 20-19 lead as Dak drove the Cowboys 69 yards on 17 plays for their longest scoring drive of the season, thanks to Dak completing eight of 13 passes for 69 yards and the honey of an eight-yard TD pass to Brandin Cooks.

"Dak was doing his thing," Cooks said.

Now a defense holding the No. 1 scoring team in the NFL to just one touchdown and four field goals, only 19 points, needed one more stop over the final 3:27 after a nearly a heroic effort so far. Couldn't do it, the Dolphins buoyed on the first play of the drive by a facemask penalty on linebacker Damone Clark, costing 15 more yards after a six-yard gain. The Dolphins were on their way to another field goal.

Heartbreak. Why the Cowboys defense became only the third team all season to hold the Dolphins to just one touchdown. Only two other teams had held the Dolphins to less than 20 points. And as similar as these two teams were going into the game, both at 10-4, the Dolphins held the total yards advantage 375 to 339. The Cowboys led in rushing yard, 97-91, holding Miami under 100 yards rushing after Buffalo riddled them for 266. Tua threw for 293 to Dak's 253.

Just a play here, a play there. Just one more stop. Would have made a fine Christmas Day off. Would have gotten the "road" monkey off their back. Would have put the pressure on the Eagles Monday afternoon to keep pace in the division with a win. Would have taken the likely required first step to win out and keeping hopes alive for a possible second seed in the NFC, meaning earning at least a first-round home game at AT&T Stadium where the Cowboys are 7-0.

But now, once again the Cowboys need division help, just as they've received recently with the Eagles going into Monday's game on a three-game losing streak. Otherwise, if not and the Eagles win the East, that means the Cowboys will be on the road again to start the playoffs, most likely at the NFC South winner, at this point Tampa Bay at 8-7, a one game lead over the 7-8 Saints and Falcons with two to go.

Possibly same as last year.

"Regardless of if we road or home, we got to win – point blank period," Demarcus Lawrence said. "We didn't come out with a win today.

"This ain't the last y'all are going to see us. We have nothing to hold our heads (down) about. We went out there and we fought tough, just ain't come out with the win."

No, the Cowboys did not and that kind of grinch-ed up Christmas Eve for them.

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