Spagnola: Nothing Complementary About This Loss

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ARLINGTON, Texas – With tiebreakers, conference playoff seedings, even division titles on the line in Week 17 of this 2021 NFL season, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy basically called these Sunday games playoff-like.

Well, the NFC third-seeded Rams were trailing Baltimore 16-7. They won, 20-19, scoring the winning touchdown with 57 seconds to play.

The NFC fourth-seeded Buccaneers were trailing the New York Jets, 24-10. They won, 28-24, scoring the winning touchdown with 15 seconds left.

The potential NFC Wild Card Saints were trailing Carolina 10-9. They won, 18-10.

Even the potential NFC Wild Card Eagles were trailing the Washingtons, 16-7. They won, 20-16.

Heck, the AFC North-leading Bengals were trailing the AFC West champion Chiefs, 28-14. They won, 34-31, on a walk-off field goal.

The AFC North-leading Bills were trailing Atlanta, 15-14. They won, 29-15.

The NFC second-seeded Cowboys were trailing Arizona, 22-7.

They lost, 25-22.

Good thing these were only "playoff-like" for them. For if this was the real thing, the Cowboys would have been bounced out on their noggins. So fasten your seatbelts, surely more to come when the only thing that matters then is winning.

And the Cowboys only had themselves to blame here Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium for allowing the short-handed Cardinals (11-5) to end their three-game losing streak while in turn ending the Cowboys' four-game winning streak. The ramifications are far reaching.

The NFC East-champion Cowboys plummeted from the second seed to the fourth, now 11-5 with just one game to go, one game behind 12-4 Tampa Bay and the Rams in the NFC and no longer in the race for the top seed with Green Bay now 13-3 after beating Minnesota.

Maybe worse, they would need significant help and a win over Philadelphia in the season finale now scheduled for Saturday night in the City of Brotherly Shove to push the up button on the NFC seeding elevator. Otherwise, they could find themselves right back here at AT&T Stadium playing the Cardinals once again in the first round of the playoffs, a team they have lost to six of the last seven times now, three of those right here. Or possibly the Rams if the Cardinals win and the Rams lose in the final week of games, and we know what the Rams did to the Cowboys in the second round of the 2018 playoffs.

"I think we know who we are, and I think we have confidence that we can win any game, anywhere," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think we've illustrated that so far this season."

Problem Sunday was, they did not illustrate it enough. In fact, they inverted their "complementary" football philosophy in all three phases, becoming un-complementary, offense, defense and special teams.

The defense leading the NFL with 33 takeaways going into the game, got none on Sunday, the first time that has happened since the loss to the Raiders on Thanksgiving. Why, they had collected 14 takeaways in the previous four games. Instead, the Cowboys gave up 400 yards. Against a team known for creating big plays, the Cowboys illustrated once again this has become their biggest defensive deficiency, giving up six big plays for at least 19 yards, with highs of 43 and 42 yards.

They only recorded one sack of Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray, who threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns while keeping his record unblemished here at AT&T Stadium, now 9-0 in high school, college and NFL games.

The Cowboys offense, having averaged 38.4 points in seven previous home games, scored but 22, and struggled to manage just 301 yards of offense – third fewest of the season, all losses, and of all things, all here at AT&T Stadium. Worse, they lost a turnover that led to what turned out to be the Cards' decisive fourth-quarter field goal and robbed the Cowboys of a possession down at the time just eight when Dak Prescott lost the ball on a 4-yard run. And on top of that, they apparently have lost wide receiver Michael Gallup, badly spraining his knee on his spectacular touchdown grab, quite possibly for the playoffs

And special teams, yuk. Place kicker Greg Zuerlein got those crews off on the wrong foot, missing a 43-yard field goal with the Cowboys trailing just 3-0. Uh, the Cowboys ended up losing by three, his sixth miss of the season ending a streak of 11 consecutive made field goals.

And then, even worse, the Cowboys got caught on a fake punt. Arizona's personal punt protector, Chris Banjo, on a direct snap completed a 23-yard pass to Jonathan Ward on fourth-and-2 to the Cowboys' 41 to set up the Cardinals' first touchdown, that also allowed them to bleed out the second quarter, holding the ball for 8 minutes, 25 seconds during that sequence.

And on this day when whatever could go wrong did go wrong, the Cowboys were called for 10 penalties, three of those for holding on third down. Then there was that one false start on center Tyler Biadasz when Prescott never was close to being set for the snap, and a delay of game penalty when the Cowboys were setting up for a two-point conversion that then turned into a mere extra point.

Oh, and let's not overlook the Arizona delay of game penalty Scott Novak's crew blatantly missed with 3:01 left in the game while the Cowboys were trying to grab one more possession, the allowed play turning into a 11-yard gain and then costing the Cowboys their final timeout when the clock would have stopped after the delay.

Also, prior to Matt Prater's half-ending 53-yard field goal, DeMarcus Lawrence was called for offsides when it certainly appeared he timed his jump as soon as the shot clock hit 0:00, a 10-yard swing on a play that "Tank" insists they missed, saying, "Yeah, I've seen the clock hit double zeros and I jumped off the ball and they called (offsides) on me. I seen that. I've seen that I caused a fumble on the sideline but since we didn't have any more timeouts, the NFL don't want to review it upstairs. I've seen a lot tonight."

Oh, oh, and Lawrence did see that, because then there was a possible Arizona fumble on the very next play after the missed delay of game with 2:51 left in the game. The Cowboys recovered the ball, but this crew ruled the ball carrier down and the Cowboys couldn't challenge because they were out of timeouts, calling the last after that ignored delay of game. Sky judge, please?

Yeah, the Cowboys weren't fans of Novak's crew, which went into this game having called the fourth-most penalties in the league this year, now 208 in 15 games. They nailed the Cowboys 10 times and Arizona seven, for a grand total of 17, like three more than its average.

Said McCarthy afterward, "And we're well aware of the things we need to work on and what our statistics show as far as in the area of officiating. This crew is weekly high in officiating numbers, and so we just tried to really illustrate that all week. But I think the timing of our penalties for us, personally, was something that was a challenge for us to overcome."

Dak wasn't a fan either.

"We'll play against whoever," he said. "We'll play against the 11 and the others if we have to. I've come accustomed to it, honestly. I don't know if we ever get things that necessarily go our way, but we can't sit there and gripe."

But the griping was universal, even Randy Gregory saying, "Playing against the refs again, like usual. It seems like an every week occurrence. We just have to tune that out and just deal with it."

Well, now they must deal with this loss coming before 93,459 folks, the vast majority coming ready to not only celebrate last Sunday's NFC East championship but keeping pace for that second seed. Them other teams, they overcame their struggles early in the game to say in the race for at the very least the No. 2 seed, a trait surely needed in the upcoming real playoff games. The Cowboys couldn't.

But now as it stands, unless the Cowboys beat Philly and Carolina beats Tampa Bay and the 49ers beat the Rams to create a three-way tie for the second seed, although it could come to the Seahawks beating the Cardinals, the Cowboys must settle for the fourth seed in these playoffs.

That means chances are if the Cowboys win a first-round playoff game, and neither of the other two wild-card teams win, then the Cowboys would be traveling most likely to Green Bay in January instead of playing host to a second home playoff game in 72-degree AT&T had they earned the second seed. Sunday night temps in Green Bay fell to 10 degrees. Charming.

But again, as I like to say, the NFL helps those who help themselves. And the Cowboys didn't do themselves any favors here on Sunday.

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