ARLINGTON, Texas – This is a true story, no lie.
Roughly an hour before kickoff here in the press box Sunday morning, Dallas Cowboys Radio Network analyst Babe Laufenberg stopped me to say this:
"That I'm not nervous about this game makes me nervous."
Hey, you know exactly what he means. The Cowboys are flying high, having won six consecutive games, and seemingly qualifying their NFC legitimacy this past Sunday by going into Minneapolis and throttling the Vikings, 20-16, behind backup quarterback Cooper Rush's 5-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds remaining and his 325-yard, two-touchdown passing performance in the first start of his four-year NFL career.
They came into AT&T Stadium behind the best defensive performance in many moons, holding the Vikings to a mere 16 points, the second-fewest points they've held a team in a victory in 23 games and matching the fewest points they had scored to win a game in 42 games.
They came in here against the 4-4 Denver Broncos, who had beaten four teams with losing records and lost to the four teams they had faced with at least a .500 record.
And get this, the Cowboys with the No. 1 offense in the NFL, the No. 3 scoring offense and No. 1 quarterback Dak Prescott back in the saddle after missing the Minnesota game with a calf muscle strain.
Come on, what's there to worry about?
And I told him, "Babe, here is why you're nervous: I have this theory that the more you win in the NFL, the closer you are to losing." You know, just the percentages. You aren't going to win 'em all.
He laughed. He liked it.
But sure enough, just when we thought it would be OK to think these Cowboys were beyond reproach, just when you thought it was OK to go out into the dark, all that laugher died in sorrow. The boogieman got 'em.
Broncos 30, Cowboys 16.
And believe me, the 14-point deficit nowhere near indicative of the Cowboys getting beaten like a drum. Why, they were trailing 30-0 with 6:32 left in the game, shut out in the first half for the first time since losing to the Indianapolis Colts, 23-0, on Dec. 16, 2018, also the last time they have been shut out, period. And that was during a 10-6 season.
Yep, now we know the meaning of Orange Crushed.
"We just got beat," Cowboys football player Micah Parsons said. "That's the nature of the game. That's the thing about football. Any given Sunday you can get beat. Today was our day."
Brother, it sure wasn't. The now 6-2 Cowboys were beaten every which way possible, yet still three games up in the NFC East win column.
And we should have known this wouldn't be like any other Sunday right from the start, with the orange-clad Broncos fans overrunning AT&T Stadium, evidently Cowboys fans choosing to sell their tickets and make a little money on what appeared to be a ho-hum game. So, if this was a crowd of 93,503 as announced, my guess is there was at least 35,000, if not more, Broncos fans in attendance. And they were so loud you couldn't tell by fan reaction if field goals were good or no good. First down or a yard short. Blocked or muffed punt.
So much for homefield advantage, allowing Broncos head coach Vic Fangio to revel in victory, opening his press conference with a little dig, saying, "How about them Broncos, as Jimmy Johnson used to say."
Now remember, the Cowboys don't ever just get beat. There must be a reason, someone to blame. So here goes. These will be the culprits.
Dak was rusty, having not played in a game since throwing the winning overtime touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb to beat New England and straining that calf muscle at the same time three weeks ago. Before those final two touchdown drives, Dak had completed just seven of 19 passes for 102 yards and one interception for a 33.2 QB rating. And this from a guy with an NFL third-best 115.0 rating through six games.
Or maybe that calf of his was preventing him from planting and pushing off his back foot as normal, too many of his passes sailing high, missing receivers he normally doesn't miss. But he insisted, absolutely not, no excuse.
Then there will be the disruptive continuity of the offensive line, Tyron Smith missing with bothersome bone spurs in his ankle. Now, there is something to this. Six-game starting right tackle Terence Steele was getting overpowered and outfoxed moving over to left tackle, a position he had not played in the NFL other than preseason games. Some seventh-round rookie named Jonathan Cooper became a handful.
That then meant this year's one-game starter La'el Collins returned to his right tackle starting spot. As the game wore on, he seemed to wear down, too.
Plus, the Broncos defense, ganging up on the run, holding the Cowboys to a mere 78 yards, earned the luxury of blitzing, making Dak quite uncomfortable in the pocket almost all day.
Said Broncos coach Vic Fangio, "Teams just haven't played them the right way. They are super talented, and they may score 35 points the rest of the season in every game because they're really good. They've got talent at every position. How many times did we come close to sacking Prescott today and we don't get him down? That's talent. That's not luck, that's talent.
"They're a great team and I don't expect them to lose many more games."
If none of that, then oh, for sure the fat cat theory. That the Cowboys were eating the proverbial cheese riding that six-game winning streak, coming in far too cocky and full of themselves.
"We don't ever think that," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. "This is the National Football League."
Darn sure is, like the Falcons beating the Saints, the Chiefs beating the Packers, the Jaguars beating the Bills, the Giants beating the Raiders, the Titans going into Los Angeles and whooping the Rams and the Ravens needing overtime to beat the Vikings.
But frankly, here are the bottom lines. Denver became the first team to shut down the Cowboys offense, even though trading away their best defensive player earlier in the week, Von Miller. They had the ability to stop the run, play a wide-nine front to get pressure on Dak and match up in the secondary.
And defensively, what we've been fearing when the Cowboys don't get takeaways, that giving up so many chunk yards would be their downfall. The Cowboys had earned a one-game reprieve a week ago with no takeaways and giving up just three pass plays of at least 20 yards.
But this time giving up big plays to an offense averaging just 19 points a game reared its ugly head. The Broncos had seven plays of at least 19 yards, including a 30-yard run by Javonte Williams, a Teddy Bridgewater 44-yard touchdown pass to Tim Patrick, a 40-yarder to Kendall Hinton and 25 yards to Jerry Jeudy.
And then there was this, sapping the energy right out of the Cowboys offense while likely creating indignation among the Broncos that the Cowboys thought they were so good to even try that on us. The nerve.
On the Cowboys' first possession, after that Tony Pollard 54-yard electric kickoff return to open the game, the Cowboys went for it on fourth-and-1 at the Denver 38, shunning a 56-yard field goal attempt. Well, no one bothered to block safety Justin Simmons, knifing in to drop Ezekiel Elliott for a 1-yard loss.
Next possession, the Cowboys drive 58 yards to the Denver 20 in a scoreless game, fourth-and-2. Maybe the Broncos thought the Cowboys were being offensively arrogant, shunning the 38-yard field goal to go for it again. Under pressure, Dak threw low to an open Cedric Wilson, having to adjust his arm slot because of pressure. Incomplete, Broncos ball, and feeling good about themselves, in your face driving 80 yards for a touchdown.
Next possession, Cowboys third-and-1 at their 45-yard line, Dak, throwing on the run, and high for Noah Brown. Broncos drive for another touchdown.
Then the backbreaker for good. Down 16-naught at halftime, Denver takes the first possession and goes three-and-out, the Cowboys forcing a punt on a fourth-and-14. But this is where that any given Sunday comes into play. Cowboys receiver Malik Turner, coming right up the middle, partially blocks Sam Martin's punt. The wounded duck flutters forward over the line of scrimmage, and instinctively rookie Nahshon Wright reaches for the ball, thinking, as he said, scoop and score. Touches it, creating a live ball situation. Denver recovers at the 19-yard line. By rule, first down, the play considered a muffed punt instead.
Good gosh, Broncos ball instead of the Cowboys creating a huge Mojo Moment. Dang, somewhat similar to Leon Lett all over again from Thanksgiving Day 1993 after a blocked field goal landing over the line of scrimmage in the snow at Texas Stadium that he slid into, allowing the Dolphins to recover and re-kick for the winning points. This time, too, since the ball did cross the line of scrimmage, it was live, Denver then driving for a field goal and a 19-0 lead.
"That would have been a huge momentum play for us, especially coming in after halftime. You have a chance to reset your jaw and you get back out there and you get three and out and block the punt and you're in scoring position. You're on the board, and maybe you do something with that momentum," McCarthy said.
Nope, not on this given Sunday.
Then to make matters worse, on yet another fourth-and-1 on the next possession, from their own 40-yard line, the Cowboys now having to gamble again with the game slipping away, Dak scrambling overthrows a wide-open Lamb.
And once again, with the Broncos facing a third-and-goal at the 1-yard line, the Cowboys appeared to stop Bridgewater's forward progress on a QB sneak with 11:18 to play. Nope, no whistle, and even though the ball was knocked out of Bridgewater's hands as he reached up high to cross the plane of the goal line, didn't matter, no fumble. Touchdown, and with the two-point conversion, 27-0.
"I don't think there's really ever a point up until maybe the last few minutes of the game where we didn't think we were going to be able to get something going to win this game," said Dak, who finished with one of his worst performances in years, completing 19 of 39 passes for just 232 yards, two late TDs to Turner, one interception and a 73.9 QB rating, his lowest of the year and lowest since his Game 5 effort last year when suffering that gruesome ankle injury in the third quarter against the Giants, ending his season. "Then when that sinks in, you just realize this is the NFL. This is a tough business."
Especially so after you've won six straight.