Spagnola: Playoffs? Sure, But Loss Still Stings

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JACKSONVILLE – Must admit, my mouth was left agape.

No way. Not like this. Not in overtime. Not another tipped ball.

Why, the Cowboys, after squandering another lead – this one 27-10 in the fourth quarter to trail 31-27 – had recovered gallantly, needing only one more first down to go on their merry way. Or one more sack.

They totaled 397 yards.

Thirty-four more points.

Ran for 154 yards.

In the first half, Dak Prescott completed 15 of 16 passes for 130 yards, two touchdowns, no picks, a 141.9 QB rating.

And the defense, oh, that defense, had held Jacksonville to just 162 yards in the first two quarters, and Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence to nine of 15 passing for a pedestrian 84 yards.

Cowboys 21, Jaguars 7 at the half.

The Cowboys even managed to stymie a Jaguars opening second-half drive at their 14-yard line, forcing a field goal.

And there they were on the next possession, driving 71 yards to the Jacksonville 4, second-and-2. Why, these Cowboys are going to go up 28-10, silencing the Jaguars hopefuls for good and get out of here with their fifth consecutive win, clinch a playoff spot on their own for a second consecutive year and set up that titanic clash with the Eagles on Christmas Eve, knowing a win on Saturday would cut Philly's lead to one game with two to play.

Admit it, you were thinking the same thing, tra-la-la-la-la.

Then the Christmas Scrooge showed up.

Bah-humbug.

Jaguars 40, Cowboys 34 in overtime.

Not another tipped pass interception, this one returned by Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins 52 yards for the back-crushing, game-winning touchdown.

Not another blown second-half lead, and not once, but twice this time, the second on a regulation time-expiring field goal sending the game into overtime.

Come on, no, not winning that elusive 11th game, and failing to clinch a playoff berth they thought at the time.

Not remaining on the heels of the now 13-1, NFC leading Eagles, with a chance to pull within one game of the NFC East lead this Saturday if beating Philadelphia, instead falling three games back with three to go, those odds of claiming back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1995-96 not very favorable.

Come on, not after stopping Jacksonville the first possession of overtime and about to cross the 50-yard line, conceivably just 18 yards away from giving kicker Brett Maher at least a chance of kicking the game-winning field goal from a reasonable 53 yards away.

All this, but as owner Jerry Jones is known to say, this NFL business is as unpredictable as holding a scoop of Jell-O in your hands. Go ask the Colts, blowing a 33-0 lead in Minnesota. Heck, go ask the Eagles, struggling to beat the Bears, 25-20. Go ask the Ravens, and the Chiefs needing overtime to beat those pesky Texans.

Squish, squish.

Insert your word of choice.

"Man, it's tough," said Micah Parsons. "It's bitter, but you've got to suck it up and finish the season strong."

Gosh almighty. But hey, before we document the Cowboys transgressions, give these 6-8 Jaguars, now winners of four of their past six games, some credit. They pounded this suddenly injury-plagued, erstwhile fifth-ranked NFL defense for 503 yards, most against the Cowboys since Vegas went for 509 last year on Thanksgiving, a span of 21 games.

The Jags ran for 192 yards, the most since the Cowboys gave up 240 to the Bears and then 207 in their first OT loss of the year to Green Bay the next week, similarly giving up Thirty-something (31) in that game too.

And Lawrence, the second-year quarterback pounded home he's the real deal, as if the Cowboys didn't realize that already, Trevor finishing 27 of 42 for 318 yards, four touchdown passes, one pick, a needlessly lost fumbled and a QB rating of 109.3. That was the third-highest quarterback rating against the Cowboys this season, Aaron Rodgers tops at 146.7, oh, and maybe not coincidently in the other overtime loss this year.

But maybe what Lawrence did best was frustrate those Cowboys pass rushers, ducking and weaving away from pressure to aid his struggling offensive line, only getting sacked once by the team entering the game second in the NFL with 48 of them, just one behind the Eagles after 13 games. Lawrence also evaded pressure, getting hit just four times, not only avoiding sacks but throwing on the run at an elite level.

Maybe that's why the Jaguars had given up no sacks in six games this season, and now just one in the past two games.

"He's definitely a good quarterback," said Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, giving credit where credit is due, "and he's going to be great one day."

When you lose a game like this, and the Cowboys better hope this one does not create a demoralizing hangover this short week with the Eagles arriving on Christmas Eve now with a three-game lead in the division with three to play, yet the Cowboys opening as 1½-point favorites.

About two and a half hours after the Cowboys charter landed at DFW, there was some consolation. Because Seattle lost Thursday night and then the Giants beat the Commanders, 20-12, Sunday night, the Cowboys even at 10-4 have now clinched at least an NFC wild-card berth, currently tied with San Francisco for the third-best record in the NFC, obviously behind Philly and Minnesota (11-3) once again.

Guessing there were no trumpets blaring. And guessing that mere fact, as good as it might seem if factoring in that few thought the Cowboys before the season would have any chance of a double-digit win total and for sure not after losing Prescott in the season opener for five games, won't soon cleanse the acid reflux caused by this loss.

The Cowboys will stew over having back-to-back chances to put this game away in the third quarter, Brett Maher kicking field goals from 24 and 53 yards after the Cowboys were set up second-and-2 at the Jacksonville 4-yard line and then on the next possession following rookie DaRon Bland's interception at the Jaguars 42-yard line, those field goals giving them a 27-10 lead when touchdowns might have put this game away for good.

"We kicked two field goals," head coach Mike McCarthy lamented. "We need to score touchdowns."

Not putting teams away is a huge problem, even when winning squeakers the previous couple of games over the one-win Texans and having to erase halftime deficits against the Giants and Colts.

But now this factor is becoming quite troublesome this late in the season:

Injuries.

The Cowboys lost nickel cornerback Jourdan Lewis for the season seven games ago. Then down goes starting corner Anthony Brown three games ago for the season. All that bad enough.

But now the Cowboys were forced to put run-stopping nose tackle Jonathan Hankins on IR with a strained pec this past week, and his absence in the middle of that defensive line Sunday was evident.

Worse, during Jacksonville's first possession of the game, the team's leading tackler, Leighton Vander Esch, went out with an apparent nick injury, the severity to be determined on Monday. That one really stings.

And even though offensive tackle Tyron Smith returned from his hamstring surgery two weeks before the start of the season to start in place of Terence Steele (ACL surgery) at right tackle, the Cowboys placed him on a pitch count, commited to limiting the perennial Pro Bowler to maybe like 30-35 snaps. But out of necessity since the planned rotation with 40-year-old Jason Peters wasn't working so well – Peters playing just 21 snaps – Tyron ended up playing 54 snaps, and pretty darn well for his first snaps of the season.

"I'm more concerned with the health of our team," McCarthy said. "We've lost a lot of starters."

If you are scoring from home, that's four starters, Lewis, Brown, Steele and Hankins on IR, then pending LVE's prognosis. Also, starting defensive end Dorance Armstrong, limited all week with an ankle sprain, then appearing to sprain a knee in the game, playing just 14 snaps, forcing Parsons to once against play predominately at defensive end, where the Jaguars began neutralizing the team's sack leader – he did get one in this game – by double- and at times triple-teaming him with a running back and or tight end.

One sack in the past two games for the Cowboys, coupled with young, inexperienced corners now playing, creates huge problems for the pass defense. Because Kelvin Joseph, starting in place of Brown, was lifted in the fourth quarter for Nahshon Wright after he got beat for the second of two touchdowns.

Just as troubling is the timing of Prescott's weird interceptions of late. The first Sunday coming when trying to avoid a sack while getting tugged from behind. Then the game-winner he's charged with, Dak's pass bouncing off the hands/chest of Noah Brown, who already had six catches for 49 yards and two touchdowns. Go figure. He makes that catch in overtime the Cowboys continue marking into field-goal range.

Instead, Jenkins' pick-6, caught maybe 10 inches off the ground, turns into a game-winner, officials ignoring the fact that Jags linebacker Foyesade Oluokun nailed Prescott in the back on the return, the last Cowboy having a chance to tackle Jenkins.

These problems add up. Two turnovers, yet three takeaways. More injuries. Scoring 34 points yet the defense giving up a season-high 40 points. Kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, though scoring four of those. Giving up 503 total yards, the injuries on defense creating diminishing returns.

And then the Jell-O. Did you see how close Donovan Wilson came to batting down Lawrence's third-and-3 pass from the Cowboys' 49-yard line to Zay Jones for 19 yards, setting up Riley Patterson for a makeable 48-yard game-tying field goal at the buzzer to send the game into overtime? Right through the wickets on his blitz.

Yep, the Cowboys did clinch a playoff spot when the Giants beat those Commanders with three games to go. And maybe there was some relief for that after the Sunday night game was completed.

But still, no one likes to lose.

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