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Spagnola: This loss could have been anywhere


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Mauled.


Cooked, so to speak.

Maybe even Buffaloed.

Multiple verbs allowed.

Your choice.

Bills 31, Cowboys 10.

To me, this had nothing to do with being on the road.

This had nothing to do with the rainy weather.

This had nothing to do with the quarterback headliners nor the Stephon Gilmore-Stefon Diggs anticipated matchup.

Nope, this one Sunday evening here at Highmark Stadium could have happened at home, on the road, in the parking lot or on the moon.

Because on a day the Cowboys could have clinched a playoff spot on their own with a win over the 7-6 Buffalo Bills, they done get run over by what looked like a heard of Buffaloes.

Gave up the third-most points this season, and now that's two thirty-somethings in three games, which becomes worrisome. Scored just 10 points, matching the fewest of the season, the other 10 scored on the road in the 42-10 loss at San Francisco.

So much for that five-game winning streak. Done, now 10-4.

So much for first place in the NFC East if the Eagles defeat the Seahawks Monday night. They can only hope for help.

And if the Eagles do win, chances of the Cowboys winning the division and denying the Eagles becoming the first team in the East to repeat as division champions since they did so from 2001-04 would seem at this point moot. The Cowboys would be a game back with three to play and would be two games back if the tiebreaker ever reaches the conference record where they would be two games behind. Practically speaking, the Cowboys would have to win out and hope someone else can beat the Eagles to give them a chance.

In other words, do some dirty work for them.

Just as Tampa Bay beating Green Bay on Sunday, with Carolina beating Atlanta and Detroit winning Saturday night by beating Denver, all assured the Cowboys of a playoff spot before they even stepped on a rain-soaked field here Sunday. With 10 wins at least, the Cowboys will be a wild-card team even if they should finish an unthinkable 10-7.

But other than that, not much went right here for Dallas against the now 8-6 Bills. Miserable day. Miserable game. Miserable performance.

"I don't think anybody expected us to play the way we played tonight," head coach Mike McCarthy said, his team now 3-4 on the road, yet having gone 7-0 at home, though three of the four road losses to teams with winning records and just three of the seven home wins against teams at the time with winning records (Jets, Eagles, Seahawks).

"We've got to be much better on the road. There's just too big a gap in those road games."

If you need stats to prove McCarthy's point, here are the most startling.

Bills running back James Cook, who might be still running for yards for all I know, rushed for 179 yards and one touchdown. Caught two passes for 42 more yards and another touchdown. Did what no Bills running back has done since Thurman Thomas in 1991 with that many yards from scrimmage and at least one TD in each manner.

Plus, Buffalo finished with 266 yards rushing. Reminds me of what Arizona did to the Cowboys in that first road loss of the season (222 yards rushing), what the Niners did in the second road loss of the season (170 rushing) and what the Rams did in eliminating the Cowboys in the 2018 playoffs when they ran for 273 yards.

And this was nothing fancy, no razzle-dazzle. Just attacking the edges, the Cowboys insisting on merely playing two linebackers – one, Markquese Bell, a converted safety and the other a true linebacker, Damone Clark, leading the team with 11 tackles. This smallish alignment even with offenses employing two tight ends or a fullback. Then, too, the Cowboys too many times up front selling out to pressure quarterbacks and not protecting their edges. This is alarming.

Why, Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen only had to throw the ball 15 times. Not even for 100 yards (94). Diggs only caught four passes, totaling 48 yards. But when you are running the ball, piling up 28 first downs, converting 56 percent of your third downs and hogging the ball for 35 minutes, 5 seconds, who needs to put the ball in the rainy air falling early and late in a game lasting just a snappy 2:43.

"No question we've got to be better," McCarthy said. "Our run defense needs to be much better. They got on the edge."

And then there is this, too. To this day this continues to puzzle me. When you are the No. 1 scoring team in the NFL, when your quarterback has the most passing touchdowns (28) going into Week 15 and the second highest passing rating, and you are 5-0 when scoring on your first possession and have done so in each of the past three games, why defer when winning the coin toss to start the game?

Man, with this offense, take the ball. Get the lead. Make your opponent potentially play catchup from behind. Help your defense out knowing them others just might have to throw the ball more.

But no, the Cowboys deferred, and what happened? The Bills take the opening kickoff and drive 75 yards in 12 plays to jump out to an immediate 7-0 lead, running back Latavius Murray needing a major push from the 1-yard line on second down when it appeared his forward momentum had been halted. And then on the Cowboys' first possession they are assessed 25 yards on two penalties, a Tyler Smith hold and a Zack Martin personal foul for unnecessary roughness after delivering a message to Bills safety Taylor Rapp for messing with his quarterback.

Had to punt. In fact, Bryan Anger had to punt after the Cowboys first two possessions when he was only needed to punt once in the previous two games. Even so, the Cowboys were trailing just 7-0.

And then like four plays turned this entire day around, a prime example of why in the NFL it's so hard to win six consecutive games. The Cowboys had forced the Bills to punt a second straight time. But of all things, just when it appeared Sam Williams had broken free up the middle to block Sam Martin's punt, he somehow missed the ball and is called for roughing the punter, 15 yards, first down. And four plays later, the Bills had a 14-0 lead.

That's one play.

But here came the Cowboys, driving to a second-and-1 at the Bills 11-yard line. Here comes Rapp on a delayed blitz untouched to nail Tony Pollard for a 3-yard loss, the impetus for the Cowboys having Brandon Aubrey kick his 31st consecutive field goal from but 32 yards. Huge difference between potentially 14-7 and 14-3.

Then the two plays turning a 11-point deficit with 7:13 left in the second quarter into a route.

With the Bills facing a second-and-6 at their own 40-yard line, Allen completed a 7-yard pass to Diggs. But what goes unseen is Bell hits Diggs from the side, causing a fumble that Donovan Wilson recovers, although the officials don't see it. Didn't even wonder why the Bills were scrambling to snap the ball without huddling.

"We didn't get (the replay) fast enough," said McCarthy, claiming he already had his hand on the red flag to throw.

And two plays later, after a Mazi Smith sack of Allen on that rushed play for minus-9 yards, Kearse nails intended receiver Khalil Shakir on an incompletion that would have made it third-and-19. Yet Kearse was flagged for unnecessary roughness, 15 yards and a first down, keeping the Bills drive alive for their third touchdown of the half.

And here is my next argument against deferring after winning the coin toss. Dallas now had presumably the last possession of the first half and would have the first possession of the second half down 21-3. But the Cowboys never moved past their 3-yard line, another punt. Of all things, they ended up with an empty double possession.

After gaining a first down on their opening drive of the second half, they then faced a third-and-1 at their own 39-yard line. After a play fake, with CeeDee Lamb breaking open in Dak Prescott's eyesight, T.J. Bass, in for Zack Martin (quad and missing rest of the game), falls down in pass protection without being touched and Terence Steele can't handle Greg Rousseau for a 10-yard sack.

And for all intents and purposes, that was that, the Bills going on a 15-play drive, consuming 8:22 off the clock, for a field goal and 24-3 lead.

"We had some key plays there in the second quarter," McCarthy lamented, referencing the blocked punt attempt and the officials missing the fumble recovery, "so we needed those plays."

Now, there is going to be a lot made of the Cowboys losing their fourth game on the road. But me thinks the game plan the Bills put together, attacking this Cowboys defense on the edges with Cook, would have worked wherever this game was played. And hey, let's not blame the weather either. The Bills had to play in the rain, too.

To me, that's the scary thing about this loss. The Bills ran the football. The Cowboys couldn't, finishing with 89 yards, but 25 of those during their last possession in trash time, including Lamb's 3-yard run for the consolation touchdown.

"I don't know, I don't know what happened," said Micah Parsons, finishing with just two assisted tackles. "No excuse for it. It's mindboggling playing like that on the road.

"We got to be better on the road, got to be road warriors."

Instead of, especially in this one, roadkill.

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