Spagnola: Would-Be NFC East Kings Dressed Down

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INDIANAPOLIS – Cue clinching the NFC East title for the second time in three years and third time in five years:

Take II.

And it's a darn good thing the Cowboys had a cushion, and still have somewhat of a cushion if the division leaders can't finish the division fight next week against Tampa Bay. They do have a Take III available.

Thank goodness.

Because they certainly didn't finish the fight here Sunday when a victory would have broken out those NFC East title hats, or had both Washington and Philadelphia lost. Well, the latter didn't happen for sure, Washington beating Jacksonville on a last-second field goal behind their fourth starting quarterback, 16-13, and the Eagles, behind their backup quarterback, go into Los Angeles to pop the Rams, 30-23.

And as for Option I?

A big oops butt-kicking.

Why, the Cowboys suffered their worst loss in 57 games.

They got shut out for the first time since losing to New England, 12-0, in 2003, some 15 years, three starting quarterbacks and two head coaches ago. And as far as quarterback Dak Prescott is concerned, this was the first time he's "ever" been shut out as a quarterback.

They whiffed on more tackles than they're going to care to watch again on Tuesday, resulting in Colts running back Marlon Mack, a guy averaging all of 47.4 yards rushing a game this year, putting 139 and two rushing touchdowns on a defense that last gave up a 100-yard rusher in Game 3 of this year to Chris Carson of Seattle, the Colts scorching the feet of them not-so hot Hot Boyz.

The Cowboys allowed a field goal to get blocked on a low 48-yard attempt.

And dang it, what'd I tell you about red zone possessions and goal-to-go possessions. Darn if on their second series of the game the Cowboys didn't drive 63 yards into a first-and-10 at the 12, then a third-and-1 at the 3, and come away with no points. None. Again.

This time these Cowboys were unable to overcome themselves, let alone a very good Indianapolis team having won six of their past seven games and now seven of the past eight.

Colts 23, Cowboys nuthin'.

And as owner Jerry Jones offered unsolicited when walking into the postgame interview room just ahead of head coach Jason Garrett taking the podium to say, tongue placed thoroughly in check trying to break the ice the disappointing loss created, "I thought if your name was Jones or the Cowboys they handed it to you."

Ha-ha.

Leave it to Jerry, trying to make sure his team's first loss in six games doesn't overly tighten the screws, knowing the division title and a playoff berth is theirs if they simply beat Tampa Bay at AT&T Sunday or the New York Giants in the last game of the regular season on Dec. 30 at MetLife. Might suggest not stretch this out to the last game of the season, giving the Giants something to play for – spoiling a potential Cowboys division title.

Pretty simple, right? The Cowboys are 8-6. Washington is 7-7. Philadelphia is 7-7. The Cowboys own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Eagles, that's the first one. The Cowboys and Redskins split, but the Cowboys will own the division tiebreaker over the Redskins, since the worst the Cowboys can finish in the East if they lose to the Giants, is 4-2, and the best the 'Skins can finish if they beat the Eagles, is 3-3.

But they've still got to win one or the Redskins have to lose to either Tennessee or the Eagles, AND the Eagles would need to lose to Houston or the Redskins. And if you paid attention Sunday night, looking for help is never a good path, because as I like to say, the NFL helps those who help themselves.

As for Garrett, his tone after his team dominated the first half but found itself in the locker room trailing10-naught, was a tad terse, saying with great clarity, "We didn't deserve to win."

No, they did not. The Colts were the better team.

Now, the Cowboys were further compromised on the offensive line. It's bad enough that center Travis Frederick will not play this season. Then Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin was forced to sit out this game with a sprained MCL that has been bothering him for weeks. That meant rookie Connor Williams, who had his knee scoped and lost his starting left guard job to Xavier Su'a-Filo, started his first NFL game at right guard.

But if all that weren't enough, in a game Cole Beasley limped off and Ezekiel Elliott limped off a few plays later – both returned to finish the game – then the Cowboys lost Su'a-Filo on the fourth play of the second quarter to an eye contusion. (Trainers think he'll be recovered in time to play against the Buccaneers.)

Raise your hand if you knew Adam Redmond, age 25, was getting ready to take his 20th snap this season for the Cowboys when he came in at left guard with 9:06 left in the second quarter. You have next man to the next man up at left guard, next man up at center (Joe Looney) and next man up at right guard. Too many next-es.

Granted, the defense did not play up to snuff, allowing Mack to rush for the most yards since Atlanta's Devonta Freeman ran for 141 back on Sept. 27, 2015, 60 games ago. Granted, the Colts took advantage of that blocked field goal, only needing to drive 44 yards for their 7-0 lead, and at that needed three shots from the 1-yard line to score. And granted, the Colts did not kick their first of three field goals until time expired in the first half for what should have only been a 3-0 lead. Or maybe a 3-3 tie. Or cutting the Cowboys lead to 10-3.

But no, the Cowboys continued to trip over themselves.

Because to me, this entire game rotated on the axis of the first 15 minutes, 51 seconds of the game. Reminded me of the 28-14 loss to Tennessee when the Cowboys, through every fault of their own, should have been up 17-0. This time, should have been up 10-3 at the half.

Can't have an execution error on the makeable 48-yard field goal. Look, know Denico Autry wedged between Su'a-Filo and deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur, but he blocked the blessed kick with his armpit. Without jumping.

Then, come on, third-and-1, 14:20 left in the second quarter. And offensive coordinator Scott Linehan devises a new play from a two-tight end, one fullback formation, with Zeke out wide left. Zeke comes in motion right. Dak Prescott deftly fakes the handoff to him, deftly pulling back the ball, then rolls to his left as if he is going to run. And when linebacker Anthony Walker and safety George Odum broke out with him, Dak floats a pass over them to fullback Jamize Olawale, who cleared the line of scrimmage and was wide open in the left flat. At the last fraction of a second Olawale, he of just two catches this year, sort of stumbles on the goal line and then takes his eye off the ball as if he assumes he's going to make the catch and scoot into the end zone for a walk-in touchdown.

Uh, not so much. He drops the ball.

As bad, when Garrett aggressively went for it on fourth-and-1, handing the ball to the NFL's leading rusher, Colts defensive tackle Margus Hunt of SMU splits Williams and Looney to cream Zeke at the 7 before linebacker Matthew Adams finishes him off at the 5, never even sniffing the line of scrimmage before the ball pops out.

Told you, Twilight Zone. Weird stuff happens down there.

A Cowboys offense outgaining the Colts in the first half, 179 to 176, one that held the ball for 19:18 to the Colts 10:42, outrushed the Colts 89 to 62 and threw for just 2 less yards than the Colts' 108, never, ever recovered in this game.

"I mean, we can't win like that, hurting ourselves like that," Prescott said, and later would add, "if anything we were angry at ourselves."

Should be.

Just remember, in games like this, road games against a good team, playoff like games when something is on the line, generally if you've got warts, they get exposed. And them Cowboys' warts that have been growing of late swelled up again here Sunday afternoon.

These would-be, and still could-be, NFC East emperors were undressed but good, left with no clothes on their way home.

They can cash in a mulligan this Sunday.

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