More Frustration in Dallas

For two very brief moments, Amari Cooper had two very big catches.

With less than two minutes left in the third quarter, Cowboys trailing by four, Cooper finally shook free of Stephon Gilmore on a short crossing route.  Quarterback Dak Prescott dropped the ball perfectly into his hands.

It had been third-and-three from midfield.  By the time Gilmore caught up with Cooper, Amari had gained 15 yards, and the Cowboys were temporarily in business with a first-and-ten at the New England 35.  A holding call on tackle Tyron Smith deleted the gain, and pushed Dallas back to its own 40 – third and 13.

Two Cowboy pre-snap penalties later, and they were punting, fourth-and-23, from their own 30 yard line.

That disappointment was a preamble to Amari’s other catch that wasn’t.

Now it’s the fourth quarter, Dallas still down by 4 and down to their last gasp.  It is fourth-and-11 from their own 25 with 1:50 left in the game.  On a drizzly cold evening, where the temperature hovered in the mid- to upper-30s, Prescott delivered a pass over the middle – placed where only Amari could get it.  It was a difficult catch, to be sure.

Cooper laid out for the pass, cradling it into his body as he descended – a catch.  A 20-yard pass play that extended the game.  Or so it seemed.  As the play was reviewed, it became apparent that Cooper never really controlled the ball, which bounced off the turf just at the end of the play.

The catch was overturned.  Cooper finished the night with no catches and two targets. The ball was given to New England, and 1:44 of football time later, the Patriots left the field with a tightly contested 13-9 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Patience is now wearing thin in Dallas – where the Cowboys have fallen to 6-5.  It is still enough to keep them in the lead in their division (and as I watch Philadelphia struggle to find anything that works on offense, I am less and less convinced that they can supplant the Cowboys, even though they are only one game behind at the moment and have the Week 16 game against Dallas in Philadelphia).

The supposition has been that Philadelphia’s relatively easy schedule and the home game against the Cowboys gives them a significant advantage.  While Dallas’ schedule appears harder on paper, it is, in fact, a series of winnable games against somewhat fading opponents.

But, while the Cowboy playoff hopes are not in grave danger yet, a 10-6 (or maybe even a 9-7) fourth-seeded team is hardly what Jerry Jones had in mind when he put this team together.

And, I understand his frustration.  Dallas is a puzzling team.  They have had their way with the struggling teams on their schedule (with the exception of a dumfounding loss to the Jets in Week Six).  Other than the Jet game, all of Dallas’ other losses have been to teams in football’s top echelon – the Saints, the Packers, the Viking and now the Patriots.  These are teams that everyone loses to.  The problem, of course, is that Jerry expected his team to be in that grouping, and to be capable of winning their share of those games.

The game itself was less than artistic, with the rain playing havoc with the passing game of both teams.  Prescott finished with a 64.2 rating on 19 of 33 passing for 212 yards and 1 interception.  New England’s Tom Brady finished 17 for 37 for 190 yards and 1 touchdown – a 70.8 rating.  But both quarterbacks threw the ball better than that.  Both saw balls slide through the hands of usually sure-handed receivers.

The game’s only touchdown – a 10-yard pass from Brady to rookie N’Keal Harry in the waning seconds of the first quarter – came two plays after a blocked punt set the Patriots up on the Dallas 12-yard line.

For the Patriots defense, this was an encouraging performance.  After dominating a series of flailing offenses to begin the season, New England was handed its lunch by Baltimore two weeks ago – enough history to raise questions about how good this defense really was.  On Sunday afternoon, against the top ranked offense (including the NFL’s top ranked passing game), the Patriot defense rose to the challenge.

Yes, the weather helped, but even without that, it was clear that the Dallas receivers were struggling to separate from the New England defenders, and even the talented Cowboy offensive line had difficulties keeping New England off of Prescott.  Dallas had moments where it looked like they could hurt New England with the run – and they finished with 109 rushing yards and a 4.2 average.  But they were just 2-for-13 on third down, and couldn’t sustain their drives.

At the end of the day, both teams followed familiar patterns.  Dallas is now 1-4 in one score games.  The Patriots are 3-0 in those games.

Colts Manage to Lose

Playing in Houston on Thursday night, the Indianapolis Colts had their opportunity to take a big step toward the division title.  Both teams came into the game 6-4, with Indy having taken the earlier meeting between these two teams.  A road win here against Houston would give them a virtual two-game lead over the Texans.

In so many ways over the course of the game, the Colts showed themselves to be the better of the two teams.  They dominated time of possession in the first half, as they ran the clock for 18:32, rushing for 70 yards while holding Houston to just 35 yards on the ground.  They continued to punch Houston in the running game throughout the second half, piling up another 105 rushing yards on 22 carries.  They took a 17-10, third quarter lead on a 66-yard drive that took 11 plays – 10 of them runs.  They didn’t punt at all in the second half.

And yet, they managed to lose the game, 20-17 (gamebook) (summary).

The glaring difference in the second half was production from the passing game.  Houston’s Deshaun Watson completed 9 of 15 for 182 second half yards – including the game-winning, 30-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins in the fourth quarter.  Indy’s Jacoby Brissett was just 3 for 7 for 25 yards. The Colts gained just 130 total yards in the second half, gaining no more than 13 yards on any of their final 29 plays.

The Colts talk about Brissett as though he were a franchise quarterback.  All too frequently, though, he looks like the backup quarterback that Indy was stuck with when Andrew Luck retired.  Yes, he is playing under some disadvantage.  His number one receiver T.Y. Hilton has been banged up (he was only on the field for 25 plays), and his number two receiver Devin Funchess has been missing with an injury since early in the season.  Of course that impacts the passing game.

But other franchise quarterbacks have been asked to play with stripped down receiving corps – Carson Wentz is one – and they still manage to make the occasional big play.  Indianapolis is a very solid team everywhere you look – except, perhaps, at quarterback.

Even with the loss, Indianapolis’ chances at the division title are still pretty good.  The whole division is a scrum.  The Texans are currently 7-4, with the Colts (6-5), Titans (also 6-5) and Jaguars (4-7) all bunched pretty tightly.  No one from here is going to win out.

What the Colts have in their back pocket is that this week’s critical game against Tennessee is in Indy.  The Colts have already beaten the Titans in Tennessee this year (19-17 in Week Two).  If they can take care of business at home, they will finish their round-robin play against their top two competitors at 3-1 – and if all three finish tied (a not unlikely scenario) – that record will be the first tie breaker.

If Tennessee rises up Sunday afternoon and evens their score against the Colts, then the entire AFC South will be thrown into chaos.

Three Games to Decide the North

With the Packers’ thumping Sunday night in San Francisco, the NFC North is a dead-heat between Green Bay and the Minnesota Vikings – both now 8-3.  The Packers beat the Vikings in Green Bay (21-16) in Week Two, and are currently leading the division by that tie-breaker.  The re-match, though, is coming in Minnesota in Week 16.  With the Vikings playing much better lately, and the Packers not as well as they were in Week Two, it’s not difficult imagining the Vikings winning this game and the division crown with it.

Two other interesting games to keep your eyes on in this division.  This week, coming off their bye, the Vikings go into Seattle – always a significant challenge.  The other game to keep an eye on is the Week 17 matchup between the Packers at the Detroit Lions.  The Lions have had a disappointing season, and may not have Matthew Stafford back for that game.  But the Lions have been playing with considerable pride and have kept most of their games close.  Ten of their eleven games this year have been one-score affairs, including a 34-30 loss to Kansas City and a 23-22 loss in Green Bay.

If the division title is still up for grabs in Week 17, I wouldn’t put it past Detroit (playing at home) to upset the Pack and send the Viking into the playoffs as the number three seed and make Green Bay play as a wild card.

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