The Dallas Cowboys do not play next week, which assures that they will not score four touchdowns at home and lose.
It happened Oct. 1, when the Los Angeles Rams, mismatched uniforms and all, dominated the second half to win. It happened again Sunday, when Aaron Rodgers pulverized the Cowboys’ souls in his annual display of sorcery at AT&T Stadium.
Instead of ending the Cowboys’ season, as he did last January, Rodgers merely ruined their evening by throwing the winning touchdown pass in Green Bay’s 35-31 victory with 11 seconds remaining.
Five games into the NFL season, the Packers are 4-1, tied with Philadelphia and Carolina atop the NFC. The Cowboys are 2-3, wobbling and listing, two games behind the Eagles in the NFC East, their whole less than the sum of their parts.
In Dak Prescott, they have a promising quarterback who against Green Bay played what the man who signs his paychecks, owner Jerry Jones, judged to be his best game with the team. In Ezekiel Elliott, who ran for 85 of his 116 yards in the fourth quarter, they have one of the best running backs in the NFL. In DeMarcus Lawrence, they have the league’s leader in sacks.
And yet, the Cowboys’ defense has not forced a takeaway in three consecutive games, and it has yielded scores on 14 of 18 possessions — six touchdowns, eight field goals — excluding the Rams’ kneel-down at the end of that game. Dallas’s offense has scored on seven of its last eight first-half possessions across these past two losses but has sputtered after halftime, managing two touchdowns and a field goal. Even when Dallas did score in the second half Sunday, going ahead late by 31-28, it mismanaged the clock.
Given 73 seconds and a timeout to guide Green Bay into field-goal range, Rodgers thought it better just to keep on going, to throw for a touchdown and finish the darn thing, and because he is Aaron Rodgers, that is what he does.
“Can I say the F word?” said Dallas defensive lineman David Irving, when asked to convey the difficulty of defending Rodgers. Quickly adding, with a chuckle: “That guy is awesome at what he does. It takes everybody to stop one guy.”
That is both a platitude and a keen bit of insight. As precise a passer as Rodgers is when throwing from the pocket, all the Cowboys wanted Sunday was to contain him there. The danger he poses when he scrambles, when he improvises, can be measured by his absurd 35-yard sideline completion, on third and 20, that set up the winning field goal in last season’s divisional playoff round.
But that was then, and the Cowboys are loath to discuss last season. It’s behind them, and all that. If they were destroying teams instead of getting clobbered by Denver and blowing halftime leads to Green Bay and the Rams, and if their offensive line were creating those same wide creases for Elliott instead of being manhandled across the first three quarters Sunday, and if they were zipping toward 13-3 again instead of explaining three defeats in five games, they might be more likely to elaborate on those comparisons.
Since they are not, the Cowboys were left to address less appealing things, such as how their offensive highlight of the game — the go-ahead drive that took 17 plays and consumed 8:43 of the fourth quarter — came to unmoor them. It was the last two plays of that drive that seemed to haunt Jones afterward.
On second and 2 from the Green Bay 11 with 1 minute, 24 seconds left, Prescott threw an incomplete fade to Dez Bryant. Had the Cowboys run, they would have forced Green Bay to take its final timeout or, at the least, drained another 35 or 40 seconds off the clock.
Prescott then faked a handoff and ran for a touchdown. He could have slid at the 1-yard line, wasting more time and giving Dallas first and goal and four chances to breach the goal line.
Passing up a touchdown in that situation would have run counter to Prescott’s instincts — “it’s important to get in the end zone and put the pressure on them,” he said — and coach Jason Garrett said afterward that he agreed with Prescott’s decision.
Jones appeared less certain.
“What we all wanted to do was to keep the ball away from him, but obviously we need to score a touchdown,” he said, referring to Rodgers. “We’ll be second-guessing those last two calls — and I know you will, as well — for a long time.”
The clock showed 1:13. As expected, the Packers said afterward they were confident that they would score, and the Cowboys said they were confident that they would prevent Rodgers from scoring. But had the fans been polled, they almost certainly would have deemed the outcome as inevitable.
“It looked really easy,” said receiver Davante Adams, who caught two of Rodgers’s three touchdown passes. “Sometimes it’s not always as easy as it looks, but he makes it look that way.”
The best players display their brilliance in ways overt and subtle, and on third and 8 from the Cowboys’ 30 and with the pocket collapsing, Rodgers slipped free from Benson Mayowa and rolled left, where he felt Irving’s arms around his ankles.
In the past, that effort might have been enough to bring down Rodgers. But he has been ever more cognizant of his running style — how, sometimes, he does not pick his knees up, which leaves him susceptible to getting tackled from behind. High-stepping out of the tackle, Rodgers scampered for 18 yards, to the Dallas 12.
On the next play, Rodgers couldn’t connect on a fade to Adams, covered by Jourdan Lewis, but he and Adams shared a glance. “Let’s do it, again,” Adams told Rodgers. The quarterback amended the formation, and the ball was over Lewis’s head and into Adams’s hands before Lewis could even turn.
“He threw it exactly where it had to be,” Lewis said.
Lewis, a rookie, had three pass deflections in an otherwise excellent game. But in tone and in substance, his lament was familiar.
Once again, the Cowboys could not stop Rodgers. Once again, they staggered in the second half. Once again, they scored 30 points and gained more than 400 yards and still lost. According to the NFL, the rest of the league combined has two such losses.
Dallas has yet to play Atlanta, Kansas City, Oakland or Seattle. Or division rivals Philadelphia and Washington — twice. Next week, the Cowboys get a reprieve.
The bye allows teams to reflect and assess all that has gone wrong and right. The Cowboys are bound to examine a running attack whose early struggles have put more of an onus on Prescott, and a defense that buckles at the game’s pivot points.
How the Cowboys perform when they return, on Oct. 22 against the winless 49ers, will help reshape their season. At least they will not score four touchdowns at home and lose. The game is in San Francisco.