Was Colts loss just an aberration or did it expose Cowboys as playoff pretenders?

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott warms up before an NFL football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

CLARENCE E. HILL JR. | FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

FRISCO, Texas — In a twist from the popular television series, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott emerged from the 23-0 embarrassing shutout loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday and declared: “This is not us.”

Elliott dared folks to jump off the bandwagon, again, just as they did when the Cowboys were left for dead at 3-5 before rebounding with a five-game winning streak and first place in the NFC East.

But that was before it all came crashing down against the Colts just one win away from clinching the division title and a playoff berth.

Elliott said the Cowboys will bounce back as they did before and punch their ticket to the postseason in one of the last two games, preferably Sunday against the Tampa Buccaneers but certainly by the season finale in New York against the Giants.

“At one point we were 3-5 and all of you guys counted us out,” Elliott said. “None of you guys thought we had a chance of making the playoffs. And we took that on the chin and we won five straight. Now we hold our future is in our hands. We have to win one more game to make the playoffs. I think this is kinda like that. This team has responded to adversity all season and I don’t think we won’t respond well to this one.”

Still, concerns remain about the Cowboys’ long-term viability in the playoffs, if not their ability to win one of the two remaining games.

There are five issues that don’t bode well for the Cowboys. First is red-zone woes. The Cowboys were 0-2 in the red zone against the Indianapolis Colts. The dropped touchdown pass by fullback Jamize Olawale at the 1 remains one of the defining images of the game. But it also typifies the team’s season-long struggles in the red zone because of bad play-calling or poor execution.

The Cowboys rank 31st in the league with a red-zone conversion rate of 44.19 percent, scoring only 19 touchdowns on 43 trips in 2018. That number is 18.18 percent over the last three games, so they are trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time.

This is the main reason they are averaging just 19.7 points per game, which ranks 26th in the league and is least among division leaders by almost six points.

Considering that the Cowboys have the league’s leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott, it’s difficult to understand why they struggle so much. But predictable play calling, breakdowns up front with a banged-up offense line, penalties and poor execution continue to doom the Cowboys when they get down close.

Next are offensive line issues. The Cowboys used to boast the league’s best offensive line. But that was before they lost center Travis Frederick before the season to Guillain-Barre Syndrome and before injuries robbed left tackle Tyron Smith of his past dominance.
Smith has missed two of 14 games. He has eight penalties, including six holding calls.

Right guard Zack Martin has been struggling with a sprained knee that will likely need surgery after the season. He missed the Colts game and is questionable for the Tampa Bay game.
Left guard Xavier Sua-Filo was sidelined against the Colts with an eye injury, and he is no lock to play against the Buccaneers. He opened the season as a backup and took over for the rookie Connor Williams, who might have to start for a second straight week for Martin. And the unknown Adam Redmond may have to go for Sua-Filo.

All this is in addition to the offensive line being flagged for a plethora of holding penalties and already giving up a team-record 51 sacks with two games to go.

Then there’s the team’s diminishing pass rush. The Cowboys have just 35 sacks this season, ranking 17th in the NFL. It is an issue that was evident against the Colts when they got none against Andrew Luck.

Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence leads the Cowboys with 8.5 sacks but has just three sacks in the past 10 games. Defensive end Randy Gregory has five sacks in the last eight games. But the Cowboys are not consistently getting home.

Maybe, the return of Taco Charlton, who has been inactive the past two games, will help.
The Cowboys need defensive tackle David Irving healthy again and back to his dominant self. Irving had seven sacks in eight games last season but has just one sack in two games this season. He has missed the last seven games with a high ankle sprain and personal issues.
There is no guarantee that he will play again in 2018, though owner Jerry Jones believes he will.

Quarterback Dak Prescott’s turnovers and decision-making are also to blame. One of the reasons the Cowboys have allowed a team-record 51 sacks this season with two games to go is because Prescott holds the ball too long and takes unnecessary sacks.
He was sacked just 25 and 32 times through 16 games in 2016 and 2017, respectively. That was an issue against the Colts when he cost the Cowboys possible points at the end of the first half after he took a sack that knocked the Cowboys out of field-goal range.

Add that to his sudden penchant for turnovers and that could spell doom quickly for the Cowboys, who are 2-5 this season when Prescott turns the ball over in a game, including 12 fumbles.

He has lost six fumbles this season after having 13 fumbles and seven lost fumbles in the previous two seasons combined.

It is an issue that will haunt the Cowboys if it continues to occur over the final two weeks, if not the postseason.

Finally, there’s the kicker. Brett Maher began the season as a feel-good story after being the surprise of training camp by beating out Dan Bailey.

After missing his first kick, he made 16 in a row.

But since then has made just 12 of 17 kicks. One of the misses was a low kick on a 48-yard attempt that was blocked in the loss to the Colts.

He also missed an extra point against the Atlanta Falcons last month.

While he has made 81.8 percent of his field goals this year and is 7 for 11 between 40-49 yards, there are huge concerns about Maher.

Do you trust him to make a big kick down the stretch or in the postseason?

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