Quarterback Dak Prescott thought maybe the Cowboys were “too hot to trot” after a five-game winning streak. Running back Ezekiel Elliott said, “We needed to get put in check.” Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence concurred.
On Monday, their coach, Jason Garrett, disagreed.
“We didn’t play well enough,” Garrett said. “We didn’t earn the right to win that game, and we have to live with that. We have to learn from that.”
How the Cowboys learn from it ultimately will determine their season. At 8-6, the Cowboys can clinch the NFC East and a playoff spot with a victory at home on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Pretty simple. It's much simpler than what they faced after their Nov. 5 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
At that point, the Cowboys were 3-5 and Garrett’s future as coach was in question -- as was Prescott’s as the franchise quarterback. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he would not make an in-season head-coaching change.
The Cowboys won the next week at the Philadelphia Eagles, kicking off a five-game winning streak that has them on the precipice of making the postseason for the second time in three seasons. They beat the Falcons in Atlanta, where their 2017 season was derailed. They won five days later on Thanksgiving against the Washington Redskins, avenging an October loss. They followed that up with their most impressive win, upsetting the New Orleans Saints. On Dec. 9, they beat the Eagles in the rematch.
In some ways, the loss to the Colts was similar to the loss to the Titans.
On the first drive against the Titans, the Cowboys moved the ball down the field with relative ease but missed a field goal attempt. On the first drive against the Colts, Brett Maher’s 48-yard try on the first drive was blocked.
The Cowboys were tied at halftime against Tennessee, but they had no second-half answers, and Garrett thought the team lost a little bit of its fight. The Colts had a 10-0 lead at halftime on Sunday, the Cowboys had no second-half answers and Garrett thought the team lost a little bit of its fight.
“It goes back to mental toughness. I think we're all challenged by those things in our lives, in our careers, and certainly a football team gets challenged, as well,” Garrett said. “It’s a matter of putting that last experience behind you and getting focused on this one and be your best for this experience through your preparation and through your focus and intensity when you're locked in on it, and that's critical. I think our team has actually done a really good job of that over the course of the year, handling some early adversity and came back and we won a few games in a row. I thought we did a good job handling that.
“But it’s what challenges you every day. Certainly it's challenging in this league. Every time the ball is snapped, there's adversity or success waiting for you. You have to play that play and go to the next one. It's a learning process, but it does go back to mental toughness.”
In the first victory over Philadelphia, the game was tied with 7:27 to play and Cowboys went on a 75-yard drive that ended with Elliott’s winning touchdown. Against Atlanta, the Cowboys blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead but answered with Maher’s winning kick at the end of regulation. Against Washington, they scored 21 points in under eight minutes of the third and fourth quarters to erase a three-point deficit. Against New Orleans, Saints quarterback Drew Brees had the ball in his hands with 2:35 to play and Jourdan Lewis came up with an interception. In overtime of the Philadelphia rematch, the Cowboys converted a fourth-and-1, and Amari Cooper caught a 15-yard touchdown for the winning score on a deflected pass.
With the Eagles and Redskins both winning on Sunday, the Cowboys face more pressure this week to beat the Buccaneers. Three times in the Garrett era the Cowboys have had win-and-in scenarios, and they lost all three times.
But that’s not even a thought this time.
“I really do think we’ll take this as a lesson well-earned and to learn off of,” Jones said. “This is a young team, and I think we’ll come back and let it be wind under our sails. I really do.”