ARLINGTON, Texas — Running back Ezekiel Elliott returned Sunday, but the Dallas Cowboys’ season ended anyway.
The Cowboys lost to the Seattle Seahawks 21-12, bringing to a close any playoff possibilities with their Week 17 finale against the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday left to play.
“It’s really disappointing,” tight end Jason Witten said. “We had a chance and fought there at the end. It’s not overly complicated. Opportunities in this league are fleeting. You have to take advantage of them when you can. We just weren’t able to do that well enough.”
Sunday started well enough for the Cowboys, with the Detroit Lions losing to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Atlanta Falcons losing to the New Orleans Saints. It could have been made even better if not for the Carolina Panthers’ last-minute victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But all of it meant nothing because the Dallas offense failed to score a touchdown for the fourth time this season. Quarterback Dak Prescott was intercepted twice and saw a pick returned for a touchdown for the fourth time this season when Justin Coleman came away with an errant dump-off to Elliott on the Cowboys’ second play of the second half.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant, meanwhile, had perhaps his lowest moment with the Cowboys (8-7), dropping a first-quarter pass, fumbling a second-quarter reception and dropping a third-quarter dump-down.
Bryant’s fumble was turned into Seattle’s first touchdown, and his drop in the third quarter led to the Seahawks’ third. In the first half, two special-teams penalties negated great field position, and a Geoff Swaim crackback penalty turned a third-and-2 into third-and-15, forcing the Cowboys to take a Dan Bailey field goal.
The Cowboys did what they wanted to do running the ball. Elliott finished with 97 yards on 24 carries in his first game since Nov. 5 because of a six-game suspension.
But they have only themselves to blame for not going to him more.
Dallas’ most egregious error came in the fourth quarter. Trailing by 9 points, the Cowboys were at the Seattle 3 with less than eight minutes to play. With the entire AT&T Stadium crowd crying for an Elliott handoff, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan instead called a pass that resulted in Prescott scrambling for 1 yard. On second-and-goal, Linehan called for Prescott to sprint out to the right, eschewing Elliott once again, and Witten was called for holding.
Prescott was sacked for an 11-yard loss on the next snap, and the Cowboys were ultimately forced to settle for another Bailey field-goal attempt from 34 yards. For the first time since 2014, Bailey missed between 30-39 yards when he pushed his kick right.
Elliott’s seven rushing touchdowns were good enough to be tied for fifth in the NFL entering Week 16, despite missing six games. He had 15 rushing touchdowns as a rookie in 2016.
But Linehan failed to go to him when it mattered most.
After the game, Jason Garrett said Prescott had a run/pass option on first down and chose to go with the pass based on Seattle’s defense. “When you look back on those plays and they don’t work out, it’s very easy to do that,” Garrett said of the second-guessing. “Again, I think we are one of the better red zone teams in the league. Running the ball has been a part of it, the run/pass options have been a part of it and then throwing the ball. In that particular case, it didn’t work out well for us. … Obviously, Zeke is a very good player. We like him and we give him plenty of opportunities. In that particular case, it didn’t work out for us and that was a big part of the game.”
Elliott did not second-guess the playcalling. “They coach and I play,” he said.
That missed opportunity effectively ended the Cowboys’ chances of making the playoffs and ended their season, although Bailey missed another attempt with a minute to play that would have cut Seattle’s lead to 6 points.
There is one game left to play, but the ramifications will be for jobs on this team or another for players and coaches in 2018.
The Cowboys can look back at the Seattle loss as a crusher, but their season was put in a bind with Elliott’s suspension. The team’s losing streak in the first three games without their star running back effectively ended it. Sunday just made it final.