The Cowboys know they gave playoff opponents a blueprint by getting run over by the Bills

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) passes against the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus) (Adrian Kraus)

The only thing that went right for the Dallas Cowboys in Buffalo came before the 31-10 loss to the Bills, when they wrapped up a third consecutive trip to the playoffs because of Atlanta losing.

The most recent time the Cowboys did that, they were in a six-year postseason stretch that included three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s.

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Dallas knows how teams will try to prevent the club's deepest playoff run since those days: attack the club's run defense.

Buffalo's James Cook had 179 yards rushing, the most for one running back in a game against the Cowboys since Alfred Morris had 200 in the final game of 2012.

The 266 yards rushing for the Bills were the most against Dallas since 2020, the year before defensive coordinator Dan Quinn arrived and fixed one of the worst defensive units in franchise history.

For all the progress the Cowboys (10-4) have made under Quinn with turnovers and sacks, stopping the run has been a problem.

With the playoffs fast approaching, the issue that has been among the most glaring in Quinn’s three seasons was once again a big problem against the Bills.

“It would be a stupid football team not to exploit some of the stuff you see that we have a problem with,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis told reporters. “I think we’ll definitely get that in the future. But I’m positive we’ll get it fixed, though.”

The most obvious explanation is the absence of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, who was out with a sprained ankle that could sideline him multiple weeks.

Rookie first-round pick Mazi Smith hasn't done much to show he's ready to be a run-stuffer on par with Hankins, who was added in a midseason trade last year specifically for that role.

Even after drafting Smith, the Cowboys re-signed Hankins because they knew they would need him again. But runs between the tackles aren't the only problem. Perimeter carries have been an issue, too.

The next two Dallas opponents — Miami on Sunday and Detroit on Dec. 30 — are among the top four in the NFL in rushing offense.

The team that beat the Cowboys in the playoffs each of the past two seasons — San Francisco — is third.

“There’s no question we have to be better,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “They ran the ball way too effectively.”


In what will now be three playoff seasons under McCarthy, the Cowboys are 11-1 coming off losses. If they're going to have any hope of a playoff game at home, where Dallas has won 15 consecutive games, they'll have to make it 12-1 against the AFC East-leading Dolphins.


McCarthy said the Cowboys were hopeful six-time All-Pro right guard Zack Martin wouldn't miss any more time after leaving in the first half against the Bills with a quadriceps injury.

Dallas went nowhere offensively without him until the game was out of reach. The Cowboys had 80 of their 195 total yards on their only touchdown drive, when they were down 31-3 in the fourth quarter.


Prescott's scramble game has been good most of the season, and was again in Buffalo. He had 24 yards on seven carries, and a first-quarter scramble led to an unnecessary roughness call against Taylor Rapp.

Rapp dove at and went over the top of Prescott, who clearly had started sliding. That penalty was negated by a matching roughness call against Martin, who flattened Rapp to send a message about taking a shot at the Dallas quarterback.


Since the likelihood of starting — and staying — on the road in the playoffs increased significantly with the loss to the Bills, the Cowboys face a glaring issue with the stark difference between their performances at home and on the road.

At home, where a 15-game winning streak is the club's longest in 42 years, the Cowboys are first in points, third in total yards and second in yards passing. On the road, Dallas is 15th, 21st and 20th in those three categories.

The Cowboys have outscored seven opponents at home by 171 points (24.4 points per game). The loss in Buffalo left them with a negative point differential on the road (156-152).


Martin escaped a serious left knee injury when he was hit near there on the play that knocked him out of the game with a quad bruise. But Hankins isn't the only ankle issue that concerns the Cowboys. Safety Malik Hooker also missed the Buffalo game with an ankle injury. The status of both Hankins and Hooker will be watched closely as the playoffs approach.


94 — The Cowboys were so poor against the run, Buffalo needed just 94 yards passing from QB Josh Allen. It was only the fifth game of his career with fewer than 100 yards through the air, and first in what amounted to a full game since his rookie year in 2018. Allen's attempts (15) were his fewest in a game in which he was the only one to throw a pass for Buffalo.


In the race for the NFC East title over the final three weeks, Philadelphia doesn't have any more games against teams with winning records. The Cowboys have two.



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