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NFL Winners and Losers: The Cowboys’ momentum comes to a screeching halt

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Ezekiel Elliott got all the headlines, but he wasn’t even the biggest loss for the Dallas Cowboys this week. He might not have been the second-biggest loss, either.

Without all-world left tackle Tyron Smith, who was out with back and groin injuries, Adrian Clayborn had six sacks for the Atlanta Falcons. He abused backup Chaz Green. Then without linebacker Sean Lee, the most valuable player on Dallas’ defense, the Cowboys couldn’t get enough stops. Lee suffered a hamstring injury. Even without running back Devonta Freeman, who suffered a concussion early in the game, the Falcons had 336 yards in an easy 27-7 win. And, yes, the offense wasn’t nearly as dynamic without Elliott.

With Elliott and a reasonably healthy team the past few weeks, the Cowboys were rolling. They beat the 49ers, Redskins and Chiefs, all by double digits. They looked like the team that was the No. 1 seed in the NFC last season. Was Sunday an off day against a desperate Falcons team, or a sign that the next five weeks without Elliott won’t be so easy?

Alfred Morris was fine replacing Elliott, with 53 yards on 11 carries, but he is obviously a step down from last season’s rushing champ. Elliott is a spectacular all-around talent. There were a few reasons Dallas’ offense wasn’t the same on Sunday, and Elliott’s absence was just one. Dak Prescott wasn’t the same quarterback, with only 176 yards and no touchdowns on 30 attempts, and part of that was not having Elliott to take pressure off him and the passing game. Maybe Clayborn wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on rushing the quarterback if Elliott was having a typical 100-yard game. All the pieces work together.

It’s dangerous to assume Elliott will definitely miss the next five games, because the whole ordeal with his six-game suspension has been entirely unpredictable. But let’s figure he will be out five more games. The Cowboys play the Eagles, Chargers, Redskins, at Giants and at Raiders. Then with Elliott back, they finish with the Seahawks and at the Eagles. Dallas is already trailing the 8-1 Eagles by three games in the NFC East, and at 5-4 there’s not a ton of room for error in the wild-card race. The rest of the season is not going to be easy. That’s especially true if Smith and Lee are out, or other guys like Dez Bryant — who played through a knee injury Sunday — aren’t back to 100 percent anytime soon.

Next week’s game is a big one for Dallas. It’s on “Sunday Night Football,” and it might be the highest-rated game of the season. Dallas wouldn’t be done at 5-5, nor would it be a lock to make the playoffs at 6-4. But the difference seems pretty big, especially considering this is the start of the Cowboys’ stretch without Elliott, one of their best players. The first look at the Cowboys after Elliott’s suspension finally started wasn’t a good one, and it won’t get easier next week with the Eagles coming to town.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott during a loss to the Falcons. (AP)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers for Week 10 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Drew Brees: How many times the past few years could the Saints have won with Brees throwing for 184 yards and no touchdowns? On Sunday, New Orleans won 47-10, on the road, against a Buffalo Bills team that was 5-3 going in (and has to be panicking a bit about blowing a shot at the playoffs, but that’s a story for another day). That happened with Brees having a very quiet day.

Brees is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, but he has been asked to do too much the past few years. That was the Saints’ best chance to win, and it led to a string of 7-9 seasons. There just wasn’t enough around their future Hall-of-Fame quarterback. This season the Saints defense is surprisingly good, the running game is fantastic, and Brees doesn’t have to do it all. New Orleans finished the game with 24 straight runs.

The Saints are 7-2, look like one of the best teams in the NFL. And Brees will be there when they need him. He’s still one of the best ever. And now he has a chance to compete for another Super Bowl on a team that doesn’t need him to do everything.

Robert Woods: When the Los Angeles Rams signed Woods to a five-year, $34 million deal, it was a bit surprising. Woods spent four seasons with the Buffalo Bills and never had more than 700 receiving yards in a season. Yet the Rams paid him like a low-end No. 1 receiver.

Woods might break 700 yards by Thanksgiving this season. He’s at 622 yards this season after a monster 171-yard day in a 33-7 win over the Houston Texans. The Rams’ offense is one of the best in the NFL — the turnaround from last season is simply unbelievable — and Woods is a big reason. The Rams traded for Sammy Watkins before the season, but Woods has been their No. 1 receiver. He was the team’s leading receiver before Sunday, and then had the best game of his career. His 94-yard touchdown broke the game open and he added a 12-yard touchdown later.

Everything the Rams touched this offseason turned to gold, including signing Woods to a huge contract and then Woods being worth every cent.

Brett Hundley (and Mitch Trubisky too): One good game from Hundley probably still doesn’t give the Green Bay Packers a ton of hope going forward without Aaron Rodgers, but it was good to see.

The Chicago Bears didn’t get a win, but do have a lot of hope for the future after seeing Trubisky’s breakout game.

Hundley wasn’t great, but he made some plays. He was 18 of 25 for 212 yards and a touchdown. He made a couple nice throws downfield, which wasn’t the case in his first two starts. The Packers are 5-4, and theoretically it’s not out of the question they could stay in the playoff race.

Chicago didn’t win, but seeing Trubisky throw for 297 yards was a great sign. He hadn’t thrown for more than 164 yards in a game before Sunday. Part of that was being saddled with a coaching staff that’s probably not a good fit to develop him (or to challenge plays at the right time), and a receiving corps that is nowhere near NFL quality, but Trubisky also hadn’t played that well. Although Trubisky couldn’t lead a comeback win, he had many positive moments. There should be plenty more of those to come.

Case Keenum: It was a bit odd that so many reports had to confirm that Teddy Bridgewater wouldn’t start for the Minnesota Vikings this week. Bridgewater’s return from injury is a wonderful story, but he wasn’t going to step off injured reserve, more than 14 months after being on an NFL field, and start for a Vikings team that’s 6-2 and playing well with Keenum.

But just in case, Keenum had a big day to help his job security.

Keenum and the Vikings offense were on fire early on and rode a big lead to a win. Keenum threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns. He also threw two awful interceptions that helped get the Redskins back in the game, but overall it was a good day for Keenum. At 7-2 Minnesota is one of the best stories in the league, and there’s no reason for the Vikings to make a quarterback change. As interesting as it would be to see Bridgewater start again this season, Keenum could keep him on the bench all season with more games like the one he had Sunday.

Corey Davis: Why is Davis a winner? Because we won’t remember the Tennessee Titans receiver’s big mistake.

As hard of a time as the NFL’s catch rule gets, the worst rule continues to be the one that insists a fumble out of the end zone is a touchback. Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger fumbled out of bounds at the end of an interception Sunday but because it flew out at the 2-yard line instead of inside the end zone, it was Redskins ball at the 2 instead of Vikings ball at the 20. It makes no sense to penalize a player so harshly for a fumble into the end zone.

That happened to Davis and it almost cost the Titans a win. Davis, the fifth pick of this year’s draft, was going in for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and jumped in the air to get over the goal line. That was an unwise decision. When he started to jump he got hit from behind, the ball came loose and it went out of bounds in the end zone. It wasn’t Davis’ first career touchdown, it was a touchback. The Bengals took the lead later in the fourth quarter.

The Titans got Davis off the hook. Marcus Mariota led a clutch 12-play drive. He finished it with a touchdown pass to DeMarco Murray on third-and-goal at the 7-yard line with 36 seconds left. The Titans are 6-3 and remain tied for first place in the AFC South. And thanks to that late win, Davis won’t have to worry about his fumble.

LOSERS

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers won, and if you want to believe there are no style points in the NFL and all that matters is the final result, move Pittsburgh up to the winners category and move on to the next item.

But it’s hard to come away from the Steelers slogging along against a bad Indianapolis Colts team and feel good about them. The only good news for Steelers fans is that, unlike some other maddening losses in recent seasons to bad teams, Pittsburgh pulled out the victory before it was too late.

Pittsburgh trailed most of the game, taking its first lead on the final play, a 33-yard field goal. Antonio Brown had a mostly quiet day against a secondary that cut its best player, Vontae Davis. Ben Roethlisberger was off the mark many times, which has been the case too often this season. The defense gave up two 60-yard touchdowns. Every team has sloppy performances, and it’s worth a reminder that every team in the NFL is capable. You don’t find The Citadel or Mercer on an NFL schedule. But the Steelers seem to have more of these maddening letdowns than any other top NFL team.

It wasn’t pretty on Sunday, but it was a win. However, if the Steelers decide to sleepwalk through another game against a bad opponent this season, will they be lucky enough to win that one too?

Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers had two possessions begin in the final two minutes of regulation, and held a lead at the start of both possessions, yet still lost the game. Think about that. You’d have to search forever to find another team that lost in that situation. But this is the Chargers.

The jokes about how many ways the Chargers lose games probably aren’t funny to the few Chargers fans who still exist, but they ring true. No other team blows as many winnable games.

Something bad has to happen to let an opponent win when you have the ball with 1:51 left and a 17-14 lead. But undrafted rookie Austin Ekeler fumbled (he was in instead of Melvin Gordon, who hasn’t fumbled this season and has two fumbles over 477 touches the past two seasons, because … well, who knows?) and the Jaguars recovered. A crazy sequence of events followed — a Jaguars recovery for a touchdown was overturned, a 15-yard taunting penalty on Marqise Lee knocked Jacksonville out of field-goal range and Blake Bortles threw a desperate interception — and the Chargers got the ball back with 1:24 left. But because Ekeler’s fumble came on first down, the Jaguars had all three timeouts left. The Chargers went three-and-out, punted, a Joey Bosa roughing the passer penalty got the Jaguars good field position, and Jacksonville tied it. Then Philip Rivers threw an interception in overtime and the Jaguars won on a field goal. Incredible.

This is the same Chargers team that blew games in every way possible last season. They were 0-2 this season after missing two field goals in the final seconds of their first two games (also on Sunday, safety Tre Boston dropped a sure pick-six in the fourth quarter that hit him in the hands). Los Angeles played well enough to beat a good Jaguars team on the road, and somehow screwed it up. That’s the Chargers.

Jay Gruden: Let’s forget for a moment how unprepared the Washington Redskins looked Sunday, coming off a big win against the Seattle Seahawks. Instead, let’s focus on two awful calls by Gruden.

The Redskins trailed 35-17 almost halfway through the third quarter. That’s a fairly desperate situation. Washington got to the 3-yard line, couldn’t score on its first three tries … then kicked a 21-yard field goal. The argument that it brought the game to within two possessions only matters if you think the opponent won’t score again, and that was foolish given that the Minnesota Vikings had five touchdowns. I have no idea why Gruden thought a 21-yard field goal was the proper call trailing by 18 points.

But the Redskins did rally, thanks to Case Keenum throwing some bad picks. They trailed by 11 points in the fourth quarter and had a fourth-and-1 at Minnesota’s 33-yard line. They faced fourth down after a third-and-1 to Chris Thompson was stuffed, which made sense because Thompson isn’t a short-yardage runner. So what did Gruden dial up? Another run to Thompson that was dropped for a 4-yard loss. Yikes.

Washington has lost some close games this season, and a pretty good team finds itself 4-5. The Redskins really laid an egg early against the Vikings, and then their coach made sure they had no chance to come back.

Hue Jackson, the Cleveland Browns and whatever that was at the end of the first half: It’s hard to stomach a coach with a 1-24 record, but Browns owner Jimmy Haslam would presumably feel better about it if there were sharp decisions but the players weren’t executing.

Then Haslam sees the debacle at the end of the first half Sunday, and it’s not exactly coaching wizardry.

What happened just before halftime Sunday was inexplicable. The Browns had 15 seconds left, at Detroit’s 2-yard line, and ran one play before the half ran out. The Browns got a first down on the first play after the two-minute warning to the Lions’ 24-yard line, had one timeout and still somehow ran out of time, but let’s just focus on the final play.

The Browns called a quarterback sneak on second down from the 2-yard line. That’s a terrible call. If it doesn’t get in, the clock is running and you have to get the clock stopped. You probably have to spike the ball, which means you’ve wasted second and third down on a quarterback sneak from 2 yards out. But even if you decide that’s the call, your team has to be aware of the situation. The Browns showed no awareness when DeShone Kizer was tackled short of the end zone. We’ve seen teams run on field-goal units in less than 10 seconds. The Browns couldn’t even line up. That’s the sign of a really poorly coached team. Some teams practice situational football constantly. Do the Browns teach it at all?

When you see what happened at the first half, it’s clear that this coaching staff isn’t working out. You don’t fire someone because of one clock management mistake, no matter how bad it is. But add that into everything else, and there are just no signs the Browns are in the right hands. As hard as it will be, it’s time for another change.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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