Not even the return of Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith nor the Thanksgiving home game hype could snap the Dallas Cowboys out of their slump.
With a 28-6 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers Thursday at AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys’ season is spiraling away. Dallas has now lost three consecutive games, including two home games in five days, to fall even further behind in the NFC playoff race.
At 5-6, the Cowboys trail NFC East-leading Philadelphia by 4 1/2 games and will need a serious rally over the final month of the season to catch wild-card contenders, including the Panthers, Falcons and Seahawks.
But worse for the Cowboys is that there were few moments in Thursday’s loss in which they even looked competitive. The game was close at halftime, with the Chargers leading just 3-0, but only because of Los Angeles’ self-inflicted kicking blunders.
The Chargers quickly control in the third quarter, with quarterback Philip Rivers throwing touchdowns to tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Tyrell Williams to take a 16-0 lead. The Cowboys have been outscored 55-6 in the second halves of games during this three-game losing streak.
While Dallas clearly misses suspended running back's Ezekiel Elliott's dynamic play, the Cowboys have been exposed in recent weeks of having far more issues that just one missing player.
Even with the return of Smith, the Cowboys’ standout left tackle who missed the past two games, quarterback Dak Prescott struggled to ignite the passing game. Prescott appeared to be pressing too much to make plays, an understandable reaction when playing from behind as the Cowboys so often have been lately, and without the security of a running back like Elliott.
He threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions – including one that was returned 90 yards for a touchdown – and was sacked twice. He has taken 14 sacks during this losing streak, after Prescott was sacked just 12 times in the Cowboys’ first eight games.
Smith was able to help manage the Chargers’ dynamic pass rush duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but he was called for holding, against defensive lineman Darius Philon, negating a 34-yard touchdown run by Prescott in the third quarter. And the offensive line woes continued when guard Zack Martin suffered a concussion and missed the second half.
Cowboys running back Rod Smith scored on a 2-yard run early in the fourth quarter to cut the Chargers’ lead to 16-6, ending end a 10-quarter touchdown drought for the Cowboys.
Even when Dallas' offense finally found a spark, the defense couldn’t slow the Chargers. Rivers led another quick touchdown drive, culminated with a spectacular 42-yard catch-and-run touchdown by receiver Keenan Allen, who broke at least four tackles as he spun away from defensive backs on the way to the end zone.
Rivers threw for a season-high 434 yards and three touchdowns as the Chargers amassed 515 total yards. Suddenly looking like a legitimate playoff contender, the Chargers are 5-6 and a half-game ahead of the Raiders for second-place in the AFC West.
If the Chargers can solve their kicking issues, they might be the most complete team right now in the division, with an explosive offense and a defense that has intercepted seven passes in the past two games, along with that scary pass rush from Bosa and Ingram.
Kicker Nick Novak missed a first-quarter field goal and a third-quarter extra point attempt while dealing with a back issue, and punter Drew Kaser handled kicking duties for the remainder of the second half. Kaser made one of three extra point attempts.
Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.